Is Mystery Shopping Right For You? – Lessons From Personal Experience

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If you’re like me, you probably have heard the term, “mystery shopping,” for quite some time. You probably were also pretty skeptical about what exactly it entailed and if it was a scam or not. At least, those are the assumptions I was operating off of.

However, I am here to tell you that mystery shopping is in fact a legitimate thing, as I have recently partaken in a mystery shop and successfully received payment for it. But, by the same token, I am also here to tell you that it is NOT “easy-money,” as from what I’ve experienced so far, the Dollar/hour payout is quite low given the time it takes to complete a mystery shop. More detail on this later in the post.

What is Mystery Shopping & How I Got My Renewed Interested in It

My renewed interest in mystery shopping was sparked after reading a very interesting article over at about how Kyle (site owner) makes $500 per month conducting liquor audit mystery shops.

Essentially, what happens is that companies hire him through the mystery shopping intermediaries to purchase alcohol at local stores and then report back on whether or not he was asked for age verification/ID. In a nutshell, this is what mystery shopping entails. Big companies need to collect non-biased customer viewpoint data on their local stores so they can make tactical decisions on their business. So, they contract the mystery shopping companies as the middle men to find the independent auditors (shoppers), collect the data, and issue payment to the individuals.

Regarding Kyle’s specific article about liquor audits, he states that he gets paid around $18 per alcohol purchase (in addition to getting reimbursed for buying beer), that the shops only take 5 minutes to do, and that he can string together 10 of them in one trip around town to make a nice chunk of change.

After reading this post, I said, “That sounds awesome! I’d like to get a piece of that action!” And, knowing the good reputation of the site owner, I figured that it was likely a very legitimate opportunity/thing. So, I proceeded to look in to it.

Finding and Signing Up as a Mystery Shopper with Legitimate Mystery Shopping Companies

As I found out in my research on mystery shopping, a golden rule to remember is that NO LEGITIMATE MYSTERY SHOPPING COMPANY will require you to pay money upfront for any reason. Those that ask for money up front are a scam – simple as that.

Luckily, in my case, in his post mentioned above, Kyle recommended the names of 3 mystery shopping companies he uses, so I proceeded to sign up for those. I figured that I would sign up in the systems of 3-4 mystery shopping companies to start with and see if I enjoyed the experience and it was indeed worthwhile.

Listed below are the mystery shopping companies I have signed up for:

And, listed below are several additional legitimate mystery shopping companies that I figured I would enroll with if I found the whole process worthwhile with the first 3 I tried:

Upon signing up to these programs, some of them require you to take a short quiz. However, it is really not that hard nor time consuming, and likely is just designed to test your procedural reading skills.

What Type of Opportunities Do These Mystery Shopping Companies Offer?

As soon as I was approved with the 3 mystery shopping companies I had signed up for, I anxiously logged in to see what types of opportunities were available to perform liquor audits such as the ones mentioned above and get paid $17 for 5 minutes of work. 
However, I was soon fairly disappointed by a) the lack of ANY liquor audits available within 100 miles of where I live, b) the low payouts offered currently for the mystery shopping opportunities, c) the significant barriers (very detailed quizzes) that needed to be conducted before you could even read up on what an opportunity involved, and d) the surprisingly long amount of time required to complete each task for such a small amount of money.
More specifically, listed below is a summary of my experiences with each of the three mystery shopping companies I signed up for:
  • Sinclair Customer Metrics – 
    • For the 1 month period I have been enrolled in Sinclair’s system, I think I have only seen one mystery shopping opportunity listed. It was a purchase at a local shop at the mall.
    • It sounded like a pretty good opportunity, but the payout was only about $4-5, so I really wasn’t that interested because I wasn’t planning to go to the mall anytime soon.
  • Corporate Research – 
    • There is a pretty consistent stream of mystery shopping opportunities through this outfit in my area, mainly for a local sit-down pizza restaurant and gas stations.
    • The commissions for these opportunities are quite low, ranging from $4 to $10 maximum.
    • In order to even view what is required for the gas station inspections/shops, you have to take a HIGHLY detailed test. I would rate this test as very hard and extremely specific/annoying. Essentially, you have to remember every little detail about the specific areas of a gas station.
    • Moreover, from these qualification tests, I discovered that the gas station inspection that allows you to get the $10 payout is so detailed that it would likely take me an hour to do, and it also involves talking to the station manager after identifying yourself as an inspector. This sounds too much like real work to me. No thanks! 
  • TrendSource – 
    • TrendSource also has a nice, steady stream of mystery shopping opportunities in my area, mostly involving the evaluation of a local pizza take-out / delivery joint ($5 payout plus reimbursement for the pizza) or talking at length with employees at a local national chain technology store about products ($10 payout).
    • Since the tech store gig sounded like it would also be a little more involved than I would be looking for in a little fun side project like mystery shopping, I decided to give the pizza delivery mystery shop a try first.
    • After taking the 20 minute qualification test, I signed up for a pizza delivery shop with high hopes. I figured, hey, they bring the pizza right to my house, I get paid $5, they pay for the pizza, sounds easy-breezy, right? 
    • Well, I soon found out that you pay a price, especially the first time that you do one of these pizza mystery shops.
    • First, they give you a 3 page set of instructions on EXACTLY how they want 3 pictures to be taken of the pizza. Truth be told, there are so many little minute details that it felt more like a job than some fun side project. 
    • Second, they give you a 6-ish page set of instructions for other details they want to collect about the mystery shop, such as evaluating whether or not the delivery person smiles, reads back your total, or that the person on the phone that takes your order tries to up-sell you. Again, this sort of took the fun out of the pizza. 
    • Third, once the pizza arrived, I kept making small mistakes in the pictures (such as taking the top shot at an 85 degree angle instead of a 90 degree angle, which they called me out on..ridiculous). Because of the mistakes and retakes, the pizza was cold when we actually started to eat it. Sigh…haha
    • Granted, if I were to do another pizza delivery mystery shop with this same company, I could probably take these pictures in 1/3 the original time because of the learning curve. 

