How to shop undercover and get paid for it

By Kayleigh Kulp, July 4, 2017

Lori Cheek has been secret shopping on and off for a decade, making up to $75 per "shop" to various stores and fitness centers while trying to bootstrap her dating app business, Cheekd.
She often gets to keep whatever she buys during the shopping test as part of her compensation. And if a company has a hard time finding mystery shoppers for a particular assignment, they may also offer a bonus.
"I've even negotiated travel costs when they seem desperate for a shopper," Cheek said.
She is one of over a million mystery shoppers who make extra money by acting as undercover independent contractors for retail and service companies that want to ensure their brand standards are met, according to mystery shopping industry association MSPA Americas. (It was formerly known as the Mystery Shopping Providers Association of North America.)
Most gigs pay $5 to $20 and take less than 15 minutes to do in the store , said Michael Mershimer, president of MSPA Americas and president and COO of HS Brands International, which hires mystery shoppers for corporate clients.
Following a visit, mystery shoppers usually fill out a report that may take an hour, or submit photos or video. As part of a $1.5 billion industry, shoppers are the eyes and ears for corporate leaders. They may record things like how long it takes to be greeted in a store, or the time it takes for appetizers to arrive in a restaurant.
"I have been fully or partially reimbursed for massages, eyeglasses, groceries, cellphones and much more." -Cathy Stucker, author, "The Mystery Shopper's Manual" 

Mystery shopping can be a fun way to earn extra cash if you consider the following tips:

Mystery shop places you like
Secret shopping can help lower the cost of living for people who have a slim budget and extra time to go to places they want to go anyway, said Mershimer.
"It is worth it? It should simply be something for some extra money. If you take on too many assignments you can end up burning out," said Mary Furrie, who hires secret shoppers for her Ohio company, Quality Assessments Mystery Shoppers. "But, if you carefully start and add what makes sense for your interest and time, it is a great way to make some extra funds."
Cheek shopped her favorite New York gym for free day passes worth $25 each.

Consider it a way to lower expenses, not get rich
Though it's possible for shoppers to make as much as $40,000 annually on a full-time basis, it's rare and requires always being on the road, Mershimer said.
Instead, aspiring shoppers should look at it as a fun side gig that might offer only reimbursement for an experience or item, said Cathy Stucker, who has been mystery shopping for 20 years and is author of "The Mystery Shopper's Manual."
"Not only have we gotten to eat for free, … I have been fully or partially reimbursed for massages, eyeglasses, groceries, cellphones and much more," she said.
Mystery shopping allowed Indianapolis-based Cherie Lowe, author of "Slaying the Debt Dragon," to go on dates with her husband while paying down $127,000 in debt.
"We typically visited chain restaurants, and those meals were completely covered, plus a little cash. It was a great way for us to supplement a very slim budget for dining out," she said.
Just don't expect to be paid to visit your favorite establishments too frequently.
"Most of the shops have restrictions on how often you can call or dine, … so you may have to wait up to six months before you can return to do a shop you like," said St. Petersburg, Florida-based Jen Smith, who shopped for extra cash while she paid down $53,000 in student loans.

Never pay to mystery shop
About 95 percent of mystery shopping is done through companies hired by brands to administer the work, rather than the brands themselves, Mershimer said.
Aspiring mystery shoppers should beware of scams. Legitimate mystery shopping companies do not charge to sign up and do not require signing up for trials and offers, Stucker said.
There are some "aggregator" companies that will pool the openings to one place to make it easier, and they do charge a fee, but if you are willing to register directly with a few, there is no charge, Furrie said.  About 150 reputable employers can be found on the Mystery Shopping Providers Association website.

Realize you're an independent contractor
Mystery shopping is not a permanent gig, and there is a certain set of considerations that shoppers should bear in mind. 
"Before you sign up you need to realize that you are an independent contractor. You will have to pay taxes on the money," said Paul Moyer, who has gotten free oil changes and groceries. "Also, many of the agencies will make you take some short courses to qualify for certain shops."
That also means you'll have to perform well to keep getting hired.
A good shopper must be able to focus on details, have a good memory and write well, Mershimer said. Credibility is also important: If you're caught not being in the place you said you'd be, and if information you provided is wrong, you won't work for the company again.
"To be really successful you have to be very reliable and be able to key in great comments/facts without a lot of opinions or advice," Furrie said.
Because the surveys and reporting are done via web, you must also be at least a little tech savvy.
Candidates "usually have to shop for several months to show they will show up on time and move up the ranks from there," Mershimer said. "They get a kick out of it but take it seriously."

