A Real-Life Story of Mystery Shopping Success (And How to Get It)

This is the story of how Barbara P. became a successful mystery shopper, starting from scratch. She shares how she got started, what her favorite shops are, what her bread and butter shops are, and how mystery shopping has become an irreplaceable part of her life. Here’s Barbara, in her own words:

In May 2009, my husband had been out of work for a few months and I was getting desperate looking for some extra income as the bills piled up. No one was hiring so I began to look online. I didn’t really know what I was really looking for…just something that I could possibly do from home, something flexible and with no start-up fees. I just knew that if you had to pay to find work, then it’s fairly obvious that it’s a scam.

In my searches, I came across a website called “Shadowshopper.” They had a free membership as well as a paid subscription. I decided that since they didn’t ask for too much personal information, I’d take my chances and fill out their application for the free membership. The free membership only posted job descriptions and locations but didn’t give complete details on any of the companies or how to go about applying. Then I got a call from a woman out in Utah that was looking for a shopper for a local cinema. She had found my name on the “Shadowshopper” website! I told her that I had never shopped before and she said that was okay as it was the end of the month, her regular shopper vanished, and she was desperate as she might lose this client if she didn’t come through. She faxed me the forms and the next thing I knew, I was watching a movie of my choice for free.

With one shop under my belt, I felt a bit more confident. I found a newsletter online that listed secret shopping companies – even a way to sign up with 36 of them in one shot because these 36 all used the same software. Now I was on my way and working anywhere between 5 and 35 shops a month. I realized quickly that I had a talent for this kind of job. I have a great memory for detail and I can write in clear and concise sentences while remaining totally objective. I became so good at it that schedulers were calling me all of the time to fill in last minute positions.

I find that the bread and butter of mystery shopping is the quick easy shops where you can be in and out in a matter of minutes with an easy check-off and limited narrative-type form to be filled out on line. These are mostly convenience stores, gas stations, etc. They don’t usually pay a lot but they reimburse completely and have a shop fee to boot. They’re easy to schedule and I can usually shop a bunch in the same area making it really worthwhile.

Retail assignments are fun too as long as the store you visit has something that you actually want to purchase because they usually only reimburse $2-$5 and the items in the store are naturally more expensive. There are retail shops where you can do a purchase and return but usually the purchase has to be a certain sum and you have to use a credit card. Since you’re not really keeping anything, you don’t get reimbursed for anything and it’s strictly a shop fee. I personally don’t like to have to return things so I tend to avoid these shops.

Banking seems to be a very popular shop as I constantly get emails begging for shoppers. Of course, you either have to be a great actress as they give you a scenario to follow, or you have to be a member of that bank and make observations during your normal visits. These shops usually pay fairly so I try to schedule one or two per month.

My absolute favorite type of shop is a restaurant, and I’m not talking fast-food. What can be better than eating out for free? An added incentive is the possibility of trying new places. The forms require a lot of detail and timings are mandatory but since restrooms need to be visited as part of the shop, it’s a great place to make a few notes.

The funny thing about mystery shopping is that it’s such a big secret. Sometimes when applying for local shops I’m surprised that someone else grabbed them first. I don’t know anyone else that shops yet they’re out there and probably live right next door. The only person outside of my family that knows I shop is my hairdresser. However, when I was discussing with her one of my shops which happened to be taking my dog to the vet (she was due for shots anyway), another customer in the salon perked up her ears and started asking all sorts of questions. I was reluctant to give away any of my secrets, especially knowing that so many companies offer referral fees.

I don’t think I’ve made much money while mystery shopping and sometimes I feel I should just continue my search for a stable part-time job but I have so much fun that I don’t think I could ever give it up completely. I find shopping to be such a part of my every day routine that even when I’m not on assignment, I find myself looking for name tags and looking at my watch a lot. Every job is a new challenge, even if you’ve shopped the same location dozens of times in the past. It’s something that I can fit into any schedule of mine for the rest of my life.

Are you a successful mystery shopper? Share your experience below.