If you enjoy playing make-believe, mystery shopping is one of the most entertaining side hustles out there. Depending on the mystery shopping companies you sign up with, you’ll get a mix of in-store, online, and over-the-phone assignments, with the common thread being that you pose as a customer to test certain KPIs (Key Point Indicators) set by the clients.
As a mystery shopper, I’ve been reimbursed for fashion purchases I made while also getting paid for my report, been treated to dozens of free meals (once again, while also getting paid), and enjoyed acting out a variety of customer roles.
To date, my favorite assignment involved visiting a gym posing as a potential customer. I was given a clear scenario outlining the character I was to represent, the questions I should ask, and how I should respond depending on what the sales consultant did. I got to try out their spa and massage chairs, was paid $150 for the visit, and low-key felt like a secret agent the whole time.
Though the work is a lot of fun (especially if you’re a natural performer or a big kid at heart), you also have your own KPIs to hit with each report. To give you a clear understanding of what it’s like to work as a mystery shopper, I’ve compiled a list of all the benefits I enjoyed and all the challenges I faced over the years.
What are the benefits of being a mystery shopper?
Widely recognized as one of the most enjoyable ways to supplement your income, mystery shopping comes with a whole host of benefits.
You get paid to shop (and it’s genuinely as fun as it sounds)
As I mentioned in the introduction, mystery shopping is a lot of fun. You’re given a brief for every shop, with a description of the kind of customer you’re meant to represent. You then go in-store, act out your scenario, and basically get paid for browsing and playing make-believe.
Since you get to choose the assignments you apply for, you can stick to the shops you already enjoy visiting and fit your mystery shops into your existing schedule. I would often batch together assignments, complete them back to back, fill out my reports in a coffee shop, and then pick up my groceries for the week.
Though it’s not always this smooth and easy (more on that to come in the challenges section), for the most part, your assignments will be pretty breezy and enjoyable.
You get free stuff
On top of the money you earn for your reports, you’ll often get reimbursed for any purchases you make. It’s important to note that this isn’t always the case, and when it is, there’s usually parameters surrounding what you can purchase.
For example, some restaurant reviews will have an upper limit on how much they’ll reimburse you for, while some fashion store visits will only cover a specific item of clothing (usually because this is what the sales staff have been told to promote that season).
Still, it’s a lot of fun getting free lunches and other goodies!
Flexible and varied work
As you’ve probably picked up by now, no two days are ever the same for a mystery shopper. You’ll have a range of assignments to choose from, and though each one comes with a deadline, you get a lot of freedom in setting your schedule.
Some shops have specific times they want you to visit (usually off-peak, so they can get a fair read on how sales staff are performing), but these windows are generally pretty generous.
You’re not tied to an office
As a mystery shopper, you have ultimate freedom in where you work. I’ve filled out my reports in coffee shops, at the library, at home, and even in my car using my phone as a wi-fi hotspot! So long as you don’t do your work within range of the shop you visited (this might tip employees off to the fact that you’re a mystery shopper), you’re free to work from wherever suits you best.
You get to reward quality employees while helping fellow customers
Mystery shopping is all about accountability. If people are slacking off or being rude to customers when the managers aren’t around, you get to reveal this bad behavior, thus improving the experience for other customers.
Similarly, if employees are doing a fantastic job, you get to sing their praises and ensure they get the recognition they deserve. Though it is tough when you have to hand in a report in which you reveal poor performance, these instances tend to be rare in companies that use mystery shoppers. Though the staff never know specifically that you’re a mystery shopper, they know their employer gets reports, so they’re encouraged to treat every customer as though they’re a mystery shopper.
This being the case, you will find you regularly get filled with the lovely warm and fuzzy feelings that arise from being able to praise someone for a job well done.
What are the challenges of being a mystery shopper?
Though mystery shopping can be a whole lot of fun, it also comes with a barrage of challenges, many of which don’t become apparent until you’ve been doing it for a while. To help you get ahead of the game, here are the biggest drawbacks faced by mystery shoppers.
You (usually) don’t get reimbursed for your travel expenses
When you sign up with a mystery shopping company, you’ll have the opportunity to select the regions you’re able to work in. The wider your range, the more opportunities you’ll have. However, you get paid a set amount for each report, and in most cases, nothing extra is offered for travel expenses or wear and tear on your vehicle.
Sometimes, the amount you’d get paid for a report just isn’t worth the costs of getting there. However, if you’re able to batch a number of assignments in the one suburb or shopping center together, you can often justify the costs of getting there.
