How Does Mystery Shopping Work? 

Mystery shoppers are independent contractors who provide consumer information to business owners through onsite evaluations.... 
This means you will work for yourself and handle all of your own taxes.  You are not employed by other companies so they won't take taxes out of the money they pay you.  You should keep up with how much you make from each company over the year and if one company has paid you more than $599 then they will send you a tax form to use when filing your taxes to claim the income you have made from them.  Anything less than $599 from each company is not reported to the government.  Use a work log to keep up with passwords, usernames, work scheduled, payments schedules, etc.  A worklog is provided for you using Microsoft Excel when you become a member on this site.  Now that really explains what an independant contractor is but what about the "provides consumer information to business owners through onsite evaluations" part?
A mystery shopper is someone who goes into a place of business as the "every day consumer" and proceeds to make a purchase and/or engage the employees in service.  After they have made their purchase, they make a return of the item and then fill out the questionnaire provided by the business owner or job scheduler online. Some companies will give you a spending limit and reimburse you for the item purchased and pay you for the job.  That is always nice!  Details to each job are given by the scheduling company and may vary but are generally similar.   
Different businesses have different scenarios they like for you to play out as a "mock" shopper, but here are 10 general points to always remember when evaluating a business!
1.  You don't work for the company that secured your services for secret shopping.  You have made a business contract with them to provide your service to them for payment.  You are an independent contractor. You'll be running an evaluations service of your own and you provide observational research to well known businesses surrounding your local area.  You will fill out applications for each link in our directory.  (These applications are free to submit by the way) These applications basically enter you into a computer database for each company so that when they have work in your area, they contact a mailing list of shoppers in your area by email.  If you are interested in a job offer in your email inbox, you should respond as quickly as possible to secure the job before any other possible mystery shoppers in your area do.  I have found that even a small town will have one or two mystery shoppers in it, but typically there are plenty of shops to go around so if you don't get one, go for the next one.  Some of the shops also have requirements about how often you can mystery shop the same location so if you (for example) mystery shopped Buffalo Wild Wings last week, you may have to wait 15 days to do it again.  If the company is having difficult time finding enough shoppers in your area to fill the shop they may make an exception and give you the shop anyway just to have it completed on time. 
2.  You should always either be reimbursed for the required purchase up to a spending limit specified by the company, or you are required to return the item so that you can observe return policies procedures as part of the shop.  The various ways in which you can profit from mystery shopping is either you are paid in cash directly to complete the job, usually $10 per shop, or you are rewarded with reimbursement for the meals and a small amount of pay for the survey, or just reimbursed significantly for a very nice meal or night out for multiple people (bowling for the whole family, etc.).  Every shop opportunity you receive in your email inbox will provide details about the location, the reimbursement and pay for the shop, dates and time frames the shop should be completed between and any other pertinent details to how the shop should be conducted. (what you should buy or ask the associate etc..)  If you are not interested in a shop email, you simply don't have to respond at all.  You won't be bothered by anyone unless they cannot find a shopper to complete the shop.  In that case a scheduler may call or email you directly and ask if there is any way you could do the shop for them.  If you want more pay for the shop you can ask for it at that time or simply decline your availability.  It is never held against you if you are unable to take a job offer.
3.  It is extremely important that you remain totally and completely anonymous during your visit.  If the employees know you are a secret shopper, it defeats the purpose of your job.  They will 'act accordingly' if they know what you are doing.  The anonymity of your work is what makes you an effective evaluator.  If you are "found out" by the employees during your shop, you should contact the company that hired you for the assignment with the information.  This is much like being a private investigator.  You also should contact the company immediately if for some reason you cannot perform an evaluation during the time you have scheduled with them.  Sometimes you can reschedule or you may lose the shop if it can't be rescheduled, but if you notify your scheduler in good time they more than likely won't hold it against you as long as you have good reasons for having to reschedule.  Many companies will tell you upfront that they closely monitor shoppers and their rescheduling frequencies, so try to keep your deadlines.  If you frequently are unable to keep your contracts, like any other business, you will won't be offered jobs in the future.   
4.  You should never give out detailed information about your mystery shopping jobs to others, like family members or friends, as it is private information owned by the company that has hired you to evaluate their business.  Businesses want their information to remain totally private.  It is okay to tell people that you are a mystery shopper, but it is best not to tell people about the names or locations of businesses you've mystery shopped.  Keep the names and exact locations out of the conversations, and you'll be okay.  If people ask, simply tell them you aren't able to reveal that much information because of the anonymity of the work you do.
5.  You are usually reimbursed sometime between 30 days and 60 days max.  If a particular business tells you ahead of time their pay policy is longer than 60 days you should keep it in writing, keep up with your shop dates and receipts and be aware of the due date for the payment.  For this reason I always kept a log I created in Microsoft excel to keep up with the locations, dates, times, expenses and expected reimbursement amounts and dates of every shop I completed.  I also kept a small filing cabinet with each company I completed shops for so I could save receipts and my surveys in case they were needed again in the near future or any job I had done.  Most businesses pay in 30-45 days!  I would not recommend working with any company that does not offer to pay sooner than 60 days.  If this means you shouldn't work with 1 or 2 specific companies because of their payment policies, you'll be better off in the long run. Most mystery shopping companies/schedulers pay through Paypal.  You will need to create an account with and set up your bank account number with Paypal so you can easily and quickly transfer your payments directly to your account.  Paypal is a very safe company to use to transfer and receive payments and it is free.  Many companies will offer free direct deposit as well which is also very convenient for you.  In those cases you will simply keep track of your bank account to see when your payments have posted and you will know when you complete the shop when your payment is due.  Keep this information in your work log. 
