mystery shop

Mystery Shopping is one of those things that have intrigued me for years. The first time I heard the phrase was back in college from my aunt who works in marketing. She matter-of-factly threw into a conversation that companies pay people to shop. Woah—hold the phone. Wouldn’t anyone be intrigued by that? All kinds of images surrounding the phrase popped into my head in the next several years, mainly ones of super-savvy women with large-brimmed hats and hands full of shopping bags from a hard days’ work like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. While I am not particularly fond of shopping or malls, I do get the itch every so often and I thought I could certainly give it the old college try if someone was going to pay me for it.

Mystery Shopping came into my life again just this year when my friend at work suggested that I try it out. She enticed me with the phrase, “I have not paid for an oil change in the last 5 years.” My eyes widened at the thought of all the wasted money I had spent on oil changes for my cars when all along there had been someone out there who wanted to pay it for me. I quickly calculated that it would save me around $120 per year with just my car, and approximately $240 per year for both of our cars.

Still, I did not sign up right away because there was something holding me back. It wasn’t the slightly deceptive persona I would have to play if I took on a mystery shopping job, but more like a mental block against it because the websites for mystery shopping seemed so involved and questionable. It didn’t help either that the whole concept of Mystery Shopping, while intriguing, sort of screamed scam to me. But now I had a close friend who had successfully performed many of these jobs and was willing to coach me a bit. She also gave me a lead on an oil change shop, a last minute one that a representative from the company was dying to find someone for. I decided I needed to give it a try, so I filled out my information and volunteered.

The Shop

I pulled up to the oil change shop, having reread the detailed instructions twice before glancing around the outside at the appearance of the building and mentally taking note of what to include in my report. Different jobs are interested in different details—it is very important to read the guidelines and instructions for each shop—and this one in particular was concerned with the outside appearance, the clothing of the employees, and whether or not certain products were pitched/offered to me. You are given a certain range of dates to schedule your shop for, and I scheduled mine for the Friday morning when the unfortunate and devastating earthquake and tsunami hit Japan. There was a television provided for customers in the waiting area and everyone in the room was glued to it from their respective areas, including myself. As I walked up to the man behind the counter I took note that the waiting room was clean (check), and that there was a coffee area (check). The person who helped me was dressed professionally (check), but unfortunately his manager was in jeans (ding). Halfway through the oil change I casually went into the restroom, staying a few moments to pretend as if I was actually using it and instead taking note of the dingy and disgusting looking sink (ding). Fortunately it appeared to be clean, just stained from oiled hands (check). By the end of the oil change, the man had struck up a few tactful conversations with me (check) and I was mentally pleading that he offer me what he was supposed to because I wanted to give him good marks on the paperwork. He failed to do so.


For the company that I used (Intelli Shop), you have to submit your documentation and fill out the report within 24 hours from the actual job, which is a good idea since you cannot use your cell phone or write down notes during the job (you don’t want to tip anyone off that you are a mystery shopper). Since this was my first report it took me an estimated two hours because I wanted to make it perfect in order to receive a high score (the higher your score, the better the shops you will be offered). In the two months since, I received an 8 out of 10 (I was dinged because they had trouble viewing my scanned copies of receipts and I had to send them everything again through email), and I received reimbursement to my Paypal account (for this shop you are reimbursed for the oil change, but not paid on top of that).

In the last few months I have received several dud emails to mystery shop such as computer shops, a few clothing stores, and ones over the phone. I call them duds because they only offered a measly $12 for my time and efforts, and I would not get to keep what I purchase. There has been one shop in particular I tried for without success—a day at a local country club golfing and eating with all expenses paid. Still, I am quite happy at the thought of free oil changes for both of our vehicles for the next umpteen years in exchange for my super-sleuth skills and observations. In fact, I all ready completed another oil change shop for our truck, making my total reimbursements around $60.

Have you had any experiences with mystery shopping? What company do you use (if you were happy), and how did it go?

23 replies
  1. eemusings
    eemusings says:

    You definitely get faster with experience! I can’t help you with specific companies as I’m not in the US, but I suggest signing up to as many as you can and figuring out which ones offer shops that are worth your time. MS doesn’t exactly pay well (and some pay even less than others); I’ve settled into a routine and know which kinds of surveys I will accept, and they’re usually done more for the freebies than for the net profit I make.

  2. Melissa
    Melissa says:

    I have not had the opportunity to mystery shop, though I would love to start doing so. I can’t wait to read the comments and see what companies others recommend. I am nervous about signing up without having a referral because some of the sites on the internet seem shady.

  3. Amanda L Grossman
    Amanda L Grossman says:

    Very interesting experience! Thanks so much for sharing. I think many of these places are on the list because they something is wrong about them–but it sounds like yours was truly bad!

  4. Everyday Tips
    Everyday Tips says:

    This was a great post. I have often wondered about mystery shopping. I had similar concerns as you did in that it seemed a bit scammy.

    It does seem a bit labor intensive for the money. However, I might give it a try if I find I have extra time on my hands.

    I would love to be a mystery shopper daily at Panera Bread!

  5. Travis @DebtChronicles
    Travis @DebtChronicles says:

    I’ve been doing secret shopping through for about 8 months now. Most of the shops pay $15-20 (furniture stores, clothing stores, big box stores). They’ve recently been getting more restaurants in my area (Bar an Grills, pizza places, etc) that pay more along the $25-30 range for reimbursement. I’ve even seen a hotel or two advertised in a bigger metro area nearby. I usually do 3-4 shops a month and earn somewhere between $50 and $70 each month. Once I get the hang of it, I can be in and out of the store in about 15 minutes. I usually schedule them when I’ll be nearby that store anywhere so I don’t waste my time driving to/from the store. I’ll take $15 for 15 minutes of work anyway!

  6. krantcents
    krantcents says:

    Your timing is amazing! I recently started looking into mystery shopping. Many years ago, I did this for a restaurant chain. Is there some which are better than others? I found an oil change deal of $8 + the cost of the oil change up to $31.50. Is that similar to to your experience?

  7. Khaleef @ KNS Financial
    Khaleef @ KNS Financial says:

    I would love to get into this (well, more like my wife getting into it), but most of the offers look like scams. I’m glad you found one that was legit!

    I would hate the restriction on using your cell phone – especially since most people in waiting rooms use their phones anyway.


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