Selected Article
Title How to Moonlight As a 'Mystery Shopper'
Date Published 08/23/2004
Author Kelly Spors
Publication Wall Street Journal

Looking for a flexible part-time job with decent pay? You could become a "mystery shopper" -- a free-lancer who makes undercover visits to retailers and restaurants to evaluate customer service.

Restaurants, department stores, movie theaters, gas stations and hotels all want mystery shoppers to provide feedback on areas of their businesses that need improvement. Did the sales clerk smile? Were you greeted at the door? Was the floor clean?

Demand has become so great for mystery shoppers that more than 100 U.S. mystery-shop firms now recruit shoppers to fill local assignments for clients. These firms select shoppers, assign jobs and pay their workers. Mystery shoppers work as "independent contractors," and can accept or reject assignments on a case-by-case basis. So if you're extra-busy one week or month, you can turn down offers for assignments.

Mystery-shop firms look for motivated people who pay attention to details and can write descriptively, says Ron Welty, chief executive of IntelliShop, a Perrysburg, Ohio-based consultant for companies such as Domino's and Hickory Farms. The firm, which rates its mystery shoppers on such attributes as writing skills and reliability, keeps a database of about 100,000 potential shoppers.

While it doesn't use everyone -- only about 25% of its shoppers were used last year -- it continually seeks new shoppers since it can be tough filling assignments in some areas.

"We rotate our shoppers every visit" to a store, Mr. Welty says. "After a while, employees start to play the game of 'Let's figure out who the mystery shopper is."

A good place for prospective shoppers to start is at the Web site of the Mystery Shopping Providers Association, a trade group with 150 mystery shop firms worldwide:

The association doesn't permit its members to charge a fee to applicants. "You shouldn't have to pay to become a mystery shopper," says John Swinburn, MSPA's executive director. He says to be leery of companies that do.

Once you get approved as a mystery shopper, available assignments in your area may start rolling in right away or could take a while.

How many assignments you can you expect varies depending on factors such as how much work is available in your area, and how many other mystery shoppers live in your region. So it's best to sign up with at least a handful of firms if you'd like to work frequently.

The assignments, often sent by e-mail, typically give background on what the shopper will be doing, when the job must get done, and roughly how much the job pays. Wages can vary. A restaurant may only reimburse the cost of a meal, while a department store might pay around $10 to $50 per assignment.

Part-time mystery shoppers who do at least 20 assignments a month could make $500 to $1,000 in a month. Shoppers usually pay for travel to and from assignments.

Going Undercover

What to know about mystery shopping:

Wages vary -- most assignments average from $10 to $30, but can go higher. Compensation for some restaurant assignments may only be a free meal.

If you take at least 20 assignments a month, you might be able to make $500 to $1,000 in extra monthly income.

The Mystery Shopping Providers Association, offers information and links to more than 100 mystery-shop firms. Web site:

Shoppers usually pay for travel to and from assignments.

After the job is assigned, the shopper gets more details about the particular job. Mystery shops can take anywhere from a few minutes to more than an hour. But usually the shopper has to fill out an online questionnaire afterward.