Do you fancy going detective? Have you got an eye for detail, a good memory and an interest in improving customer service? Do you have great English skills? If yes, then mystery shopping could be an enjoyable way to earn extra income.
So what is mystery shopping all about?
Lots of different companies want to see how their customers are being treated in ‘real life’. It means they can see how to make improvements. It can also help them decide whether they need to provide more staff training, for example to promote a particular product or service, or to advise customers of their rights before they purchase something. They may also want to check if and where products are being put out in-store, if promotional advertising is visible in the right places, and what competing products are being stocked next to theirs!
Here are some examples of different tasks I have performed:
Retail mystery shops
- Enquiring about buying a product (e.g. clothing, phones, tickets)
- Purchasing products online or instore (you get reimbursed or you keep the product as part of your fee)
- Returning a product
- Asking about extra cover for items being purchased
- Looking for specific promotions being offered
- Checking stock and merchandising (getting items put out in store or moved to the right location)
- Covertly taking photographs or recording secret audio
Other mystery shops
- Opening a bank account or credit card
- Getting insurance quotes
- Seeing if I qualify for mortgages
- Sending emails or making phone calls and assessing the quality and speed of response
- Ordering takeaway
- Eating in restaurants
- Test driving cars
As you can see the work is very varied. You have the freedom to choose the tasks that suit you based on how confident you feel about doing them and how well they pay. When making that assessment you need to look at how complicated the brief is and how many questions you will answer in the report. The time taken to do a shop is a combination of the preparation time (30-60 minutes), the task itself (typically 5-60 minutes), and writing your report (1-2.5 hours). In the reports you will answer questions about your experience and be expected to write detailed comments about a lot of your answers.
Don’t blow your cover!
Mystery shopping is not about catching anyone out, and you should maintain a high level of integrity – no trying to blag special treatment by revealing who you are! You always keep your identity a secret (except in very rare cases), even if you think you’re suspected. Your reward is your fee, higher ranking status with the mystery shopping company (the higher your ranking the better the tasks you will be offered), and frequently you get to keep products that you are paid to purchase as part of a task.
Hopefully that gives you an idea whether mystery shopping could be for you. The different companies that offer it go through all the requirements in more detail when you sign up to them, and you often need to pass a short qualification test before you can carry out any work. You should expect to only have access to the more mundane and less well paid tasks to begin with, but as soon as you have a few good reports under your belt you will unlock access to the better jobs.
How do I start mystery shopping?
Start to practice when out and about to see how much you can remember about your experience. When mystery shopping you very often assess how clean and tidy the premises is (inside and out), how long it takes you to reach the front of the queue, how you are greeted, what a staff member says to you during a transaction, what they look like and what their name is (most wear name badges), how you are thanked, and what you think of the product (if it is something like a restaurant meal).
If you think you can remember all that, were you looking for any promotional material? Did you spot what the other staff members were doing? Was there enough toilet roll and soap in the toilets? Did you remember to get your receipt and take the photographs needed?
Don’t worry if this sounds daunting. If you start off with the smaller and easier tasks you will soon get the hang of it and you find that most briefs ask you to spot similar things. With practice you pick up on all these details without too much effort. You can’t take your notes in, but I often jot down some of the more obscure requirements in a note app on my phone and have a peek on the sly at an opportune moment. You just look like you’re reading a text message.
What equipment do I need?
You don’t need a lot to start mystery shopping. A laptop is useful for writing reports but you can do everything on your smartphone.
It’s recommended to wear a watch, but again if I don’t have one on, it’s easy enough to check the time on my phone screen or use an app to discreetly set a timer going.
Having a printer helps if you prefer reading briefs and questionnaires on paper. I’m happy to read them on my computer screen but I do make my own handwritten notes that I have in the car to glance at just before starting a shop.
You need to send in pictures or, rarely, scans of your receipts and materials given to you during your task. If you don’t have a scanner (I don’t) then a very useful app to have is CamScanner. You simply photograph the item and it automatically crops, un-skews and enhances the image to make it look like a scanned document. You can email the images to yourself from the app and they are all stored on CamScanner’s cloud for future reference.
Finally, I carry around a small diary to help me keep track of which mystery shops I’m doing, and a great little notebook/folder I found called a Padfolio which I use to keep receipts safe, and to record the travel time, mileage and time taken to do each shop. I use this information to look back and review which shops were worth my while for the fee paid.
