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Like most things I get myself into, the internet told me to do it.
Last year In 2016 I was hanging out on my favorite online forum. I had recently been frequenting the Career & Financial section of the site and was participating in a thread on side hustles. When not singing the praises of AirBnB money,* I read how other ladies brought in extra income. One poster talked about making a couple hundred dollars a month doing mystery shopping. I read that and thought what any rational person would.
According to the internet authority Wikipedia, mystery shopping is a tool used externally by market research companies, watchdog organizations, or internally by companies themselves to measure quality of service, or compliance with regulation, or to gather specific information about products and services. Basically it consists of someone like me posing as a shopper and evaluating a business on whatever metrics are outlined in the assignment. In exchange for this evaluation the company offers me some form of compensation.
In the Beginning
Thanks to the aforementioned forum poster, I learned of several mystery shopping companies. Getting hired as a mystery shopper was the easiest job I’ve ever gotten. To qualify to get paid to surveil others all I had to do was sign up, do a quick memory exercise, and write a couple of paragraphs about my best and worst shopping experiences. For that information, I was given access to assignments that included vehicle services, Western Union transactions, and retail shopping.
My first mystery shop was through Intelli-shop. It required me to choose one of several services for Silver Betty at a national brand after market car servicer. There was a $39 reimbursement maximum plus payment of $15 for successful completion. The assignment guidelines included noting the names of the associates and technicians with whom I interacted, assessing the bathroom and waiting areas, and getting pictures of my receipts. For filling out an evaluation that detailed all of that information, I was able to get Sil a free oil change, her first in almost a year.
Get Into The Groove
In my first month of mystery shopping I completed five assignments for a total of $91 in payment. Not quite the hundreds of dollars a month touted on the forum. It was also a lot of work. While my first evaluation form took no longer than 30 minutes to fill out, the subsequent ones asked more questions that required paragraphs of explanation. From start to finish mystery shopping consisted of commuting twenty minutes each way to a store, spending at least thirty minutes letting a sales associate tell me all about a product I wasn’t going to buy (or would buy and return an hour later), then spending another hour or two doing the write up.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that $15 or $20 wasn’t worth all that effort. I was just about to let mystery shopping go the way of the last quick money activity the forum had put me onto, when I started getting emails for restaurant and test drive assignments. These mystery shops not only paid more than double the ones I did during my first month, they also offered reimbursement for things I actually wanted. After a fantastic dinner with one of my gay boyfriends’ boyfriend I saw the true magic in the mystery.
Everyday I’m Hustling
If you’re looking for a side hustle to bring in extra income, mystery shopping shouldn’t be it. There are better ways to make more money. The most I’ve done with the nominal payments is cover my monthly gym membership (when I had one). Instead I use mystery shops to get shit for free. Why do I feel the need to get shit for free?
Like the majority of human beings, my eyes are bigger than my bank account. What that means is that I want to do way more than I can afford. I want to stack chips just in case, have fat retirement accounts, give generously, and invest in everything from index funds to individual stocks to real estate, all while paying a mortgage, vacationing around the world, sitting court side at a Bulls game, and brunching everyday and twice on Sunday. Alas, to paraphrase the great philosopher Paula Pant, I can do any of those things, but I can’t do all of them.
Because I am a mature adult, I have learned to prioritize where my money goes based on what I value. The higher the value I place on something the more of my money I allocate to it. Conversely, the less utility something gives me the less of my money it should get. But real talk, just because I get more out of investing than I do, let’s say ordering a pizza, it doesn’t mean that I don’t really like pizza. I love pizza. It’s fucking delicious.
As Ramit Sathi points out, human behavior isn’t all that keen on being told what it can’t do. It’s why people fall off diets like Justin Bieber falls off stages.
It’s why your New Year’s resolution will die faster than a Black character in a horror movie. Willpower is a scarce resource that most of us deplete trying not to cuss out the coworker in the next cubicle who insists on bringing SARS to the office. There isn’t any left to fight against buying the things that we’ve habitually bought. Yeah yeah yeah, I know that discipline is a virtue, but why cultivate it where I don’t have to?
Mystery shopping may not put a lot of money in my pocket, but it does let me continue to enjoy the non essential, less “responsible” stuff that I would normally pay for without having to divert money from the adult spending that brings me greater longterm value. Basically, it lets me indulge in the sport that hoods around the world call “getting over.”
Taste the Rainbow
There’s an old joke that I can’t quite remember about the qualities to look for in a man. It’s something about finding a man who makes you laugh, who is strong (?), who is a good conversationalist (?), and who can ***** (you already know), and to make sure that none of them know each other. Well, it’s the same thing with mystery shopping. There are a bunch of companies that employ shoppers, but they all tend to have different strengths. These are the ones I use:
- Intelli-shop – As previously mentioned, this is the company that started it for me. They have a variety of shops that offer a flat payment, reimbursement, or both. I like them for the diversity of companies with which they work. They have a bunch of auto service, restaurant, luxury car test drives, and even professional sporting event assignments.
Their shops tend to involve very specific scenarios and questions you have to ask of staff at the business being evaluated. Their evaluation forms can range from short (pizza shops) to over 100 questions long (professional sports game). The reimbursement for most shops is pretty generous so it’s easy to get an entire meal or outing for two 100% covered.
