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Mystery Shopper

Mystery shoppers visit designated stores, restaurants, banks and apartments while posing as typical customers. When they leave, they fill out questionnaires that are custom-designed for each client.

What started as a service to the retail industry has spread to almost every sector that deals with the public.

Mystery shopping firms contract shoppers to go out into the field. While they won't give out the names of their clients, they include financial institutions, health-care organizations, hospitals, fitness centres, restaurants, fast-food chains, convenience stores and department stores.

What It Is

Mystery shoppers visit businesses and evaluate customer service, product quality and store presentation. The shoppers follow specific instructions during their visit and complete written reports after leaving the store.

"As a shopper, you'll serve as the eyes and ears for our clients in your community," says Mark Michelson, president of Michelson and Associates Inc., an Atlanta-based mystery shopping firm.

At Michelson and Associates, mystery shoppers range in age from 21 to 70, with the majority being women between 30 and 45. "Our shoppers can be pre-selected based on specific client criteria, such as demographics, type of car and shopping habits," explains Michelson.

"Sixty-eight percent of our representatives are women with annual household incomes of over $50,000. Seventy-two percent have attended college. Over 30 percent are professional researchers who work full time for other research companies."

The Pay

Michelson says anyone can be a mystery shopper. "As long as they're observant, can follow specific instructions, be objective, and follow through on their commitments. Pay averages $15 per assignment, and if someone were extremely aggressive, they could get up to 20 assignments per month."

"It's definitely more of a hobby job," says Tom Mills, operations manager for Howard Services, a mystery shopping firm in the Boston area.

"I know of a few people who make careers out of mystery shopping, but it's really more a supplemental income. By working for a bunch of companies, you could conceivably make about $250 per week."

While an independent contractor may not strike it rich by becoming an agent for a mystery shopping firm, there's definitely a world of opportunity out there for anyone who wants to start their own firm.

"I got into the business because I was a manager for Staples, and the mystery shopping firm they used was really bad," says Mills. "We started the business by working out of a basement. My partner was formerly a security consultant."

The Industry

Mills says the sector looks deceptively simple to break in to. "As a business owner you think to yourself, 'If I can find 100 places a month who need mystery shopping, then I'll be all set.' Unfortunately, you need about 500 to get by, and about 800 or 900 to be set."

There's more to mystery shopping than meets the eye. The industry is working to make businesses aware of the competitive advantages mystery shopping can offer.

Andy Booth of Managing the Service Business Ltd. explains: "Mystery shopping is often viewed as the poor relation of other research techniques. To the uninformed, its undercover approach seems slightly absurd. Some research companies rely too heavily on rigidly structured, purely quantitative questionnaires that are insensitive to local variation and are focused solely on policing brand standards."

As a first step in rehabilitating the technique's reputation, Booth suggests using the term "service auditing" in lieu of mystery shopping.

"It doesn't have the same negative connotations -- after all, a mystery shop need not involve the actual purchase of goods, but may, for example, check out how well informed sales assistants are about products in stock."


The consensus is that working for a firm in the industry can give you the valuable experience and credibility you'll need to start your own firm. But for the most part, being an independent mystery shopper is more of a hobby than a career.

Anyone with the goal of getting into the field should also have a long-range goal of running their own firm if they want to make a profitable career out of it.


Mystery Shopping 101
Learn how to get started and succeed as a secret shopper

Well-Kept Wallet
Advice and information about mystery-shopping companies

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OCAP believes that financial literacy and understanding the financial aid process are critical aspects of college planning and student success. OCAP staff who work with students, parents, educators and community partners in the areas of personal finance education, state and federal financial aid, and student loan management do not provide financial, investment, legal, and/or tax advice. This website and all information provided is for general educational purposes only, and is not intended to be construed as financial, investment, legal, and/or tax advice.