How can I do mystery shopping with a baby/child?
You are more restricted in carrying out mystery shopping when you have a little one in tow. Some companies specifically say no children allowed, but then there are some activities where taking your kid(s) is part of the brief. I actually find it very beneficial to mystery shop with a pushchair. No one suspects the undercover mum!
My main tip is to choose your mystery shops carefully. Go for ones that you can do at any time of day. Email and phone enquiries can easily be slotted in around nap times. For actual shopping tasks choose ones that are short so you can carry them out when your little one has fallen asleep in their buggy, or while a friend or relative can wait with them outside the shop or in a nearby cafe.
Be prepared and leave extra time
Like anything mothering related, mystery shopping with an infant is a juggling act. You need to get the tasks done whilst remembering to feed the baby, eat your lunch, stay hydrated, change nappies and make sure you don’t run over on your parking. It can be quite challenging when you are trying to do more than one shop in a single outing. Be prepared and make sure you have plenty of toys, snacks and drinks to hand. It will save you time and money if you don’t have to buy them while you’re out. It’s good to try and time your outing so it is just after your child’s meal/snack time so they don’t start demanding food in the middle of your shop!
Have a backup plan and leave extra time for nappy/vomit/spillage disasters which are bound to happen at the worst moment! Definitely have spare clothes in your bag for you both because you don’t want to be distracted during a shop by your baby stinking of poo or your top being covered in sick (oh, the joys of motherhood!)
As for parking, add an extra 2 hours to whatever you think you’ll need. It sounds a lot, but if disaster strikes you will be pleased you did. It can make all the difference if it means you can still complete your shop after dealing with the problem, without worrying about going back to the car or popping back home. I often like to park further away from town where parking charges and time limits are less. The walk helps me to run through the shop in my mind and it gets my little one to sleep. Make sure you can still get back to the car reasonably quickly if needed though.
Where can I find mystery shopping work?
There are lots of mystery shopping companies out there. I recommend to sign up to a range of them, because the range of shops available varies by area and company. If you sign up to several companies you’re more likely to get work near to you, and more likely to find tasks that are easier to fit around childcare.
A word of warning: sadly there are lots of spam companies out there who claim to offer mystery shopping work. The companies I have linked below are genuine. If you go searching for any more, be very wary of any that offer high value product testing giveaways (such as iPads), or £100 of supermarket vouchers when you sign up, or other such claims.
Market Force are a good company to start your mystery shopping journey with, with clear briefs and reports that are easy to fill out. The downside is that the reports can take quite a while to fill out.
MfM Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Make Ipsos the second company you sign up to. Their sign-up procedure is like a mini crash course in becoming a mystery shopping pro! Don’t be put off by the part that says you can’t take children. There are virtual tasks available that you can do by phone/email, and short tasks you can do in 10-15 minutes if you go with someone who can babysit nearby while you do your shop. Ipsos take care of their shoppers and are easily contactable if you need help.
MfM Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
ESA Retail have lots of work across the UK and you can quickly build up your rating with them. They offer a decent range of visit types, including phone and email tasks which you can easily do from home. Some of my best work has come from ESA Retail.
MfM Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Mystery Shoppers are another company that has a lot of opportunities available. They operate on the same platform (WEBMS) as Ipsos and ESA Retail, so if you are already a member of those companies, you will know how it works!
MfM Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
ProInsight have lots of opportunities and again, they work on the same platform (WEBMS) as Ipsos, ESA Retail, and Mystery Shoppers.
MfM Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Work from Grass Roots only comes up every so often, but when it does their jobs are well worth your time and come with clear shopper guidelines. Their online reporting system is well designed meaning you can fill the surveys out relatively quickly.
MfM Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
GfK are a big research company and have some high level clients. They have a few jobs you can complete at home but you have to be fast to get them! You can view their available jobs on the Presto app, which is very useful for finding out what work is available near you, either from GfK or other companies who use the SASSIE platform.
MfM Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Mystery Shopping Apps
As well as the sites above, there are also a variety of mystery shopping apps available. To find out more take a look at my post on phone apps here.
Thank you for reading!
I would love to hear about your mystery shopping experiences! Tell us about them in the comments below or on the Money for Mummy social media pages. Feel free to ask any questions – the most frequently asked questions will feature on a future Q&A post on mystery shopping.
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