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The Complete Guide on How to Become a Mystery Shopper

Do you enjoy traveling? Do you fancy sampling new products and services and have a keen eye for details? If you answered yes to either or both of these questions, mystery shopping would be a job fit for you. Mystery shoppers, also known as secret shoppers or evaluators, document their experiences to assist businesses in gauging the quality of their services. Read on to discover how to become a mystery shopper and all there is to it.

What is Mystery Shopping?

Mystery shopping is a strategy used by businesses to evaluate the quality of their services, products, or employee performance. Some businesses use mystery shopping to gather data about the competition. This strategy is also popularly used by consumer watchdogs or marketing research companies to gather market data and evaluate regulatory compliance.

Enterprises and institutions that employ this strategy hire someone to pose as a regular customer and document their overall experience. Therefore, a mystery shopper is someone hired to pose as a client to generate feedback about their customer experience. Here's how it works:

  • The secret shopper receives instructions beforehand on what to do once on-site. For instance, they may be required to purchase a particular product or to ask specific questions of the employee who serves them.
  • The shopper submits their feedback after the assignment. The feedback format depends on the mode of secret shopping done.
  • The shopper is paid

Although it may appear to be a new concept, mystery shopping as a quality evaluation strategy existed long before the digital era and is a very profitable industry, with annual revenues of up to $2 billion. Continue reading to learn about the history of this mysterious industry

The History of Mystery Shopping in a Few Words

Mystery shopping as an industry dates back to the 1940s, when Wilmark, a well-known research firm, collaborated with private investigators to assess the integrity of employees in the finance sector, such as banks. As the company's popularity in this sector grew, more companies joined the bandwagon and adapted the strategy to meet their data collection needs.

Despite beginning on a high note, the popularity of mystery shopping soon began to wane due to the complexity of the task. Poor technology coupled with limited access to existing tech innovations such as fax machines meant that mystery shoppers had to rely on hard copies to generate reports. They also traveled widely to deliver their reports or pick up paychecks. The instability brought about by the World Wars made the task even more taxing. It didn't help that most companies employing the strategy failed to act on the data collected or hired mystery shoppers once in a long time.

Luckily, the 1970s brought about revolutionary global changes that would forever cement the place of the mystery shopping industry in the world business. The world's transition from communism to capitalism and manufacturing-based economies to service saw the sales and marketing culture spread like wildfire across industries. Consequently, entrepreneurs recognized the essence of customer services in business success, and they soon began hiring mystery shoppers to monitor employee performance in their brick-and-mortar stores.

Mystery Shopping Flourished in the 80s

With the rise of the internet in the 1980s, mystery shopping flourished even more, and it's today a massive industry generating massive revenue. As of writing, pioneering companies like TrendSource have over 300,000 secret shoppers and have handled over four million mystery shopping projects across the country.

Increased access to technological innovations has also significantly improved the industry. Now, evaluators no longer rely on hectic paper-based questionnaires. They instead use modern channels such as video to improve data collection and generate qualitative insights. The rise of the internet has also seen several types of mystery shopping strategies emerge. These include:

  • In-person shopping: This is where a mystery shopper physically visits an enterprise's brick-and-mortar store to gauge the quality of services or employee performance. This type of secret shopping is more popular in heavily people-based industries such as retail and hospitality
  • Telephone-based: With this form of mystery shopping, the evaluator makes calls to assess how efficiently customer service manages client calls. It's popular in industries where calls are key to customer experience, such as real estate, and e-commerce
  • Hybrid: With hybrid mystery shopping, companies combine in-person and telephone shoppers to evaluate the overall quality of customer experiences from when they first contact the company to the end.

Here are the basic steps to becoming a mystery shopper:

Determine the Type of Role You Want

Some companies hire mystery shoppers on a freelance or assignment basis, while research-heavy marketing companies often hire their evaluators as permanent employees. Each option has its pros and cons. For instance, working on an assignment basis offers flexibility, but it means tax deductions are on you. Working as an employed mystery shopper, on the other hand, takes flexibility out of the equation, but you'll get a stable job, enjoy tax deductions, and, depending on the company you work for, even enjoy benefits. Before you accept any offer, ensure you familiarize yourself with the requirements.

Familiarize Yourself with the Skills Required

If you want to be a mystery shopper, you'll need the following skills:

  • Great communication skills: Mystery shopping involves interacting not just with the employees whose service you'll be rating but also with the company.
  • Attention to detail and report writing skills: You'll need to relay your experience accurately and efficiently for accurate service evaluation. You cannot do that if your attention to detail and ability to convey experiences in words is wanting
  • Excellent acting ability: Your job as a secret evaluator is posing as a client, meaning you cannot be anxious during the experience or let your emotions get in the way
  • Data organization skills: Secret shopping will have you collecting performance data for multiple companies. Good organization skills ensure you can easily keep track of the data you collect for different companies you'll work for

Other skills critical for a mystery shopper include integrity, meeting deadlines, physical stamina (you'll move around a lot), basic computer skills, and an eye for fashion. Additionally, you will need a reliable mode of transport, especially if you plan on working in the mystery shopping industry in the long run.

