7 Essential Things to Know about “Secret Shopping”

This is a required photo I took of an empty snack bar at the bowling alley I “shopped” yesterday in Cranston, Rhode Island.

I have been performing secret shops for several different companies for over ten years.  I have done them at restaurants, clothing stores, gas stations, mobile phone kiosks, banks and many other places.  Whenever I tell someone that I do this kind of occasional work, usually they have a lot of questions.  Most people don’t believe that it’s a real thing, even though it has been around for many years.  I thought it would be helpful to tell the internet world everything I’ve learned from low-key surveillance work, also known as secret shopping.

  1. You won’t get rich from secret shopping.  You’ll barely make a profit.  Secret shopping websites are set up so that you visit a store, restaurant, hotel, or any number of businesses, and spend money.  After your visit, you are reimbursed for a set amount of money, and it isn’t always enough to cover what you spent. Think of it as earning a credit or a gift card when you visit these locations.  For example, yesterday I performed a secret shop at a bowling alley, and was promised a reimbursement of up to $60.00.  However, I ended up spending about $100.00 at the location because I paid for a party of six people.  Granted, I could have gone with a smaller party.  In the end I earned $60 towards the bowling adventure.  It is also important to point out that you won’t get reimbursed right away; most companies won’t pay you back for 4-6 weeks.
  2. Secret shopping is considered “independent contracting” work.  You do not fill out a tax form to do this independent work for the company.  And when I say “company”, I’m referring to the many different secret shopping companies that hire  independent contractors. You are not an employee of the company, you are considered self-employed.  You might asking, “How do I file taxes for secret shopping if I don’t fill out a W-2?”.  According to ellismystershopperjobs.com, “You should report your mystery shopping income on Schedule C or Schedule C-EZ (Form 1040) if your net earnings were more than $400.” In my experience, it is challenging to earn more than $400 a year secret shopping, especially since so many shops pay their shoppers via “reimbursement”.
  3. Anyone can apply to be a secret shopper, but we are usually hired based on our unique characteristics.  For example, anyone can request to do a shop for Victoria’s Secret, but it would probably appear out of the ordinary if the shopper was a 55-year old man and he’s required to ask questions about different types of bras.  Secret shopping companies never want their shoppers to be revealed, so they would probably prefer to send a woman to do work at Vickie’s.  One time I did a secret shop for New England Tractor Trailer School.  I invited a representative over to my house and talked to him about the training program while my then-husband was in the other room with our infant son.  Because I do not fit into the stereotypical mold of a tractor trailer driver, I think the representative guessed right away that I was a secret shopper.  However, “you never know”, so he did his best to sell me on tractor trailer school, and he did a great job.  For having this man in my kitchen and discussing the program with him I earned $35.
  4. Not all secret shopping assignments are meant to catch people “in the act”.  Most assignments are simply routine. When I was an assistant manager at American Eagle back in the early 2000’s, we had secret shops once or twice a month.  They checked us to make sure we had employees in the front of the store and back by the dressing rooms so that there was a smaller chance for “loss” (i.e. stealing).  They also checked to make sure that we were answering the phone the right way and offering every customer a credit card application as well as asking for their email addresses. Companies like American Eagle and New York and Company want to make sure that their employees are doing everything possible to make money for them and keep a steady slew of customers.  I have performed secret shops at chain restaurants such as Ruby Tuesday, and the corporate offices wanted to make sure that the servers were offering high-end drinks, appetizers and desserts to their customers.  Why not turn a $20 lunch check into a $50 one whenever possible with “suggestive selling“?  If the server is not doing this, the corporate offices see it as a missed opportunity.
  5. If you decide to perform a secret shop, you must follow the direction to a “T”. Don’t mess around with the instructions and don’t even try to lie when you fill out your report.  If you don’t follow the exact directions, you run the risk of not getting paid, which is an especially big pain in the butt if you’ve already spent your own money on a shop.  Let’s say I forgot to hold on to my receipts for my secret shop at the bowling alley.  My report would have been rejected and I would have lost $100.  This also could have happened if I came to the bowling alley at the wrong time or forgot to order a specific drink.  Make sure you read the directions carefully and more than once, because otherwise you will miss out on your reimbursement.  On a similar note, don’t sign up to perform a secret shop and then not do it (if you are ever planning on working with that company again).  They don’t look kindly on this, as shoppers usually need the shop to be performed at a certain time.  If you sign up for shops and don’t perform them, you will eventually not be hired to do shops with that company again.
  6. There is an organization that can help boost your secret shopping CV:  MSPA Americas.  On their website you can obtain advanced certification by taking online courses.  The more certifications you have, the higher-end “shops” you can choose from.  I have heard of some people who have gone on all-expense paid vacations through secret shopping, though this probably entails a lot of work and involves paying in advance.  As I’ve said before, secret shopping is not a quick and easy way to make money.
  7. Most secret shoppers work with more than one company, and there are a lot!  Different companies sometimes work with specific kinds of businesses, such as restaurants or hotels.  Other kinds of companies only work in specific parts of the country or even world.  I recently found a site that only provides secret shops in South Africa.  Recently, I have found the easiest company to work with is isecretshop.  Their app (something I didn’t have the luxury of using 10 years ago) is clear and concise.  Other companies I have worked with or can recommend are: Secret Shopper, Bestmark, Sinclair Customer Metrics, Intelli-shop, and Market Force.  You will need to create a profile to log on as a secret shopper, and answer some easy questions about yourself.  After you complete a shop and fill in all the required paperwork, you will be reimbursed either by direct deposit with Paypal, or receive a check in the mail. As I mentioned before:  don’t be in a rush for that reimbursement:  most companies don’t pay you back for 4-6 weeks.

I hope this article helps any of you that have been curious about secret shopping.  Most companies are not “scamming”, as some people might have you think, they usually only pay you back for the money you have already spent (and only a set amount).  If this is something that sounds fun or interesting to you, I encourage you to look into it.  Please let me know if you have any other questions or comments about the world of mystery shopping!


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