How To Select A Mystery Shopping Company

A mystery shopping company recently ceased operations, with very little notice to clients, employees or shoppers.  We were contacted by one of their clients in a panic, asking if we could take over their program “immediately”, because they had tied program results to their people’s monthly evaluations and bonuses, and they didn’t know what they’d do without it.  What a stressful, unnecessary thing for a client to have to go through.  Without knowing specifically what originally led the client to select this company, it reminded us that we are often asked the important question of “How do we know you’re a viable company?” when being interviewed for potential selection by clients.  This is the first in a series of posts that we hope can help potential clients select the right partner for them, based on our years of experience of being on the other side of the process.

After 16 years in business, we’ve seen many different ways that potential clients decide how to select a mystery shopping company.  Unfortunately, the most common seems to be that they get several proposals and then simply pick the one with the cheapest price.  The other end of the spectrum are clients who invest their time and resources to seek a company with whom they can truly develop a long-term relationship.  These clients employ a very in-depth, purposeful process that can include multiple phone conversations, a team of people from the client being involved, highly detailed and specific questions, actual reference-checking, and one or more onsite visits by the client team to the mystery shopping company’s offices. 

In the case of the company that recently went out of business, performing some simple research on their financial situation may have prevented the traumatic after-effects of having to find a new company so quickly.  Consider doing the following to help you determine a company’s financial health:

•    Don’t pick a company based on the cheapest price.  You really do get what you pay for.  Would you select your heart/brain surgeon on the lowest price?  Of course we don’t perform life-or-death surgery, but our clients rely on us and our work to determine (if not entirely, at least partially) their managers’ and associates’ performance reviews, incentive plans, bonuses, and so on, so it’s pretty important stuff.  Consider the selection of a mystery shopping partner in the same vein as your other professional services partners: your accountants, law firm, advertising agency, social media partner, web programmers, and so on; again, these aren’t life-and-death, but you didn’t select them for their cheap prices.   In our business, you simply can’t do great work at the cheapest price, and it will eventually catch up with you.  
•    The Mystery Shopping Providers Association,, is the U.S.-based, international trade association for our industry.  Search MSPA’s website to see if the company is a member; if not, that could be a red flag.  If they are a member, call the association and ask whether they are in good standing, if there have been complaints from clients or mystery shoppers, etc.
•    Do they have a line of credit with a bank that can be utilized if they need it?  If so, how much is it, and when does it either renew or expire?  If they don’t even have one, or a legitimate alternative capital stream, it could indicate they are either very small in size, which is risky if you’re a larger organization, and/or have financial issues that preclude them from qualifying for one.
•    Ask the company to provide you with the past 3 years’ financial statements.  If they won’t provide it, it could be a red flag.  
•    Once you receive their financial information, if you’re not well-versed in how to read through it and what to look for, ask someone who is to help.
•    Ask for a list of client references, and in addition to asking them about the service capabilities of the company, ask them about financial issues.  Do they get hounded the first day after an invoice isn’t paid on time (indicating potential cash shortages and overall weakness)?  Do they receive calls directly from mystery shoppers claiming they haven’t been paid by the company?  Do they have any other indications they can share of whether they are financially sound or weak?
•    Require letters of reference from their accountant (if they even have one), their bank, and their landlord (again, if they have one).  Read them carefully to see if they are fully supportive and express confidence in their viability, or are they hedging and wishy-washy in describing their position and relationships?
•    Check their BBB rating.  Not all viable companies are rated only A or A+.  It’s common for shoppers to complain when they haven’t been paid, but usually because they simply didn’t do the required work; no complaints could indicate a very small company that may be financially risky.  If they do have complaints, dig deeper into that area to see what they are.  If a company just ignores the complaints, or has a rash of recent complaints with no explanation, those could indicators that something is financially amiss.
•    Go visit them.  Do they even have an actual office? You’d be surprised how many don’t, and how many try to pass off a shared business-suites address and photo of that building as “theirs”.  When you get there, what is the impression it gives?  Is this a well-funded, professional organization? 

