My Secret Life as a Mystery Shopper - 09/23/2020
If you are like most people, your reaction to this subject is, "What's a mystery shopper?" I had never heard of mystery shopping either, until around 2003 when I was looking for part-time work that I could do without a fixed schedule. I think I saw an advertisement for mystery shopping on Yahoo (there was no Facebook then). I was intrigued, and decided to look into it further. A job that allowed you to shop or go out to eat, then report on your experience? Sounded great to me. I signed up for probably 50 companies (it's free to register, and you don't need any special background), and got to work right away.
I liked this work from the beginning. For your assignment, you are given a scenario that you are to role-play on the merchant's premises (usually). You may have to make a purchase, which is reimbursed or you can return it, or you may have to have a meal and include appetizer, dessert, and drinks. The meal allowances are usually very generous and include two people. My first shop was a lunch at a pizza place. The hardest thing about doing a restaurant shop is keeping track of the time between the wait staff's visits to your table. You have to be very stealthy, and not let anyone see you taking notes (it's easier now that we have cell phones with notes features, so we can just look like we are making a call). It's important not to get "outed" as a mystery shopper, because if you do, the results can be invalid and you won't get paid.
Over the last 17 years, I have done hundreds of mystery shops. I've done shops at gas stations, convenience stores, and grocery stores, hotels, doctor's offices, and health clubs, clothing and home stores, apartments, banks, family attractions like mini-golf, and too many restaurants to count. The merchant wants to know what their staff is doing right and what they are doing wrong, so the accuracy and detail of your reporting is paramount. Because I have a background in market research and was also working as an actress from 2001 to 2016, I always enjoyed the shops and the aspect of role-playing that came with them. I liked acting out a scenario and stealthily taking notes. I took a lot of pride in my work, and pretty soon I was getting perfect scores on my evaluations and picking up some cushy jobs (I've always been motivated by good grades).
Although most of the mystery shops I did were within a half-hour or so from my home, there were a few that involved travel and were pretty spectacular. I had done a number of local motel and hotel evaluations for a company that was looking to expand into the US business travel market. One day I got an e-mail asking if I would be interested in doing international evaluations for them. Would I! The first of these were in Buenos Aires and Mendoza, Argentina. I had to get down to Argentina on my own dime, but the hotels and meals were reimbursed for four days in the country. It was my first trip to South America, and once I had evaluated the hotel room and facilities, I was free to sightsee as much as I wanted. It was wonderful. I got a great score on my reports, and that summer the company asked if I would be interested in doing a series of shops at a luxury hotel chain with locations throughout the western Carribbean. Again, I jumped at the chance. My husband at the time and I flew to Caracas, Venezuela, and from there went to hotels in Barquisimeto and Perlamar, VZ, Trinidad, Tobago, Curacao, and St. Lucia. The accomodations were worthy of rock stars. We even had a private plunge pool at our cottage in St. Lucia. I had to evaluate room service, all bars and restaurants, and hotel services like massage and golf at some locations. At the end of our eight day trip, I submitted an $8000 invoice; we had only spent $800 out of our own pocket. It was a fantastic vacation, and all I had to do was enjoy myself and write up the reports on my laptop every day.
These types of mystery shops don't come along very often. Most of them are mundane - for example, you go to a bank, make a specific inquiry, write up the report, and get paid 15 dollars or so. These days, many evaluations are of customer service on the phone, or food delivery to your home. I did a shop last week (I still do them occasionally) where I never even had to leave my apartment. The pay is not great, but the reimbursement for services or products can help supplement food, clothing, gas and entertainment expenses. I used mystery shopping to pay for date night almost every week from 2003-2010. My most memorable "date night" shop was to a high-end nightclub in southern California. In addition to buying drinks and observing whether anyone who appeared to be underage was being served, I also had to try to bribe the restroom attendant to help me score drugs. I had a letter from the mystery shopping company in case she called security or the police, but she apparently didn't. This was the only time I felt like the work could be dangerous, and I never did nightclubs again after that.
Mystery shopping is a really fun gig. Almost anyone can do it, and it is a legitimate side hustle. I have aged out of most of the shops now (although a lot of them have no age maxium), and since I currently have three other part-time jobs that allow me to make decent money, I don't spend much time doing these now. But I'll always be grateful for the job that paid me to take a Carribbean vacation and live the life, however briefly, of a rock star, even if I was just playing a role.