Mystery Shopping 101: What is Mystery Shopping?

Everything You Need to Know About Being a Mystery Shopper

This is part of a 3-part series about Mystery Shopping. This is Mystery Shopping 101: everything you need to know about mystery shopping.

If you already know all the basics, then I recommend checking out Mystery Shopping 102: Tips and Tricks for mystery shopping.

Finally, when you’re ready to jump in and do your first job, then zip over to Mystery Shopping 103: Legit Companies I have personally worked for (and been paid by).

If you have additional questions about mystery shopping that I didn’t address, please be sure to let me know! Hopefully this is enough to get you started making some side cash for your family!


A mystery shopper (or secret shopper) is someone who goes into a place of business posing as a regular guest. They then report on their findings to their mystery shop company, who then reviews the report and submits it to the place of business that requested the shopper. Specific companies don’t hire shoppers; they hire third party companies (SEE LINKS IN THIRD POST OF THIS SERIES) who then post the jobs to job boards, and mystery shoppers then pick up the work.

WHY do you like mystery shopping?

Listen, I’m a Stay at Home Mom (or SAHM, for short). We live on one (pretty small) income, but we really like going out.  We just can’t afford to. Mystery shopping allows me the opportunity to go out and do some things that I would like to do, without sacrificing money and actually making a little cash in the process. Sometimes my husband gets to come, too, and that’s nice.

For example, I never get to go to fancy places, and I usually get to bring a guest with me to nice restaurants. For my sister’s 18th birthday, our mom let me take her out of school for the morning and go get breakfast with her at this swanky up-scale breakfast place. I’ve never had a $65 breakfast IN MY LIFE, so that was a fun gift I could give my sister (a morning out of school and a fancy meal) without breaking my bank. In fact, it didn’t cost me anything. I also got to take my husband out on a date where we got to eat a fun meal and go to an arcade!  It’s really special for me to get those experiences and to get to share them. Without mystery shopping, we could never do it.

I like that I get to work when I want to work, there’s no minimum number of hours or shops I have to do, and I don’t have to work at all if I don’t want to. I pick which jobs I want, when I want to do them, everything. I love the flexibility and my lifestyle demands it.


What kind of person should consider mystery shopping?

  1. The biggest thing for mystery shoppers is that you need to pay attention to the DETAILS!! They will ask you very specific questions in the reports (that you will be able to see before you go, so no surprises). For example, you’ll need to be able to remember someone’s name and what they look like (height, hair color, approximate age, gender are standard, sometimes they’ll ask for glasses, facial hair, build/frame, or distinguishing marks like tattoos and piercings). Thankfully, I got a SMART PHONE in 2017 (have you heard of these things—they’re AMAZING!!), so I can text notes to myself as I go through the shop.
  2. You don’t necessarily need to be able to write well (like with big words like Fluffinator), but you do need to be able to say what you mean. You need to be able to write with detail, but keep it concise. If you haven’t been able to tell, I struggle with this. Keep reading and you’ll figure it out- I like to use All. The. Words. More than once, the computer system won’t let me submit a report because “This answer has a maximum of 500 characters. You have 2117 characters.” Then I have to go in and cut out some of my glory… I mean words.
  3. This should be obvious… but just in case- You have to be subtle in some capacity. You can’t look like a mystery shopper. You can’t be super obvious. Examples:

*stares hard at waiter and name tag and then scribbles furiously on paper

*looks at checklist*

“What kinds of soups do you have?”

“Wait, I’m sorry, did you mention the new Tomato Bisque Extravaganza soup? No?”

*crosses out something on checklist* (SIDE NOTE: Don’t bring a checklist.)

One time, I was trying to surreptitiously take a photo inside a home improvement store in their paint area. Forgot to turn off the flash. My bad. There were, like, three employees standing there, too.

What do you DO exactly? There are different types of mystery shops:

1. Observe and Report: Mystery shoppers go in, have a standard business interaction there, and fill out a report on what happened.

Example: Go to a car dealership and allow the salesman to do a normal car selling pitch.

2. Specific problem: Mystery shopper goes in and creates a problem for the business to solve, and they report on how the business solved the problem.