- BestMark – I have only done a few shops with them because most of the offerings in my area are either for automotive services for which Silver Betty doesn’t qualify or low paying retail visits. They do have decent casual dining shops. The reimbursement isn’t so much that you can ball out, but it is enough so that you and a companion can plan a meal with tax and tip and still stay under the threshold.
Their evaluation forms are often several pages, but most of it is multiple choice. Be sure to read the instructions ahead of time to make sure you’re interacting with the requested employees (i.e. a lot of shops require you talk to a manager). They have a very strict deadline for submitting your evaluation and even being a few minutes late can get your shop cancelled and leave you stuck with the bill.
- Amusement Advantage – I discovered this company about four months ago and have already done several shops with them. As their name implies, they tend to work with companies that offer entertainment activities, such as bowling alleys, miniature golf courses, museums, and other fun places.
Their shops work a little different than other companies in that they usually offer a very high flat fee from which the shop expenses can be reimbursed. Whatever is leftover is yours to keep. For example I did an assignment that paid $115 in total. From that money I had to pay for admission for two people, equipment rental, games, and food. I probably spent $65 in total and pocketed the rest. I like to wait until the end of the month to pick up assignments because the company usually offers decent bonuses since they’re desperate to meet their client’s deadline.
In exchange for a day of free fun the evaluations are pretty time intensive. They warn you in advance that it will likely take two to three hours to fill one out. Thankfully, they give a decent grace period of 10p.m. PT the day after the shop to get it in. Considering that an assignment can be worth $100-$200 in value, I think it’s a decent trade off for time. I don’t consider the assignment itself to be work since I’m doing an activity that I enjoy.
- Secret Shopper – I don’t use this company often but they have popped up a couple of gems. They mostly offer low paying retail and auto evaluation assignments. However, on occasion they’re good for personal care services like waxing or massage or a fitness class. They even had a really good one that got me some free jewelry. I keep them in the repertoire on the off chance I can get something for free that I want but wouldn’t buy myself. By far the best thing about doing jobs for Secret Shopper is that their evaluations are short. It usually takes me no more than 30 minutes to check the boxes.
- The Others – I recently signed up with two more mystery shopping companies, Market Force and SQM, but have yet to do any assignments for them. I chose Market Force because they are known for having a good variety of shops that can include fast food and even movies. I heard about SQM on the now (what looks to be) abandoned Miss Corporate Drop Out blog. It’s a Canadian company that specializes in travel mystery shopping for airlines, hotels, bus and rail companies. You can get up to 50% off flights, hotel stays, and more. I’m trying to use them to get my ass to Coachella on the cheap. I took a look at their evaluation forms and they are pretty lengthy, but most of it is multiple choice and the narrative questions look to be answerable with a few sentences.
Look Before You Leap
I know that I rave about mystery shopping but it is still a job. There are some things to note before going all in.
- Beware of scams – I haven’t encountered any yet, but I have heard that there are scammers posing as mystery shopping companies. Remember that it should never cost you any money to sign up to be a shopper. If a company is asking for a fee there is one thing you should do.
- Pay close attention to detail – Most mystery shops require you to evaluate specific parts of the business and interact with certain employees. Read the guidelines beforehand so you know what you’ll need to do ahead of time. Make note of people’s name’s and appearances, the timing of events (i.e. arrival, waiting, departure), and interactions the staff has with other customers. It’s a good idea to take notes on your phone to remember everything.
This goes for the evaluation too. Be sure you’re fully answering the questions asked. I learned quickly that writing a novel about every detail is unnecessary. However, if the company has to ask you to revise your work it could lead to docked pay. Best to get it right the first time.
- Stay in character – You are posing as an actual customer so act like one. Ask questions of sales associates. Try different products. Most of all be discreet. Sometimes shops will require pictures of people and places. Pretending to text while using your camera’s zoom function is a highly specialized skill you should learn.
If the assignment requires that you bring a guest, I highly suggest that you don’t discuss the fact that you’re mystery shopping while on a mystery shop. Don’t be like Marcus Brody in Egypt. Blend in.
- You’re fronting the money – While mystery shopping effectively gets you free stuff (if you do it right), you do need to spend your own money up front. For me this is motivation to get my evaluations in on time as getting stuck with the bill is not fun. Been there. Done that. Won’t do it again. Most companies pay within three to six weeks of completing the evaluation. The longest I’ve had to wait is seven weeks and that was because I did a shop on the first of the month for a company that pays on the 20th of the month following the assignment. One plus of this is that I get to earn great credit card rewards, and payment/reimbursement comes right in time for the bill’s due date.
- Taxes are real – Don’t forget that if you’re making money from mystery shopping, Uncle Sam wants to know about it. Most companies don’t send a 1099 for income under $600/year. Because we are all so honest, even without a 1099 we’ll still report anything we make to the IRS.
On a positive note reimbursements aren’t considered income so there is no need to tell the IRS about getting your own money back. That’s not a bad deal considering how high some reimbursements are.
With that, you have everything you need to get started. Am I the only mystery shopper around these parts? Do you have any companies that you’d recommend? Hit the comments if you think you have a future as a shopper spy.
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