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How To Turn Your Love For Shopping Into A Lucrative Side Hustle

start mystery shopping

A fun activity for my husband and I while we’ve been paying off our student loans has been mystery shopping. It’s taken our tight budget and opened it up for dinners out, movies, and activities we otherwise wouldn’t get to experience.

We have been mystery shopping for over a year. Basically, mystery shopping companies will pay you to go into a store, act like a regular customer, then report back with feedback on what the store and its employees are doing well, and what they could improve. Even with busy schedules and multiple jobs, we still make time to shop at least twice a month. We’ve done car test drives, movie theaters, cell phone stores, quick-service restaurants, fine dining, mini golf, roller skating, and so many more. If there’s a shop for it, we’ve tried it, or at least tried to get it.

I wish, when we’d started, that I could’ve talked to an experienced mystery shopper. Each company you sign on with gives you training, but it takes a real person to tell you what to worry about and what not to worry about. That’s why I’m here! This is what I’d tell you if you came up and asked me how to be a mystery shopper.

How to Start Mystery Shopping

There are so many mystery shopping companies out there. Some of my favorites are:

You don’t have to pay a fee or join an association to work for these companies, and they do pay you — it takes six to eight weeks, but they have a track record of trustworthiness.

Know Your Schedule

Companies usually run on a month-by-month schedule. They want to get as many shops as possible out of the way early on in the month, so they release their new shops midway or near the end of the month. If you know your schedule, you can nab the shops you want as soon as they come out. The company will have certain dates you can select from, or just one determined date. They may be working around multiple shoppers, and thus have to have a certain number of days between shops. You can usually request other days than posted, but you have an advantage if book early.

Take What You Can Get

For most companies, the jobs available to you when you start are limited to the boring or long shops. Sure, there are hotel stays and luxury car test drives out there, but there are also people who have mystery shopping experience going for those gigs. Don’t be afraid to apply for the sexy ones, but be willing to take the tedious/low-paying ones to gain experience and credibility.

Read the Questionnaire

Prior to a shop, you’ll have access to the list of questions you’ll need to fill out. Read through and make note of some of the more obscure requests. Do they want to know what’s playing on the TVs? What questions the associate asked you? The volume of the music? Companies pay for mystery shopping reports because they want info they can’t get in a Yelp or TripAdvisor review, so make sure you know what they want.

Go in With Confidence

Your first shop will be nerve-racking, but have some chill. A lot of places have mystery shoppers every month, and they all execute the same tasks. Some associates will be familiar with shoppers, and some won’t. Go in with confidence; if you’re nervous, you’ll either give yourself away, or skew the results with your awkwardness.

Pay Attention

You don’t have to be on your guard the entire visit (that’d probably give you away), but you do have to set aside time to be observant. Use all your senses to evaluate the establishment to the best of your ability. Observe the exterior and interior, listen for noise and music, pick up items, think about how the food tastes, even take note of the smell. It takes five minutes, but it makes all the difference when you’re filling out your questionnaire.

Pro Tip: Use your phone sparingly. You can’t be fully present if you’re writing notes or rereading the questionnaire during your shop. Businesses can invalidate shops if they see you (via their cameras) and decide you were on your phone too much. One to two-word notes are fine, but be cautious.

Send Your Evaluation in on Time

It’s best practice to fill out your evaluation as soon as you get home from the shop. Most companies require it within 12 hours. The sooner you get it done, the more you remember, and the better you look to the company. Some companies even offer a bonus for getting it in within so many hours. On the flip-side, if you forget to do it by the deadline, you run the risk of not being able to submit it at all.

Pro Tip: Don’t be afraid of writing the narratives. Companies are looking for you to explain the questions in that section with a sentence or two each. They don’t want a novel, they just want the facts as they happened as bland as possible.


I hope you’ll give mystery shopping a try. It’s a great experience and you will do some work for it but it’s worth it if you’re on a tight budget. Have you mystery shopped before? I’d love to hear your favorites!

Jen writes about her and her husband’s journey to pay off $86,000 of debt in less than 2 years on her website, Saving with Spunk. Follow her on Twitter here!

Image via Unsplash

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