Example: Go to a bar, try to order an alcoholic beverage without having your ID. Report on if they carded you and served you (these are usually only for people in the 21-35 years old range).

3. Reveal mystery shop: Go into a business and have a standard business interaction. You have a checklist of what they’re supposed to do, and if they do all those things correctly, then you award them with a prize that has been sent to you already. If they don’t do it correctly, then you still reveal yourself as the mystery shopper and give them a feedback letter that states that you are a mystery shopper and they failed because of whatever reason. You’re provided with all of the materials you need by the company.

Example: Go into a restaurant and ask for a table for four people. See how long the wait is expected to be, and secretly time it on a stopwatch (or your phone). If you are seated within 5 minutes of the projected time, ask to see the manager and award them with the congratulations letter. If the wait is outside of the 5-minute window, then present the feedback letter.

4. Video Surveillance: There are some mystery shops that will have you take surveillance equipment and video what happens at your mystery shop. I won’t talk about this because I have no experience in the matter. I don’t own this equipment, and they won’t supply it.

How does PAYMENT work?

IF the shop requires you to buy something, you complete the shop paying out of pocket. You submit your documentation and receipts. Sometimes this will include photos of business cards or store fronts. When you submit your report, it’s sent to an editor for each company. They make sure you followed the guidelines, submitted everything required, provided readable content, correct any grammar mistakes, etc. They make sure it’s exactly what the company wants. They then will submit it to the company, who then issues payment and reimbursement. Usually it takes 2 weeks through an editor and 2-4 weeks for processing reimbursement and fees. So I expect to get paid in about 6 weeks. Some places have a payment schedule where they only issue payment twice a month. Others pay as soon as the report is processed. The fastest I’ve ever been paid is in 2 weeks. The slowest is 8 weeks.

If you don’t have to purchase anything at the mystery shop (like going to a car dealership for example), then they would just send you the fee.

Some places offer one lump sum and tell you that you have to have X-amount of interactions. Then whatever you don’t spend is your take-home pay. For example, if there’s a theme park that needs to be evaluated, they’ll tell you to pay for admission to the theme park, maybe buy food (two entrees, two sides, and two drinks—hypothetically), play at least 5 games, complain about a game that didn’t work properly, etc. Then, once your report is processed, they will just give you $150. What you spent is reimbursed, and what you didn’t spend goes into your pocket. If you spend more than $150 (they set it up so that you won’t unless you do more than you need to), they will still only pay you $150, but you won’t get in trouble for going over.

All of these companies pay via PayPal (this seems to be industry standard). If you don’t have an account it’s free to sign up. Some companies will do direct deposit.  They used to also cut checks to people, but most companies are going away from that. Mercantile Systems is one that still exclusively pays via check as of this writing.

How much will I get paid? Let’s be honest, this is what we all care about anyway!

Obviously, different shops will pay different rates.  I have to be really careful about what I say because I want to be as specific as possible, but all of the companies and what happens during those shops is completely confidential.

I’m not looking to get sued today.

Usually if the shop is particularly fun and simple, it doesn’t pay a lot. For example, I go to the movies and report on a (small) problem that I create for an employee. How did they handle it? For doing this particular shop, I get paid $12 AND my ticket is reimbursed. $12 isn’t a lot of money, but I like going to the movies, so I do as many of these shops as I can get.

Nicer restaurants usually don’t pay a fee, but you get the meal for free (RHYME!). You also usually get to bring a guest. This is nice because I can’t afford a $70 dinner for my husband and me, but I can afford two hours of my time to fill out the report after the kids go to bed. I would say that works out to $35/hour, but I wouldn’t have had that dinner if it weren’t a shop…. So I don’t count that as income.

Some shops aren’t fun at all, but they pay well. I’m not really a car person, so going to a car dealership to test drive new cars doesn’t sound like fun to me. However, if the shop pays $60, and it’s two hours in the dealership plus one hour to fill out the report, that’s $20/hour. That’s worth my time, so I’ll do it.

I’ve seen one company offer over $200 (minus whatever you spend there) to go to a theme park. I hate theme parks. And for that much money, my guess is the report is insane because most people think theme parks are fun.

So (in my mind) FUN + $$$= ANNOYING REPORT

(Probably. I haven’t done a theme park.)