6.  If you have a credit card you can use for your assignments it would be of great benefit to you but not totally neccessary. I preferred completing shops with purchase requirements with my credit card so that my payment was not due from me for 30 days.  This allowed me to receive my payment in most cases before I had to pay my credit card and or incur any fiance charges.  In many shops you also have the option to return the item you purchased.  If you had to purchase something and not return it and you are being reimbursed for it within 30 days, the cost of it is on your card basically until you receive your payment rather than from your out of pocket expenses, but either way you will be reimbursed.  This is great for restaurant assignments.  With a credit card, you have 30 days to pay it and by that time you should have the money in or coming in very soon. 
7.  When applying to be a mystery shopper at the businesses provided in the directory we listed here at The Natty Gambit, be sure to read their instructions carefully so you are fully aware of what they expect from you.  All of the businesses are very informative and they always brief you well before a job.  Many will give you instructions and allow you to see the questionnaire online before you do the shop so you know ahead of time what type of things to be looking for while you are there.  The Natty Gambit is not connected in any way in your mystery shopping contracts and cannot be held liable for anything that may occur between you and your contracted business agreements.  I am simply giving you free consulting as to what mystery shopping is, how you can get started and who is hiring mystery shoppers.
8.  Wear a watch!  You will always need this and will have to check it several times during some of your assignments.  Businesses like to know when you entered the store and how long before you were first approached.  This lets them know if you had to wait long for service.  Never Never NEVER take notes or fill out questionnaires in front of employees.  They are smart, they will know what you are doing, and businesses won't pay you if they find out you have done that.  Remember, remain anonymous.  Do your best to remember names and times.  Receipts help you remember the times of purchases and returns and you can use that to help you remember, but know that the clock mechanisms on registers are rarely ever totally accurate.  It is best to wear a watch that allows you to time hours, minutes, and seconds.  You can also get a stop watch that fits in a pocket or can be easily used and hidden at the same time.  These are extremely accurate and very easy to use without looking suspicious.  Cell phones also come with stop watches that allow you to mark multiple times during the entire mystery shop.  I found it to be very helpful on fast food mystery shops since they are very concerned with the time it takes to be served in fast food locations.  Remember, what you need to do on your mystery shops is reveal to you well ahead of time so review the requirements so you are familiar with what you should do when int he store and you will be fine.  Stores don't usually change the format of their shops often either.  Once you've done one, you will very easily remember how it works in the future for that location.
9.  When giving your reports on certain questions that require explanations, be sure to be professional and objective.  Never offer up what 'you think' employees 'should have been doing', just simply state what was actually happening, when it happen.  Just make note of the facts which are pertinent to the questions asked on your reports.  The business owners know if the information you will provide them is appropriate or not.  Sometimes you are asked for opinions, like "would YOU return to this location and why or why not" and in those circumstances, you may be honest for the sake of the value of the report, but remain objective even in making opinions.  Make your judgements about whether you would return to the location based only on the result of that particular shop and not other instances in the past that you may have experienced.  You will be viewed as a valuable business asset to the company and as a professional.  The more professional and fact based you are in your answers, the more likely they are to pay you more in the future for your work and give you more jobs to do.
10.  Always try to record names from name tags.  Some businesses do not require their associates to wear name tags, but you will know before you shop the location if it is required or not.  Be careful what you say about employees.  Offer up only the facts.  Employees are rewarded for good work and sometimes are punished for work that is substandard'.  So be careful what you say about people because someone could lose their job based on your answers in the questionnaire. If you get into reporting for an assignment and find a question you can not recall the answer, give the employee the benefit of the doubt and make a mental note to pay closer attention next time.  You want to be truthful and objective.  You are never in the store to trick the employees or catch them doing something wrong.  You are simply in and out of the business just like any other customer would be, only you will be paying much closer attention for the sake of making a report.  You gather the basic information from your visit and provide it to the business owners by answering their questions honestly and appropriately in the surveys they provide for you online.  None of your work should ever become personal. Even if you receive terrible service, do not take any part of it personally and try to lash out at the employee through your report.  That is very unprofessional and the shop schedulers have seen it time and again, they generally know when that is happening and have been known to access store surveillance to review the validity of very negative reports.  Simple remember as much as you can and report word for word what was said.  You are just doing a job.
Here is a basic run down of how this works!  
  • Click on the links in the directory and fill out the online applications to be added as a mystery shopper in your area for each company.  This initial work begins to pay off after a couple of weeks with offers in your email inbox.
  • You begin to receive assignment offers in your email inbox.
  • You reply to the emails and express interest in the jobs you want. 
  • Just Ignore the emails you are not interested in. 
  • You receive the assignment from the company and they confirm you as being scheduled to complete the job.
  • You print out any important paperwork for the job and study over it.
  • You complete the assignment on time and turn in your online report.
  • You fax, mail or scan a receipt to the company. (They will tell you how they prefer to receive receipts)
  • You keep up with your assignments/monies received in a work log and filing cabinet.
  • You GET PAID either by check, paypal, or direct deposit.

I personally have a filing cabinet for keeping records.  I keep a file in it for each company I work for, and I add to it each time I complete an assignment for the company. You could scan information into a computer filing system to keep clutter down.  I never had too much clutter though.

Okay, that is most of what a mystery shopper does.  It's very fun, like being an undercover agent.  Have fun and be professional and just take the jobs you want.  You'll enjoy the money and material benefits of the work as well as the work itself.  Your work is helping make a difference in the type of service people receive in your community! 

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