Checking out a company’s financial viability doesn’t take much time, and shouldn’t slow down your selection process.  However, it will save you considerable time and headache if you make the wrong choice and have to scramble to find a new one in a great rush.  

We will provide more tips on selecting a mystery shopping partner in the near future.  In the meantime, if we can answer any questions, please call Ron Welty, our Founder & Chief Client Officer, at 419-872-5103. outlines scam against IntelliShop and Consumers


Don't Fall for This LinkedIn Mystery Shopper Job Scam

Avoid getting conned on the networking site. Plus: Learn how to earn extra cash as a legitimate mystery shopper.

By Cameron Huddleston, March 18, 2015

Mystery shopping is a great way to earn extra cash. And a message with an offer to work as a mystery shopper sent via the professional networking site LinkedIn might seem like a legitimate opportunity. But, unfortunately, it’s the latest approach scammers are using to target victims.

Scammers have long used e-mail and traditional mail to promote bogus mystery shopping jobs, says Rich Bradley, president of MSPA North America, the trade association that represents mystery shopping business owners. But now in a new twist scam artists posing as IntelliShop, a legitimate MSPA North America member, are sending bogus mystery shopping offers to LinkedIn members.

“This is a relatively new approach,” Bradley says, but the con is the same. The LinkedIn scam, as well as virtually all mystery shopping scams, takes one of two basic forms. In the first and simplest, potential victims are asked to pay upfront to become mystery shoppers. The scammer keeps the cash but no job materializes. In the second and more complicated, victims are asked to cash a large check, then use part of the money to shop at certain stores, keep a portion of the cash and wire the remainder back to the bogus mystery shopping agency. But in the end, the check bounces and the victim is responsible for covering the amount of the fraudulent check. The scammer, of course, pockets the portion that was wired back and disappears.

Bradley says that MSPA North America’s bylaws prohibit its members from asking mystery shoppers to pay upfront for an assignment. And no legitimate firm would send a check prior to the completion of a mystery shopping evaluation—or even an unsolicited message to recruit mystery shoppers, he says.

MSPA North America urges consumers who have received unsolicited LinkedIn messages about mystery shopping to report them to LinkedIn. Never respond to unsolicited messages asking you to be a mystery shopper or click on any links within the e-mail, which could lead you to a fraudulent Web site or download malware onto your computer.

To find legitimate mystery shopping opportunities, you can search for an assignment with an MSPA North America member. Most industries including retailers, restaurants, physician practices, financial institutions and even government agencies use mystery shoppers to evaluate their customer service. Assignments can range from visiting an establishment and filling out a short questionnaire to in-depth evaluations that can pay several hundred dollars, Bradley says. It’s advantageous to sign up with several firms to increase your chances of getting assignments, he says.

MSPA Issues Release About Attempted Scam Against IntelliShop and Consumers


Andrea Parr
Director of Public Relations and Digital Media
(502) 574-9934

Scam Alert 

Louisville, KY (March 11, 2015) - The MSPA-NA (formerly known as the Mystery Shopping Providers Association of North America), the trade association representing the customer experience metrics industry, is warning consumers of a new scam that is circulating on the popular professional networking site, LinkedIn. 

The scam that is appearing on LinkedIn purports to come from IntelliShop, an MSPA-NA member. IntelliShop has posted a warning on its website advising the public that it does not recruit from LinkedIn.  MSPA-NA has been in touch with LinkedIn support and advises anyone who finds that their account has been compromised and is being used to send LinkedIn messages to others - to notify LinkedIn support immediately. Consumers who have received unsolicited LinkedIn messages concerning mystery shopping opportunities can report the suspicious messages to LinkedIn. 

MSPA-NA members do not send out unsolicited messages regarding mystery shopping opportunities. Visit the MSPA-NA website for more information regarding legitimate mystery shopping opportunities as well as common scams and how to avoid them.