I really want to be clear on this: THIS ISN’T A WAY TO GET RICH.  I’m not rich. I could make more if I were willing to work more, but the whole reason I stopped working in the first place was so I could be home with my family. So if any job is going to interfere with that, then I’m not doing it.

I don’t work full time. I don’t make great money. I expect (through one company specifically) to make about $90 a month. If I utilize the other companies, I’ll get more. But with mystery shopping, there’s often not steady work (as far as doing the same jobs for the same amount of money). You can’t get labeled as a mystery shopper, so companies will frequently have restrictions on how often the same shopper can do the shops (can’t have shopped this location in 6 months, a year, or one month, depending on the nature of the shop).  Take the car dealership, for example. Does it make sense for you to walk into a car dealership claiming to be purchasing a new car every month? No. They’ll know you, know it’s a mystery shop, and the whole thing is blown. So I think those shops have restrictions (something like 6 months to a year before you’re allowed to go back to that location).

Anyway, there’s a lot I can do with $90 a month. I pay for Christmas. I budget for things that can’t be in our regular budget, like supplies for my kids’ homeschool. I pay for outings to Chick-Fil-A if they want to go there once a month or so. My clothes aren’t budgeted, so I’ll save some of my money for that.  And let’s be honest, I like a latte every now and then!  From August-October I usually work more so that I have cash on hand during Christmas season for shopping.

That being said, I just worked out my budget for how much I want to make in the new year to be able to pay for new expenses- Christmas with the budget I really want, homeschool curriculum and saving money for a rainy day, cleaning supplies (right now dishwashing detergent has to come out of my grocery budget), and I would have to make at least $110 a month, and that’s if I don’t buy any clothes for me or any lattes.  Sooo… I’m going to have to reevaluate how much I’m going to work and be a bit more strategic about doing jobs that pay better.


Little jobs are frequently steady. Big jobs that pay big money usually aren’t. So don’t expect a lot, but it’s nice when it happens.

Last thing I’ll say about payment is that you are an independent contractor, NOT an employee. That means that taxes DO NOT come out of your pay; you’ll be responsible for them in April. Do with that information what you will.

What kind of a time commitment is it?

NONE!! This is one of the beauties of the job. My mom has suggested that I work at a regular job where my pay would be a steady hourly rate. I won’t, though, because I would miss out on some of the experiences that I want to have, and also I don’t want something to be a time commitment. I just don’t. Things come up, and I want to have the flexibility to do what I want when I want.

Remember, companies hire mystery shopping companies to send shoppers to their places of business. Those mystery shopping companies post the jobs that are available on a job board. You go in and look at what jobs are available. You select the ones you want and apply for them (this usually means you just push a button that says “APPLY”; you don’t actually fill out an application). Sometimes you can assign a shop to yourself, but you usually have to have a good record with completing shops on time and doing them well before you can do that.  Don’t see any jobs you don’t like? Don’t select any.

Sometimes, it will get to a point where a company will send me an email that says something like, “Your account hasn’t done any mystery shops for us in a while, so if you still want to be a mystery shopper for us, then you need to confirm your account information. If we don’t hear from you, then your account will be deactivated.”  Then I can do one of two things. 1) I haven’t worked for them in a long time and I’m happy with how much work I have, so I can just ignore the email and eventually they’ll deactivate my account.  OR 2) Go to my account, go to my personal profile page, verify my number and address are the same, and click UPDATE. That tells them I’m still with their company and wish to receive their emails with job offers.

June was a busy month for me because we have a summer program at our church, and I like being involved in it. I didn’t work in June. I didn’t have to request time off, tell anyone, or do anything. I just didn’t sign up for work—no issues.  I LOVE FLEXIBILITY!!

I don’t like not getting paid, though, so that was kind of a bummer.

What do I need to get started?

Nothing (okay, not nothing…. But nothing that the majority of people wouldn’t already have access to in some fashion). It’s wise to have a PayPal account, but if you search for a company that will pay via check or direct deposit it’s not a requirement, necessarily. Again, PayPal is free.  You will need access to the internet (library and grocery stores with cafes in them frequently have free internet).  I’m a bit of a technophobe, so I didn’t get my first smartphone until 2017. I had been mystery shopping for 3 years already, and it’s made a WORLD of difference since then! When I go to the movies, I can take a photo of my ticket stub and fill out my report before the previews start. Then all I have to do after I leave the theater is just confirm what time I left the theater and submit the report. That’s wonderful!!

