Some side hustles really seem to rake in the dough, even to the point where people turn them into their full time jobs. Mystery shopping is not one of these side hustles (although Kyle at The Pennyhoarder did do it full time for a while with ridiculous results – but his entire website is pretty much him pulling off insane hustles with ridiculous results), for the average Joe or Jane, mystery shopping is akin to what my grandma calls “pin money.”
Honestly, my first experience with Mystery Shopping came when my mom pulled an article out of one of her women’s weekly digests she picks up in the checkout lane at the supermarket and told me to try it (this is a very common thing – I have stacks of these articles she pulls out, usually full of really weird stuff, and tells me I have to try). And I ignored her. Years later, up to my eyeballs in debt from grad school, I came across the idea again, Googled it and couldn’t figure out where to sign up to actually become a Mystery Shopper. I just kept finding these courses you could pay to take to become a Certified Mystery Shopper (whatever that was) and I was not in the mood to spend money to make money (which is sometimes a legit thing – it just didn’t feel like it was in this case). And I was right, because you should be able to become a Mystery Shopper without doling out a dime of your own money (that you won’t be reimbursed for).
Assuming you’re looking to become a Mystery Shopper, the three companies I’d suggest you look into are: Sinclair Customer Metrics, TrendSource and (if you like movies) MarketForce. Sinclair Customer Metrics has been the main one I use though. You may want to set up an email account just for these emails, because you’ll get quite a few. Things you’ll be asked to do are go into stores and just see how clean they are, make sure that the cashiers are using some specific phrase, that free samples are displayed, how long it takes the cashier to ring you up, if a salesperson approached you to offer help, if the items on sale are in stock, etc. It’s really not that hard.
My first ever Mystery Shop was at an Auntie Anne’s and I was a nervous wreck. I was so paranoid I would forget the cashier’s name before I could get away and write it down or I would forget to look for something, but honestly, it was pretty easy. I wrote a guest post over at Dear Debt recently about how a mystery shop at West Elm almost led me to buy the couch I was supposed to be pretending to buy and so far that’s been the most complicated mystery shop I had to do. The pretending makes me a little anxious, but I just come up with a story super close to a real one in my life and just run with it. I also often blame my boyfriend for why I can’t buy things right then (because you’re often testing salespeople on whether or not they push to close a sale) and tell them I’ll bring him back later in the week to check out my favorites. He doesn’t know half the furniture stores in NY think he’s a crazy control freak ;o).
Now for the cons, the process to qualify to shop a store is a little long. I’d say I spent about 45 minutes reviewing information and then passing a test (you have to get 100%) to qualify for each store I shop. And the tests are definitely tedious – what makes them tolerable is that I have a job where I often have weird amounts of downtime, so when I’ve got an hour to kill, why not spend it taking those stupid quizzes? If I had to do it entirely on my own time, I probably wouldn’t. There is a small stress factor about making sure you get all the questions right and record the information you need to report back, but smart phones are a world of help. I keep my checklists on my iPhone and just update them as I’m going through the store and it just looks like I’m texting people. The pay isn’t great – it’s usually between $5 and $7, although if you’re required to buy something, they also reimburse up to a certain amount. One thing I really don’t like is that the higher end stores pay more – usually $15-$20, but you have to buy something as part of the shop and they’ll usually only reimburse $5-$7. I had to shop Pottery Barn recently and buy something to spruce up a dinner party, there was no way that I could get anything on their approved list for less than $20, so essentially I wound up spending about $4 to do that shop (although I have plans to return the item eventually, I just have to wait until after I get paid, since you’re really not supposed to do that – in this case though, I think it was super shady on their part to create a situation like that). Another con is that occasionally they’ll desperately need someone to do a shop and they’ll call you. I know it’s a little thing, but for me, I really hate when they call. I like the freedom of perusing the website and deciding without any pressure what I will and won’t do.
On the plus side, once you take the obnoxious test, you’re qualified to always shop that store. So I took the 45 minute Auntie Anne’s test once and have now shopped 3 Auntie Anne’s. Since I’ve taken Pottery Barn, Moe’s, Williams-Sonoma and West Elm, I’m qualified to shop any of those stores that show up too. Personally, I really prefer the food shops, since it also saves me on getting a meal (I may also have an unhealthy love of carbs and Auntie Anne’s, so that’s a match made in heaven). I also find they are the easiest shops to do. Another perk is that sometimes when no one signs up to do a shop, the price gets bumped up. Just the other day I stayed on the subway an extra 10 minutes and went over to a local university to do a shop at Auntie Anne’s and came away with a free dinner, $20 richer and 3 sheets of coupons from the really nice cashier who thought I was just a stupid college kid who forgot her meal card (yeah for passing for a stupid college kid – ego boost!).
MarketForce is a company I just signed up with and haven’t actually done a shop for them yet, but their focus is on local theaters. The shops there include different things from going and hanging up some promotional banners, to counting the number of patrons at a particular viewing to sitting in the lobby all day and counting everyone that comes through (I’m gonna always pass on that last one). In exchange you pick up a little pin money and get to see a movie for free. I only signed up a few weeks ago and it was only showing shops for I, Frankenstein, which I had no desire to see. If it had been The Hobbit, I would’ve been there in a flash. Sigh. Beggars can’t be choosers.
Overall, for me, if the shop is on my way somewhere, or has a good bonus and isn’t too far out of the way, I’m always happy to do it – especially if I’ve already taken the qualifying test. Am I going to get rich this way? No. Am I going to put a dent in the cost of the futon/couch I want? Yes. So I’m probably going to keep at it. Especially because I love free pretzels.
Looking for more ways to make your money grow? Check out my giveaway this month – a copy of Robert G. Allen’s Multiple Streams of Income: How to Generate a Lifetime of Unlimited Wealth! A seriously terrific book about how to make the money you do have grow into a dang good nest egg. Giveaway closes on 2/28.