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Make Money as a Secret Shopper

Updated on April 26, 2015
My secret shopping buddy - helping me blend in at Walmart.
My secret shopping buddy - helping me blend in at Walmart.

How I Became A Secret Shopper

Unlike many of my classmates at Baylor University in 1999, I was not sent to school with a new car, a credit card, nor a personal allowance. In fact, though my parents funded the education and living portion of my four and a half years in college, it was up to me to buy everything else, including gas (or a bike in my case), books, school supplies, and entertainment.

Understandably, I was still pretty new to the Internet at that time, so when spam emails blinked at the top of my inbox coaxing me into clicking for free stuff, my broke and cheap self clicked away.

Through all the malware, trojan horses, and other viruses I undoubtedly invited into my (roommate's) dorm room computer, the best thing to come of my click-happy free-sample-loving days was the moment I signed up to become a secret shopper.

And I've been doing it on and off for the last thirteen years.

Some jobs have certainly been better than others, but on the whole, would I still be logging in and looking for free food if something about the gig wasn't still a little bit compelling? From Texas to Washington state, through three big cities in North Carolina, and the odd job here and there while traveling, I like to think I've experienced the spectrum of what secret shopping has to offer. Interested yet?

A Great Job For...

  • stay at home moms
  • students
  • the unemployed or those "between jobs"
  • the bored but literate
  • retired grandparents whose kids live in other states
  • single twenty-somethings working unpaid internships
  • teachers, during Summer, Fall, Christmas, and Spring breaks

It Isn't For Everyone

If you've been wondering if you have what it takes to be a successful secret shopper, I can tell you from experience that the job actually isn't for anyone and everyone. It is a common misnomer that simply being opinionated makes a person perfect for the job. On the other hand, shy, unassertive, passive individuals who are generally insecure-in-the-face-of-strangers also might pass on this for a slightly less confrontational job.

The trick is to find the balance between both. Because here's the thing: you have to interact with employees in a very specifically outlined encounter, but you have to do so as if you didn't just read a script from your car and memorize your lines, even though that is exactly what you did. Then, you have to write about your experience without any emotion whatsoever. If the employee was rude, you can't actually say "rude." You have to figure out how to describe his or her body language and tone of voice using non-emotional descriptive language in order to show how you were treated. But you can't actually use the word "rude."

Certainly, there was a learning curve through the process of submitting my invoices and receiving feedback in the form of bullet-pointed emails. The learning curve was made much quicker on the times where I was not given a chance at corrections, and my earnings were simply revoked.

Lucky for them (and me), I was educated at a Tier One university. Mastery of the English language and problem-solving were two of my fortes. And as a result, I moved up the secret shopper corporate ladder, one rung at a time. (Well, not really. I just ceased getting nasty emails and started receiving my checks without comment, which in the freelance world, is the equivalent of job-well-done.)

Save your receipts until you are paid!
Save your receipts until you are paid!

Secret Shopper Insider Tips

  1. Once you've registered with a certain company, login to their website on the first of the month. This is typically when all the jobs for the month are posted and the best ones get snagged first. If you wait for an email to tell you new jobs are posted, you are already too late.
  2. Pick jobs that are near you. Consider that driving time to and from the job counts, but you don't get paid per hour. Commuting can be costly if you are looking at maximizing the time to money ratio.
  3. Once you've completed a shop one time, consider repeating it as often as possible. The more familiar you are with the instructions and the invoice write up, the quicker and better you will ultimately complete the job each time.
  4. When writing up your invoice, speak in an objective voice and be detailed about what you observe, not what you are feeling. Document exactly what you see, hear, taste, or smell (if it pertains). Secret shopping is a quality control assessment, not a personal review of a place.
  5. If you have a hard time remembering details (like time in and out, names, and descriptions) jot notes on your smartphone as you go. In a world of texting, selfies, and the constant need for minute-to-minute technological updates, no one is going to think this is suspicious.
  6. If you are going to be traveling, login to your company and see if there are any jobs along your route or in your destination location. This could easily be a means of scoring a free meal picking up a couple extra bucks on the side.
  7. SAVE YOUR RECEIPTS if you make a purchase, until you get your check for the job. You never know when you might need proof of completing a job. Plus, receipts are nearly always required for reimbursement of goods.

A Final Note

For a little over a year, I happened upon a local gig in which I was to take my car into one of those automated car wash places, and rate the employees on customer service, the bathroom on cleanliness, and the total amount of time it took for my car to be done, from the moment I pulled in to the second I drove away.

It was a good year for Elaine, my Hyundai Elantra.

They actually had several branches of this car washes all over town, so I rotated between two or three different shops, but it was the one nearest my house that I believe figured out, pretty quickly, that I was a secret shopper.

After about the third time of secret shopping them, I started to notice that the manager himself always stepped in to take care of me and my car. Trying to appear as unassuming as possible, I acted surprised when he offered different (though minimal) upgraded services for no extra charge. The twenty-something in me tried to hold on to the idea that the boys in the shop just thought I was cute, and took my generous tip as an older woman's method of flirting. But the day someone was sent in to tidy up the bathrooms just as I handed over my keys was the day I knew my suspicion was probably accurate.

Nevermind. I secret shopped them until the day I left town, always appreciating the exceptionally personal and overly polite service.

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