Also, sometimes shops ask you to take pictures of the store front to confirm you were there. I couldn’t do those without a smartphone unless I borrowed my husband’s. So a smart phone is nice, but not always a requirement. If you don’t have one, you’ll have to scan your receipts at the library or at your house… Or with someone else’s smart phone.

How do I get started?

It’s pretty simple. You can either go through some of the companies I have linked in this follow up post that I work for, or you can go to the MSPA website and sign up for emails. They’ll start sending you emails, and when one piques your interest, you just click on the link to go to that website and fill out an application. They’ll take some of your demographic info and show you their job board. Sometimes applications will ask for a writing sample, sometimes they don’t. Remember, there’s no commitment. Sometimes I’ll get an email that says, “Hey! We have a shop in your area that we can’t fill at this restaurant. It pays this much, so if you’re interested send me an email.” I’ll reply back that I could do that shop, and they’ll send me a link to their website to fill out a profile. See? It’s not even necessarily a hiring process… it’s more of a finding people process. These people aren’t too picky, you know?

How will I get evaluated?

This varies per company. I like the ones where I get graded. On a scale of 1-10, they’ll rate your reports. Then you’ll have an average rating. This affects what jobs you get. If you have an average score of 8 and someone else has an average score of 7 and you both apply for the same shop, then they may assign you over that other person because your work is better. Alternatively, if your average score is 4, there are a lot of shops that won’t even let you apply if you don’t have an average score of 5 or higher.

SIDE STORY: My very first mystery shop was purchasing a pre-paid credit card. I went in to do it, the store guy asked for my ID, and I realized I had forgotten it at home. I didn’t have enough time to go back and get it. I explained it to my scheduler (the person who schedules mystery shoppers for the company), and they didn’t give me any money (makes sense) and they rated my report a zero. ZERO!!

With this particular company, they never award 10s, but I regularly get 8s and 9s. Well, I couldn’t apply for any of the fun shops I wanted because they require a minimum of 5 for your average report rating, and I had a zero. So then I had to do several of the crap jobs I don’t like in order to get my rating up to a minimum of 5. From then on, I got my average up to an 8, I get 8s and 9s on all of them, and now I’m fine. But that was a really rough start on my mystery shopping journey!

I have since vowed to NEVER do pre-paid credit cards again. And I haven’t.

Anyway, some companies don’t necessarily grade each report, but they’ll make notes on you if your report doesn’t get accepted because you did something wrong, if you turned it in late, or if you signed up to do a shop and then just didn’t do it. That can negatively impact you. I haven’t had that happen to me (never late or a no-show), so I’m not sure how much it actually affects… better to try to avoid it, though.

What are some PITFALLS of mystery shopping?

1. BE AWARE OF SCAMS!! Always Google reviews of companies you’re looking to work for. I generally trust the emails I get from companies who acquired my email through the MSPA website. The MSPA is sort of like the Better Business Bureau of mystery shopping companies. I don’t pay for membership to the MSPA website; it’s a good place to find shops that are in your area doing things you want to do. NEVER pay for membership to a mystery shopping companies. NEVER enter credit card information on a mystery shopping company. Just do a little due diligence, and you should be okay. Between finding reviews and clearing it through the MSPA, you should be able to tell which are scams and which aren’t.

If it smells fishy, it’s probably gross. On a separate note, if a mystery shop seems strange, it’s probably a scam. A friend of mine is a banker and tells me this happens all the time:  Mildred Mystery Shopper gets a mystery shop for Western Union or something. The “mystery shopping company” sends a check to Mildred for $3000, and tells her that her job is to deposit that money and then go make a transfer at a Western Union, evaluating the service of the teller.  Mildred deposits the money in her account, goes to Western Union, and transfers $3000. The bank didn’t have enough time to tell that the check was fraudulent. Once they realize that the check was bad, they have no choice but to freeze Mildred’s account and she’s now out $3000.  We would hope, though, that Mildred would have done some research on the company (likely as not, she’s not the first person scammed). Mildred also should have been asking herself, Why so much? $3000 to evaluate a teller doing his job? A $10 transfer would do the same thing? Hmmm… Just doesn’t seem right.