Common warning signs for mystery shopping scams include:

  • Unsolicited emails or messages on social networking sites (i.e. "You  have been selected!")
  • Requests to deposit checks to your bank account and to review Western Union or another money wire service
  • Messages with poor grammar
  • Unusually high payment

"Legitimate mystery shopping firms will not send out checks prior to the completion of an evaluation - and they will not reach out to you unless you have signed up as a mystery shopper with their agency." says MSPA-NA President Rich Bradley. "Remember, if the offer sounds too good to be true, it probably is!"


MSPA-NA connects and supports the businesses that influence the customer experience through managing, quantifying, interpreting, enhancing and re-defining the customer experience. Widely recognized as the leader in customer service experience measurement, management, and training, MSPA-NA is made up of member companies that provide these services to a variety of industries. The association strengthens the customer experience industry by uniting the efforts and actions of its members and supporting the businesses they serve.

How Strategic Upselling Can Increase Your Bottom Line

How Strategic Upselling Can Increase Your Bottom Line

Upselling in restaurants can be a touchy topic, teasing operators with increased sales and profits, but presenting potential perils to the customer experience. No one likes to be given the hard-sell when they're just out to enjoy a good meal, and it won’t be effective if the service team doesn’t approach it correctly.  When done correctly, upselling can be a welcome way for servers to engage with guests and meet their needs – while still increasing the bottom line.  

Approach upselling with your guest's experience and ultimate satisfaction in mind first, and you'll use the technique successfully to further educate your guests on your restaurant, it’s menu, to take them on a tour of new and interesting items, and ultimately enhance their experience as your guest. If your mission is simply to squeeze as much money out of them as possible, your servers' attempts at upselling will most likely come across as insincere and pushy and you’ll end up wondering why it didn’t work.

Here’s what works: an educated, enthusiastic service team, a team that asks questions and listens to guests, and can then be ready to suggest something they will enjoy and maybe even be pleasantly surprised with.  And here’s a secret: it’s ok not to suggest anything as well.  If your mission is to provide the best experience for your guests, and they indicate to the server they do not want anything additional, forcing a suggestion will detract from the experience, and also at the critical end-of-visit time with you, possibly causing that to be among the bigger things they recall about their experience.  

Here’s what doesn’t work: canned and tired phrases servers are forced to recite; quotas imposed upon servers; lack of committed training and education of servers; asking only if they “saved room for dessert”; insincerity, etc.  Your service team should view themselves, and be empowered as, Experience Guides or Dining Consultants for your guests, genuinely interested in (and properly motivated to) assuring they thoroughly enjoy their experience with you. 


Guide guests through the menu

One of the biggest mistakes a server can make is to play the role of order-taker rather than consultant or experience guide.  A good server should be trained and able to ask and answer questions about each guests likes and desires, explain the menu, and then offer suggestions tailored to each guest's preferences.  If a server answers "Oh, everything here is great!" when a guest asks for recommendations, they have not only lost a chance to make a sale – they have undermined the guest's trust in their knowledge of the menu.  An alternative: when a guest asks “what would you recommend”, ask “what type of (items) do you usually like?”, then listen and make appropriate suggestions. 


Implementing an upselling program

Once your staff is trained and thorough educated on the menu, how can you make sure they guide your guests appropriately to identify potential for upselling?  Some use  contests to reward the most successful (be careful how you define ‘success’ with such programs!).  We counsel clients to consider it another process and a piece of the puzzle: the results should follow successful training, education, and then actions by servers. 

But sales numbers only tell one side of the story, and there can sometimes be a disconnect between the expectations you set, and the actual experience of your guests. An upselling program should never put a sale above the guests’ needs – servers should be able to read their tables, and back off when it's clear the guest isn't interested in being sold to.

To gauge how the customer experiences your servers' attempts to upsell, mystery shopping services can be effectively utilized. The mystery shoppers will be educated on your specific program, what servers should and should not do, and then they will visit your restaurants, go through the experience, and report back, in high detail, about what was done and said.  Hidden video can even be used, and then developed into a “best practices” program to help continuously educate your staff on maximizing opportunities while also enhancing the guest’s experience.