Uploading the Receipts/Reports and Getting Paid

After you physically get done with the mystery shop and have collected your required evidence/notes, you then upload any photos you’ve taken, scan receipts you’ve collected, and transcribe your written notes in to the computer system. This step was probably the least painful of all, since the online systems are very good and easy to use. 
Generally, there are two options for getting paid – mailing a check or direct bank deposit (some companies also offer PayPal). With my mystery shop, I opted for them to mail a check. The mystery shopping companies usually issue payments either once a week or twice a month. I received my check in the mail probably 2 weeks after doing the shop and deposited it with no problem! 

Conclusions – Is Mystery Shopping Right For You?

So, having gone through all of this, it brings us back to the question we started with in the post title – is mystery shopping something that would be a good fit for you?

Assuming that everyone reading this has sufficient mental capacity to handle the requirements for mystery shopping, I would say that it basically comes down to having/wanting to commit a good chunk of time to trying to make some extra money. In addition, you have to be willing to commit the time to do mystery shops repeatedly in order to take advantage of the initial learning curve involved with executing them.

As I described above, even though mystery shopping is quite legitimate, I was very surprised at the level of detail and time required to complete these mystery shops. It is not “easy money” as some advertisements would suggest. Quite the contrary, I would say mystery shopping is actually a hard way to earn your money (perhaps I just live in the wrong area and don’t have the right types of mystery shops).

So, to conclude, I would say that mystery shopping is a good thing for people that have a good bit of time on their hands (maybe retirees), but not for people that work a full time day job and already have a side business to keep them busy.

Personally, I haven’t seen any mystery shops that would be worth doing again, so I’m going to hold off for now. But, I will keep looking through the systems from time to time to see if some good deals pop up in the future.

How about you all? Have you ever tried mystery shopping? If so, what type of job did you do and what was the payout like? 

Do you think that overall, the pay was worth the time/effort required? 

Share your experiences by commenting below!

About the Author Jacob A Irwin

Hi folks! My name is Jacob. I am the owner and operator of My Personal Finance Journey. I started this blog in January of 2010 and have enjoyed the journey ever since. Since finishing up graduate school in Virginia in 2014, I have been working in biopharmaceutical development in Colorado. You can read more about me and this site here​. Please contact me if you have any questions!

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Leave a Comment:

MakingSenseofCents says February 22, 2013

I used to love doing mystery shops, but lately I just hate how long the surveys are so I haven't been doing as much. Free food is always nice though!

    MyPerFinJourney says February 22, 2013

    Thanks for sharing MakingSenseofCents!

    What mystery shopping company did you use to do the surveys? Also, what type of payout did you bring in?
    My recent post Is Mystery Shopping Right For You? – Lessons From Personal Experience

John S @ Frugal Rules says February 22, 2013

Great write-up! We've thought about doing it in the past as we have a couple of friends that mystery shop as well and generally make a nice little amount of money each month. The time factor is what has held us back though and probably will for some time.
My recent post Frugal Friday: Blog Posts That Ruled This Week, Snowmageddon Edition

    MyPerFinJourney says February 22, 2013

    Thanks for sharing John! do you know what type of mystery shops they do and who they use? I'd be interested in hearing about people's experiences who are making a nice chunk of money. It may also just depend on where you live as well…
    My recent post Is Mystery Shopping Right For You? – Lessons From Personal Experience

myfijourney says February 23, 2013

I've never done mystery shopping, but I would love to have your friend's job of being told to go buy booze.