2. Another annoying thing is that you will get A LOT of emails. When you put in your email, you’ll get a lot of offers from the company. Sometimes they’ll tell you what specific shops they’re trying to place; sometimes it will be a general email telling you that you can go to the website and look for newly posted shops. I don’t like those because I’m lazy. I usually unsubscribe (which is easy). I like the ones that tell me specific jobs that are available, and then I’ll go to the website and accept it. However, I get a lot of emails. It doesn’t bother me, but if I didn’t check my phone for a few days, I’d probably have 30 or so emails to delete or sort through.

3. Not getting paid if the shop is done wrong. This is another one of those detail things. If you didn’t pay enough attention to the guidelines or didn’t ask a question you should have, you might not get paid. That’s not just the fee, that’s the reimbursement, too. So make sure you review the shop guidelines they send you and review the survey you’ll complete BEFORE you go a couple times. Then you should be okay. If there are some specific things I need to look for and I’m worried about forgetting, I’ll text a note to myself on my phone. The guidelines are strict, and they DO NOT want you bending them at all. If it says you need to eat at a restaurant between the hours of 5:30 and 9:00 PM, and you don’t show up until 8:30, you’re not getting out of there by 9:00, and that may make the shop invalid. You would need to email the scheduler and ask them, “Does that mean only arrive between those times, or do I need to both arrive AND leave between those times? Can I stay later than 9:00?” See what they say.  Sometimes they’re cool. Once I was supposed to sit at the bar counter and order alcohol, but I missed that and just sat at a table in the bar area. They reprimanded me and told me next time they wouldn’t accept it, but that time they did.

4. Shop availability. Remember, this isn’t always steady work. I work for multiple companies because sometimes when I go to one site, there simply isn’t anything in my area. If you need steady work that’s always the same and you know how much you’ll get paid, I would suggest doing anything that’s not freelance. Freelance is on-demand only.

Is Mystery Shopping Ethical?

Last thing that needs to be said: Some people question the ethics of mystery shopping. Let’s talk about that for a minute because I consider myself to be a pretty ethical person.

It’s true. You’re lying sometimes. When I go into a car dealership claiming to buy a new car, I am lying.  Part of the shop is letting the salesman know a day or two after the shop that you are no longer interested in buying a car so that they don’t waste their time trying to contact you.  However, I believe that mystery shopping is very ethical for several reasons:

Sometimes mystery shops provide incentives to the employees if they do well. For example, I once was a waitress and we were mystery shopped each quarter. If we scored 100% on the mystery shop (meaning we did everything we were supposed to do), we got $100! I was thrilled to earn that money!

People who aren’t in sales, if they do well on the mystery shop, get this in their record at the company. If they plan on moving up in the company, this shows that they’re good at their jobs and are capable of moving up because they have mastered where they are.

If someone scores badly on a mystery shop, then they aren’t doing their job well. With the report, the higher ups now know there’s a problem and can address it head on, helping that person become better at their job.  Especially if you’re in sales (like the car dealership), this will make them better which, in the long run, will earn them more money.

It’s plenty ethical for business owners to be able to evaluate their employees. It’s not fair to expect all of those evaluations to be done directly by the business owner; don’t you act a little differently when you know your boss is watching? Can a business owner be everywhere at once? At the end of the day, I’m helping other people become better at their jobs and helping businesses stay accountable in how they treat their customers.

I hope that helps you with any questions you have regarding mystery shopping! Be sure to check out the following posts to learn about some tips and tricks to mystery shopping and for links to companies I work for. I know what it’s like to need a little extra money, and this really works for me and my family. I really hope it works for yours, too!

You can also read about some practical tips and tricks for mystery shopping!

Or, if you’d like to give it a try, check out some legitimate mystery shopping companies!

Thanks for reading!


Not sure if mystery shopping is for you, but you still need some different ideas for generating extra cash? Check out this list of Over 80 Ways to Make Extra Money by my friend Brittney over at Make Save Spend Give!

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