Identify Legitimate Companies and Apply

Scams are prevalent in the mystery shopping industry. Avoid employers who require you to pay for training certification or ask for registration fees (more tips on avoiding scams below.) Also, ensure you research and identify legitimate secret shopper employers before you express interest in any related job offer. Here are recommendations for some legitimate secret shopper employers to kickstart your journey as one:

  • BestMarkEstablished in 1986. It has over 60,000 mystery shoppers and pays from $15 to $35 an hour based on the assignment. Doesn't hire full-time.
  • Secret shopperHas been in the game for over two decades. They pay between $15 and $25 per assignment.
  • Signature worldwide: For telephone-based mystery shopping, check their site out. Pay starts at $10 per hour and is paid bimonthly.
  • Market Force: A mystery shopping website with over 300,000 registered members. It offers secret shopping gigs in various industries, including hospitality, health, and wellness. Payment is hourly and ranges between $26 and $44.
  • iShop for Ipsos: Operates in over 15 countries spread throughout the Americas, Europe, Asia, Oceania, and Africa. They offer generous pay but have lengthy reporting processes, which is unsurprising, seeing as Ipsos is a global consumer panel.

Once you find a company you trust, the next step is to apply, and if you are successfully onboarded, get to work.

What Do Secret Shoppers Look for During Service Evaluation?

Secret evaluators, whether in person or over the phone, are typically required to assess the following during the assignment:

  • Greetings: How did the staff member approach you? Some companies, especially franchises, usually require staff to use a particular greeting style, but you'll be briefed about it beforehand.
  • Wait times: How long did you wait before you were served? Did checkout take longer than it should?
  • Helpfulness: Was the employee willing to assist you? How well did they articulate the product you asked for? Note, depending on your employer, you may get a list of questions to use to evaluate this metric.
  • Staff appearance: Most companies have a dress code, and as such, you might need to check if the employees had the designated fit during your evaluation.
  • Staff numbers: How many staff members were in the store at your evaluation?
  • Protocol compliance: Employees, particularly in franchises, must follow certain protocols when serving clients. Did your server comply?

How Much Money Can You Potentially Make with Mystery Shopping?

The money you earn as a mystery shopper varies depending on whether you work on an assignment basis or under a salaried position. Because most shoppers who work on an assignment basis are usually freelancers, most companies often pay them an hourly wage.

The rate varies but often ranges between $10 and $75, depending on the assignment. On the other hand, salaried mystery shoppers are often highly-trained, experienced market research experts, often earning from $40,000 to $70,000. Other businesses pay their mystery shoppers on a reimbursement basis.

For instance, companies in hospitality may pay for your mystery shopping services with free food at the restaurant you're evaluating, while companies in retail will allow you to keep the product you purchase during your evaluation.

Those who get money in exchange for mystery shopping will often receive their payment via a check, direct deposit, or through platforms like PayPal. Expect no benefits as well, because mystery shoppers are often considered private contractors.

Mystery Shopping Scams: How to Avoid Being a Victim

Mystery shopping is an excellent side hustle, especially if you work on an assignment basis. You benefit from flexibility and networking opportunities, and in some cases, you can earn both money and reimbursement. However, as with any other industry, there are scams.

The most common scam involves scammers posing as a company looking for secret shoppers. They will send you training materials and a bogus check when you express interest. After the package gets to you, the scammers tell you to cash the check and wire some of the money to a specific account within 48 hours.

After the transfer, you'll realize the check was a forgery and the funds were transferred from your bank account. As a result, you lose money and may also be arrested for the fraudulent check. Do the following to avoid being a victim of mystery shopping scams:

Steer Clear of Mystery Shopping Providers Who "PAY" In Advance

Most people fall victim to "mystery shopping providers" who pay in advance because they perceive the advance salary as a sign of goodwill on the company's part. However, no company worth its salt will pay you for work you haven't done, especially if you're working as a freelance secret shopper. Be very wary of mystery company seekers who send you packages or money before you work. Avoid them altogether.

Avoid Companies that Hire Without Screening

Any legitimate company looking for evaluators won't just hire blindly. As noted, they prioritize individuals with certain skills and will often conduct screening to determine if applicants fit the bill. Take for the hills if a company offers to hire you without screening.

Do Due Diligence

Before signing up for any secret shopping job or accepting it, review the company first. Check out their company website to understand their services, and look for testimonials and reviews on forums in that industry. Use sites like the Better Business Bureau, Glassdoor, and Clutch to review their company information.

Consider How You Got the Job

How did you get your mystery shopping gig? If you wake up to an email promising you a secret-shopping gig out of the blue, it's best to avoid it. If you come across a job offer in classified adverts, be skeptical of it and conduct thorough research on the company before you express interest.

Final Thoughts

Although it's an old industry, mystery shopping will remain relevant now and in the future as most companies focus on customer service. It continues to evolve with technology, making the task for mystery shoppers even easier. Learning about it now is the key to leveraging any opportunities that might come your way.

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Lily Wordsmith

Written by Lily Wordsmith

Lily Wordsmith is a freelance writer who has had a love affair with the written word for decades. You can find her writing blog posts and articles while sitting under a tree at the local park watching her kids play, or typing away on her tablet in line at the DMV. In addition to her freelance career, she is pursuing ebook writing with an ever-growing repertoire of witty ebooks to her name. Her diversity is boundless, and she has written about everything from astrobotany to zookeepers. Her real passions are her family, baking desserts and all things luxe.

Read more posts by Lily Wordsmith

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