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A mystery shopper is a person who is paid to shop. Sounds fun and easy right? It’s not. Firms pay for mystery shoppers for three basic reasons. First of all, to monitor compliance with company procedures. Second, firms wish to remind employees that they may be mystery shopped (which makes them more attentive to policy), and finally because employers often suspect employees of theft. The nature of the shop and the types of instructions the shopper receives often reveals the reason for the shop. At the end of the shop, the shopper is expected to write a report detailing their observations and present receipts. After the report is presented the shopper will get paid, presuming that they have satisfied the requirements of the shop.

All shops are voluntary. A firm will hire a company (generally the lowest bidder) who will then make known what shops are available to their stock of shoppers. A shop always comes with conditions. These conditions may specify that the shop take place at a specific location (possibly in a different city), the time and day of shopping (after eight, weekdays only) and then the conditions of the shop.

For a bar shop you may be instructed to sit at a certain location (the bar) to order a certain number of drinks, observe whether bartenders are using jiggers or free pouring and if so to count how long they pour and observe if they are using spouts. You may be required to pay cash or use a credit card. You may be required to order food, and they may specify the items or price ranges ordered. You may be expected to observe a certain number of transactions from start to finish, which drawer each bartender is using, and your report will have to clearly identify each employee you encounter.

The requirements can get quite detailed, and real concentration can be required to remember all that the shopper has to document. One shopper I know keeps a small tape recorder under her blouse and keeps a running commentary going during each shop. She takes friends along, so shopping allows her to take her friends out for free. Sometimes the friends are in the know, and keep their own observations. For example, that allows her to review both the men's and women's restrooms.

Second, a mystery shopper shops initially out of his or her own pocket. If the proper receipts aren’t kept and the conditions met, the company can refuse to reimburse expenses. One hotel shop led a friend of mine to lay out a thousand dollars of his own money for accommodations and room service. Such a high investment made the shop very stressful as a major misstep might have led to deferred or refused reimbursement.

Payment tends to be low, between $10 and $50 per shop plus specified expenses. Some pay nothing at all, others don't offer adequate expenses to really cover the shop. A mystery shopper can’t make a living shopping, but they can give themselves a nice income supplement in that they get to entertain for free. This is one reason for the vast preponderance of women shoppers. But there is a certain incentive to pay decently. Shops that are difficult, or unappealing and don’t pay well get left on the board. But five bucks to fill out a checklist for Wendy’s is okay when you’re combining shopping with lunch. Mystery shoppers are rarely employed by local firms as owners who work themselves usually know what's going on.

Because of the schedule requirements and the need for clear detailed reports and excellent recordkeeping, initial turnover among shoppers is fairly high. Few continue past the first year. But if you have the right mindset it is a reasonable way to pick up a few bucks and entertain for free.

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