You have to get every detail of your report right in order to be paid
Every client has different KPIs they want to test, meaning every report you do will have different parameters. Even when you work with a client repeatedly, they cycle their mystery shoppers (so the employees don’t get to recognise you), so by the time you work with them again, they’ve usually changed the scenario you have to memorize. What this adds up to is that you have a whole lot to remember before you head into each assignment.
On top of memorizing all the details of your scenario, you have to remember such things as the name and description of the person who served you, the time it took them to hit certain tasks (e.g. how many minutes before they checked on you in a fitting room), and details of what they said to you.
Since you need to disguise the fact that you’re a mystery shopper, you can’t write any of these things down in the moment. You need to be super low-key about checking the time, and this leaves you with an insane amount of info to remember between exiting the shop and dumping it all into your report.
In many cases, if you miss a key piece of data (e.g. the staff member’s name, or the stores that sit either side of the one you visited), you may not get paid for all your hard work. Likewise, if you forget to keep your receipt, you can forget about being reimbursed for your spend.
Just to make this even more complex, most mystery shoppers sign up with multiple companies in order to maximize how much they can earn and increase their chances of being able to batch shop visits (thus making each trip more worthwhile). Though this is a great strategy, it also increases the amount of variety you’ll be facing in terms of work procedures and reporting standards.
If you have a shocking memory, you may want to consider a side hustle that doesn’t put such a high demand on your ability to accurately recall details.
The income isn’t reliable
That $150 job I mentioned in the introduction to this article was a rarity. Most of the reports I completed paid around $30-$50 (not including the free products I got), but I was rarely able to do more than three or four a week.
There would be times when other mystery shoppers would snap up the jobs in my area before I got to them. And even if you get on the job boards as soon as the new work arrives, there are rules surrounding how many times you can visit a certain store.
If staff keep seeing your face right before the mystery shopping reports come in, they might make a connection, and if they work out that you’re a mystery shopper, then your reports cease to have value because they know to hit all their KPIs anytime they interact with you. For this reason, you may even find that some months, you aren’t eligible for any jobs.
In addition to this, the pay is often quite small for assignments in which you get free products. So, if you didn’t really need the item in the first place, then the job can be more effort than it’s worth.
There are so many mystery shopping scams
This ceases to be an issue once you’ve signed up with a few reputable companies and you’re happily taking on assignments. However, when you first start hunting for legitimate mystery shopping jobs, it’s inevitable that you’ll come across scams.
They could be after your personal details (which they can make money selling), or they could have an even more aggressive scam brewing. To protect yourself, keep in mind that you’re not going to get rich from mystery shopping, so if a company is offering a deal that sounds too good to be true, it probably is!
The other big giveaway for mystery shopping scams is if they ask you to pay a registration fee – no legitimate mystery shopping company will ask you to pay for the chance to get work from them. They will get you to fill out a detailed application, but if they ask for your credit card details, then you need to give the “opportunity” a hard pass!
For more advice on steering clear of scammers, please check out our comprehensive guide to recognizing and avoiding work from home scams.
Sometimes the pay isn’t worth it
When you first start taking assignments, it’s worth recording how much time it takes for you to get to the shop, complete the in-store-scenario, get home, and fill out your report.
In many cases, I was able to do all these things in under an hour, making the payment of $30-$50 well worth my while. However, some scenarios are time-consuming, some shops aren’t conveniently located, and some reports are so long and demanding that you end up spending far longer than you realize getting everything done.
Divide the total pay for an assignment by the number of hours it took you to get everything done, and this will help you determine whether it’s worth applying for that client’s work.
Sometimes you can make the lower-paying jobs worthwhile if they’re situation in a place you’re visiting anyway, or if you’re able to batch them with higher-paying jobs in the same area. All of this takes a bit of extra time and effort, but it’s worth it in the end as it will save you from wasting your time on assignments that end up paying you less than minimum wage.
Mystery shopping: final thoughts
If you love the idea of embodying different characters and testing out your acting skills while being paid to shop, and if you’re confident in your ability to recall all the relevant information for your reports, then mystery shopping may be the ideal side hustle for you.
Though there are a lot of challenges, if you have the organizational skills, it is possible to side-step them and make a decent amount of pocket money every month.
It’s highly unlikely that mystery shopping could ever give you a full-time income (if you do achieve this, we would love to interview you and share your story on our website!), but it is a fun side hustle that’s well-suited for those who want to supplement their other income streams.