Selected Article
Title How to Get a Gig As a Mystery Shopper
Date Published 08/18/2004
Author Julie Bennett
Publication Wall St. Journal - Startup Journal Online

When Kim Keenum, 39, walks through the parking lot of a supermarket in Carol Stream, Ill., other customers may be searching for their lists, but she's counting abandoned carts and looking for trash. "See that crushed beverage cup?" she says. "There's no liquid next to it, so it's been there for a while."

Mrs. Keenum is a mystery shopper, paid to act like a regular customer of banks, retail stores, restaurants, or even government offices, but is really there to report on cleanliness, food quality and customer service. There are about 200,000 "active" shoppers in the U.S., according to the Mystery Shopping Providers Association, a Dallas-based trade group that trains and certifies prospective shoppers. Although the pay for mystery shopping is low -- usually just a few dollars plus a voucher for free food or merchandise -- the field is competitive and applications deluge the country's 750 mystery-shopping companies, hired by client firms to recruit mystery shoppers, much like a temp service.

You can, however, rise quickly to the top of their lists by understanding how the industry works and by being very observant.

In the store's produce department, Mrs. Keenum activates the stopwatch on her cell phone and says, "I'll wait here a minute to see if someone offers to help me." At the 57-second mark a young man arrives and, when she asks for asparagus, walks her over to the display. He gets a good report, as do clerks at the pharmacy and camera counters, who answer her questions with courtesy.

Employees at this grocery chain who aren't stocking shelves or breaking down boxes are expected to ask customers if they need a cart or other help, but a uniformed teen who walks past her twice doesn't even make eye contact. "I can't report his name," she says, "because I can't read it on his handwritten nametag, so I'll just have to file a description."

At the checkout, she times the lines and has no trouble reading the nametag of the cashier who is friendly and points out a store special but who forgets to ask for Mrs. Keenum's shopper identification card.

The store visit takes 17 minutes and 39 seconds, plus a couple more minutes in the car to write down information she'll download into a five-page online form that evening, a process that can take anywhere from a few minutes to half an hour. For the entire "shop," Mrs. Keenum will be paid $10 and reimbursed $2 for groceries. Since she spends $12.85, for items she and her 11-year-old daughter need, plus a Beanie Baby dog for her nine-year-old son, this shop is a net loss. But she'll hit another supermarket that afternoon, a couple of fast-food restaurants the next day and, by the end of the month, earn about $1,000 in her spare time, having done 75 shops.

Tom Mills, 34, president of Servicesleuth, in Franklin, Mass., says many people sign up as mystery shoppers "because they expect to do something amazingly fun, like go to Disney World or eat at a Ruth's Chris Steakhouse. While some of our 70,000 active shoppers do elaborate shops, the rest are at gas stations or driving through McDonald's for 50-cent burgers. In general, it's such a low-paying job, he wants only shoppers who are "in it for the enjoyment," not the money.

Despite the low wages -- the average fast-food shop pays $7, plus $7.50 in food; a retail-store shop pays $10-$15; and an upscale shop like dinner in a fine restaurant or a night in a hotel may provide no fee besides the perk itself -- Mr. Mills has 200,000 additional potential shoppers in his "holding tank."

Getting to the top of that tank is no secret once you understand that mystery shopping is a game scored by punctuality and punctuation. There's not even an entry fee. Although scam artists advertise "Mystery Shopper Starter Kits" for $29 or more, you'll receive only a list of companies that you can find for free on the Web, at or

All you have to do is fill out the online applications, but pay attention. Because the end products of mystery-shopping companies are the thousands of online reports filed by their shoppers, reports must be free of misspellings and grammatical mistakes. Most applications will ask for a writing sample, usually a description of a recent meal you ate out. Study their examples, then go to a restaurant and note such details as how you are greeted and how long it takes for your food to arrive. Write a one-page report that touches on important details, says Mr. Mills. "We want observations, not criticisms," he says. "And we don't want six-page novels." Applications that hit the mark and contain no grammatical errors, will rise to the top.

With 30,000 or more shops to conduct each month, large mystery-shopping companies don't have time to handpick shoppers. When a job order arrives, Mr. Mills says, a software program scans through a database and automatically sends out e-mails to shoppers who live in the area and meet the client's demographics. To increase your chances, answer all the questions on each application, no matter how personal. "If a heavyset woman doesn't include her weight, she'll miss out on shopping Lane Bryant," Mr. Mills says. Since 75% of all shoppers are female, new applications from men tend to get noticed.

When you are offered that first shop, confirm promptly, read the instructions carefully and complete the assignment on time. Sixty to eighty percent of new shoppers flake, says Cathy Stucker, author of the self-published "The Mystery Shopper's Manual" (Special Interests Publishing, 2002), that is, they accept a shop, then don't do it. And 25% of assignments go unfinished, so anyone who completes one assignment is sure to get more.

The report you file goes first to an editor who'll make any necessary changes and give it a score of one to 10. Shoppers whose scores are below seven rarely are chosen again: Top scorers soon have their pick of jobs.

You also can increase your chances by earning certification through the Mystery Shopping Providers Association. So far, about 12,000 shoppers are certified. On a recent Saturday, 42 women and eight men gathered in a hotel meeting room near Chicago's O'Hare International Airport to attend a lively workshop run by Mrs. Stucker, a founder of the association. Some attendees have been mystery shopping for years, while others, like Noriess Glover, 33, of Flossmoor, Ill., a downsized financial analyst, just started and wants to boost her current average of two shops a month. When Mrs. Stucker advises shoppers to sign up with 50 or more mystery-shopping companies, Ms. Glover makes a note to do just that.

Before you launch your mystery shopper career, however, remember that the task has other downsides besides the low pay:

Taxes. Mystery shoppers are independent contractors responsible for paying their own taxes. Working for many different companies and getting checks that include both fees and reimbursements for food or merchandise can be a record-keeping nightmare.

Organization. To make any money, you have to schedule several shops in one day and plan out what one shopper calls "a really good route." (She keeps track of her assignments in an Excel spreadsheet, works part time, and earns $400-$600 a month.)

Tedium. Keenan White, 30, of Madison, Wis., says he and his wife, Katie, 24, together earn between $40,000 and $50,000 a year by shopping full time. "I'm doing over 1,200 locations a quarter," he says, "but I'm doing the same type of work at most of them. I don't even have time to read the instructions for new jobs."

Not so perky perks. Some glamorous-sounding shops, like a night in a hotel, lose their luster if you're required to demand another room, then spend three hours writing up a report on how your request was handled.

Secrecy. Mystery shopping can be fun, but it's an enjoyment you can't share. Before each shop, you must sign a confidentiality agreement, swearing that you won't tell anyone details of the shop, especially the name of the location you've been assigned. Mrs. Keenum stands at a busy intersection in Carol Stream and says, "I've shopped every business you can see, and I could tell you which fast-food restaurants are clean enough to take your kids to. But I won't."