    MyPerFinJourney says February 23, 2013

    I know right!? I put a comment in on his post a while back to see if I am doing something wrong. I'd love to get hooked up with the gigs to buy beer for free and get paid for it! 🙂
    My recent post Is Mystery Shopping Right For You? – Lessons From Personal Experience

z853www says February 23, 2013

This is a perfect time to discover your post, as I was thinking about doing a post about mystery shopping myself. I have been doing it for a few months now and I don't mind doing it for a few extra dollars of my own. As a stay at home mom, it gives me a reason to get out of the house. However, I always figure out how much I will be spending in gas to make sure I'll be earning at least something. If I am going to travel, I will set up multiple shops in the same area and make a day out of it (evening too, counting all of those damn reports.) I generally will make $15 plus free lunches, dinners, etc. The key to being successful with the reports is learning how to be observant all the time – I always get perfect scores. The best jobs are when they are desperate and need last minute people. That's when they will pay you $60 to see a movie with a friend and pay for your tickets plus popcorn and sodas. I'm signed up for a ton of companies, but generally only work with about 4 of them.
My recent post Win $250 Cash with Credit Sesame!

    MyPerFinJourney says February 23, 2013

    Thanks so much for sharing Z853!

    What mystery shopping companies do you score the good-paying jobs from? I think I may using the wrong ones! 🙂
    My recent post Discover it vs. Chase Freedom Visa – Credit Card Boxing Series – Match # 1

z853www says February 23, 2013

I've had a few good ones from Bestmark, Service Sleuth, Certified Field Associate, and I'm seeing really good jobs at Measure Consumer Perspectives that pay $50 or $200 for video shops. The jobs available and pay rate really depend on where you live, and whether it is rural or suburban or city. The farther away from big cities you are, it seems you get paid more since there are less people competing for the jobs.

I also want to mention that Merchandising is also considered mystery shopping, and these same companies will set you up with those jobs. They pay much more, but require more work, like setting up signs and displays in stores. Merchandising can easily turn into getting permanent jobs, or being hired as an employee by any of the companies involved. Most mystery shoppers will start doing merchandising and very rarely will still do the regular mystery shops.
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    MyPerFinJourney says February 23, 2013

    Thanks so much for sharing! What do you mean by video shops? Like where you take videos inside a store, or like you get paid to watch a video?

    I'll have to give those companies a try that you mentioned!
    My recent post How Do You Analyze Individual Stocks?

z853www says February 24, 2013

I've never done a video shop, but they involve secretly videotaping your store visit. Some companies will provide you with the hidden camera equipment, but some require you have your own. I hear these are the easiest because they don't require you to fill out all of the forms afterwards.
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    MyPerFinJourney says February 24, 2013

    Very interesting! Thanks for sharing!
    My recent post Is Debt A Deal Breaker for Marriage?

eemusings says February 24, 2013

In my experience in NZ:

My favourite shops were bar/restaurant shops where we were reimbursed $60 worth, plus a $15 fee. Sadly, they changed these and now position them as 'snack' shops worth about $35 instead of $75.
McDonald's shops were often worth it, as most of the questions were yes/no.
Lottery tickets could be worth it if you could get a few in a month and you lived near a branch. Not much work involved.
I used to do a lot of bus surveys as I took public transport a lot, so that was a nice bonus.
I think I did a couple of booze shops, but to be honest we're not big drinkers anyway.
Petrol – well free petrol is always good, but these always went fast and only worth about $20 in free petrol.
Pizza shops – often not worth the work!
Clothing and jewellery shops often involve either small purchases (could be good for freebies or gifts for others) or big purchases with returns.
I quite liked Lush mystery shops – those were good value.
I've tried to get free eye test shops but never succeeded.
Never got a movie shop, sadly.

I haven't done any in months now; they keep cutting back and the freebies/fees just aren't worth it here anymore. I'm focusing on freelancing instead, which is more flexible and lucrative.

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    MyPerFinJourney says February 24, 2013

    Sounds like you've had quite a lot of experience with this type of side gig!

    I'm definitely seeing the cut backs as well over in my area. They want the consumer data, but don't want to pay for it anymore. The gasoline shops in my area have a payout maximum of $1 USD for gas, so like 1/4 of a gallon! So cheap! haha
    My recent post Is Debt A Deal Breaker for Marriage?

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