What is mystery shopping?
Sometimes known as secret shopping, mystery shopping agencies are hired by companies to assess the service their customers are receiving.
For example, a sandwich chain might want to arrange for mystery shoppers to visit its branches and observe various issues ranging from how well-stocked the fridges are to how long it takes for them to be served or whether there's enough loo roll in the toilets. The feedback helps the company improve the service it provides.
Although most mystery shoppers begin with straightforward assignments such as visiting a shop or petrol station there's a lot of variety in the jobs on offer. For example shoppers might be recruited to visit a bowling alley, an opticians for an eye test, a jewellery chain or a bank to pose as a potential investor.
Some mystery shop assignments can be carried out at home. such as ones involving checking out how user-friendly a website is, or making a call to an energy provider to ask about changing providers and making notes about how the enquiry is handled.
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How do I become a mystery shopper?
Firstly, ignore any spam emails inviting you to become a mystery shopper. Legitimate companies don't send them.
Signs an email might be a scam
Do an internet search for mystery shopping companies belonging to The Mystery Shopping Providers Association – this means they will adhere to professional standards.
Examples of reputable companies include: Tern; Mystery Shoppers; GBW
Applications for mystery shopping are made online.
When filling in the application form you're asked about your home, family, the car you drive and your hobbies – whether they're golf, gardening or playing the guitar, chances are there's a mystery shop out there that would be perfect for you.
Some mystery shopping companies might set you a simple test during the application process. That could be an assessment of your grammar and spelling or a task involving studying a picture and answering questions about it. For example, a sketch of a petrol station shop with questions about whether the assistant is wearing a name badge, or how many items of soft drink there are in the fridge.
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What can I expect to get from mystery shopping?
Mystery shopping won't make you wealthy, but it can be a fun sideline offering interesting experiences and pocket money.
As a general rule the enjoyable assignments such as those involving food and drink or a trip to a venue like an ice rink don't pay as well as the more factual ones like bank visits. Typical mystery shopping reimbursements would be:
Cafe visit – the cost of coffee and cake would be covered with an additional £3-5 on top.
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Shop visit – visiting a clothing chain and buying a skirt (which you would have to pay for upfront). This might involve a payment towards the skirt in lieu of a fee if you wanted to keep it, or you could return it and receive a fee of around £10 -20 depending on the brand.
Bank visit – posing as someone planning to take out an investment. This might involve an hour's discussion with bank staff but the payment could be between £40-60 or upwards depending on the complexity of the visit and the need for a credit check.
Companies vary both in their payment rates and the speed of payment – some paying the following week whilst others might take a month or two. It can be worth signing up with a few agencies to find the one that feels the best fit for you, both in terms of the jobs offered and the payment schedule.
Mystery shoppers are classed as self-employed and it's important to register as such with HMRC. Also keep note of any expenses such as travel or phone calls which can be set against your turnover for tax purposes.
A guide to completing a self-assessment tax return online
Tips on becoming a successful mystery shopper
Good mystery shoppers are reliable, observant and discreet – if staff member realises you're working under cover then the value of the assignment is lost. They also need a good memory as it's often not possible to make notes at the time.
It's important to be well-organised and able to file reports promptly – often within hours of having completed an assignment.
In addition to a computer, equipment that can be useful for mystery shopping include a smartphone (that can take pictures), a stopwatch or timer (for recording how long is spent in a queue) and a scanner for scanning receipts.
"We find that our more mature mystery shoppers have often had professional careers and want to continue working on their own terms with work that is fun and varied," says James Harper, marketing manager at Tern. "We find they are generally very reliable and provide detailed reports that help our clients improve their services."
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