What is a Legitimate Mystery Shop?

A quick and dirty generalization of a shop: You go for the visit during the dates and times allowed, noting the date and time of arrival. You look around outside to make sure that the location looks clean and well maintained. You go inside and note if you were greeted immediately or not greeted for a while. You look around and see if the store is clean, well stocked and well maintained. You interact with at least one employee about product, listening for level of knowledge, friendly helpfulness and capturing a name and physical description. You check the restroom for clean and well stocked. You make a small purchase that will yield a cash register receipt and you evaluate the traffic at the register (if there were lots of customers trying to check out, did they open additional registers, etc.), the tidiness of the register area, the interaction with the cashier and capture the name and physical description of the cashier. You depart and note the time of your departure. You report your findings on the company website and provide your 'proof of visit' which, in this scenario would be a receipt. You provide it usually by scanning or photographing the receipt to upload into the report or emailing as an attachment to a specified address or faxing to a specified number or sometimes sending in by mail. You wait anywhere from 2 weeks to 3 months (depending on the company's stated pay cycle) to be paid your fee and reimbursed for your purchase up to the maximum reimbursement allowed in your original instructions.

This is just the basics. A specific shop may have you interact with multiple employees on the sales floor or check that the outside garbage cans have room for more trash or that the doormat was clean and properly placed or that a particular display was present or that all employees were wearing headsets for walkie talkies etc. Some may require photographs inside the store taken without getting caught, some may require a photo of the front of the store to prove you were in the right place, some may have no purchase requirement but want you to get the business card of the person with whom you interacted. The variations are limitless.

If you can't find a company on the internet that is immediately a bad sign. A number of scammers have run their ads for victims through Craig's List and other job sites that then get picked up rather innocently by CareerBuilder, Indeed.com and others. Know the signs of the scams: 1) legitimate companies do not send payment in any form up front (recently the scammers have been wanting credit card information to put money on your card to shop, but more frequently they send a check or money order that is bogus); 2) mystery shops generally pay $5-$15 with a reimbursement of $1-$10 (except restaurant shops); 3) no legitimate companies ask you to wire transfer or otherwise send money in any amount to themselves or third parties.

In a nutshell, mystery shopping is providing a picture in time of the service and cleanliness of a location. Beyond that it can diversify into "audits" to see pricing or product placement, quality and timing of food service, presence or absence of particular signage, ease of returning purchases, etc. etc. It is as diversified as the questions clients want answered. Most frequently the purchases made, aside from restaurants, are more titular than enriching. They may be $1 worth of gas or up to $10 worth, they may be $2 in groceries up to $20 worth, they may be the purchase of a gift card, they may be the purchase and return of a pair of shoes valued at over $130 or purchase and return of something valued at $50. Very rarely will a shop, especially at the beginner level, provide more than $15-20 in overall value between the fee and the item(s) to be purchased (except at restaurants). Most frequently a small purchase is required or collection of a business card, to prove that you actually did visit the location. These purchases are most frequently reimbursed and are in the $1 to $5 range. If you choose to spend more than the reimbursement amount, that is usually allowed, but not reimbursed and it does not count as an unreimbursed business expense for taxes unless there was no item in the store you could have purchased that met the requirements of the shop while remaining within the agreed reimbursement.

So if you are entering this thinking you are going to be reimbursed for purchasing laptop computers, clothes or jewelry costing more than about $10-$15, etc. don't be fooled. The company websites showing happy, barely nubile shoppers with shopping bags of goodies are a come on and not a reality.

There is a list of companies you can register with at the bottom of the page. See the blue link, Official List of Mystery Shopping Companies. Once you sign up with companies, go to their job boards and see what they have available. Not all companies have shops in all areas and even those that shop your area may not have anything posted at the present time, so keep checking.

The way this works is that the companies you sign up with mostly will post jobs to their job boards for you to either accept or request. Think of each job as a separate entity to be accepted, performed, reported and respond to requests for clarification (if needed) and ultimately be paid for. I generally do 30-50 jobs per month, so plan on spending a fair amount of time visiting job boards looking for work. A beginner's shortcut is to visit Jobslinger.com and find companies that are currently shopping your area. The jobs you see on Jobslinger have probably already been taken as there are many folks who go there frequently, but at least you know some companies that are indeed active in your area to sign up with. I am signed up with several hundred companies but in a given year may work with only 40 of them because the others don't have clients in my area. I nevertheless look at the job boards of those other companies I am signed up with a few times a year to see if they have clients that have recently opened or are opening locations in my area.

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