What Is a Mystery Shopper and How Do I Become One?

May 24, 2023 in Mystery Shopping

What Is a Mystery Shopper and How Do I Become One?

Illustrated hand hold people doing research

Mystery shopping can be a popular opportunity for people looking for a second job with a highly flexible work schedule. 

No matter where you live, be it a small town or a large city, there will likely be opportunities available in your area to visit businesses and assess certain performance attributes, including the quality of the intended customer experience.

For those who enjoy shopping, this sounds like the perfect job, to be employed to undertake something you would otherwise pay to do. In some larger cities, there may even be sufficient opportunities to make it a full time job. However, there is more to mystery shopping than simply visiting your favorite businesses, buying their products and being paid for it.

In this blog, we explain the ins and outs of working as a mystery shopper – what the role entails, how much they can earn, how to become one, and what it takes to be a great mystery shopper.

Single Woman in a Whole Food Store

What Is a Mystery Shopper?

A mystery shopper, also known as a secret shopper, is an individual who is hired to evaluate the overall customer experience given by a company. Shoppers will be tasked to behave as regular customers and have specific instructions on what to look for during their visit to a business. They may also have particular actions to perform while there, such as asking for an item, or requesting advice on what to buy.

Typically mystery shoppers will be employed by Mystery Shopping Agencies/Customer Experience Agencies/Market Research Organisations. The agency will, in turn, have been hired to measure various aspects of a business’s customer-facing operations. This may be at the request of the business itself, as part of independent research commissioned by one of its competitors or by a governing body. It could even be the Better Business Bureau!

Secret shoppers can be used by a wide range of industries, including retail, hospitality, and healthcare. Their interactions may involve visiting stores, restaurants, or hotels in-person, making a phone call, engaging with a company online or all of the above.

Single woman looking at a top in a clothing store

After their interaction or visit, shoppers will provide evidence-based feedback on their experience, often using a standardized evaluation form. The data will paint a picture of the current customer experience provided by the business and how it aligns with the intended customer experience.

The company can then use this measurement feedback to identify areas where they can improve operations, train or support employees, and enhance customer service. Their ultimate goal is to drive Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that elevate employee engagement, improve conversion, and enhance customer satisfaction and loyalty, in order to increase revenue and grow their business.

The value in this feedback is that – unlike the information on a balance sheet – it is a leading indicator of the business’ health and performance, focused on the two most important assets of any business: its employees and its customers. This feedback is impartial, impersonal, fact-based data gleaned from the perspective of a customer. The decision-makers in most companies will be highly isolated from the experiences of both front-line employees and customers. Understanding how things stand allows these decision-makers to enact strategic changes with a greater insight into how they will affect both customers and staff.

What Tasks Might a Mystery Shopper Have to Perform?

An in-person mystery shop will involve the shopper physically visiting a brick-and-mortar store or place of business. Once there, the shopper may be tasked to purchase an item, ask for assistance or advice from the staff, or take a picture of any area that is dirty.

Online mystery shops involve visiting an aspect of a business that is available on the internet. This can be the business’ own website or digital storefront, or it may be their social media channels. Examples of tasks to perform may be purchasing a specific item from the website, interacting with the chatbot, or sending a direct message to a social media account about a product. Their feedback will be used to gauge the usability of a website, the customer service of online representatives, and the helpfulness of the AI chatbot.

Telephone mystery shopping is intended to evaluate the customer experience provided by a business’ various telephone operatives. This may be a helpline, complaints line, or similar. A shopper’s task could be ringing up the complaints line with a particular grievance, asking for help with an item, or requesting advice, in order to assess aspects like operator knowledge and phone manner, as well as call wait time.

In addition to these, shoppers can be tasked to pose as candidates for a job opening, in order to evaluate the interview process and ensure the company’s values are being represented well by interviewers.

In summary, Mystery Shoppers are deployed as “Undercover CEOs”, armed with the knowledge of what the “designed experience” is, to discover if it aligns with the reality of the experience.

Person sat on their laptop holding a credit card, buying online

How Much Can a Mystery Shopper Earn?

The amount you will receive as payment per mystery shopping assignment will vary depending on the client and the task you are given. A more complex assignment, or one which demands more of your time to complete, will bring higher financial compensation than a more simple one.

The complexity of tasks you are assigned will, in turn, be dictated by the level of certification you have attained. Without certification, the opportunities available to you will be limited, and the pay for those assignments will be lower.

As a ballpark figure, a base level secret shopper just starting out may expect to be paid $20 per assignment, while a fully qualified and certified agent could earn as much as $250. Additionally, some clients will provide you with extra money to purchase products or services as part of a mystery shopping job, and allow you to keep products after it’s completed. The value of the freebie will, of course, affect the payment you receive.

Piggy bank on yellow background

How Can I Become a Mystery Shopper?

In most cases, becoming a mystery shopper will be as simple as registering with an agency or mystery shopper company via their website. You will be required to fill in a registration form and an agreement stipulating the terms of your contract. Legitimate companies can be found through the Mystery Shopping Providers Association (MSPA) site.

When applying to Service Evaluation Concepts, you will first become a “Research Participant”. This is the base level of agent at SEC, and only requires the bare minimum of demographic details about you. Signing up will require you to complete a registration form and an Independent Contractor Agreement, whereupon you will be added to our database.

As an independent Research Participant, you will only be used to perform mystery shops in the instance that a Project Liaison contacts you directly. You will not be able to access job listings and select your own assignments yet, as you are not yet certified.

In order to be certified, you will need to have completed all the tasks necessary to become a Research Participant. In addition, you will need to provide comprehensive demographic information, your unique identifying credentials (so you can be paid) then read the Brand Agent Certification Program and be tested on it. This test validates your understanding of Service Evaluation Concepts’ market research methodologies, our procedures and our policies.

Once you have passed this test, you will be a Service Evaluation Concepts Brand Agent, and will be automatically registered in our database. This means you can view all available assignments in your area. As a Brand Agent, and having provided more in-depth demographic information, you will be called upon for much more specific assignments than a Research Participant would. For example, if you are a man in his 20s, you may be contacted to visit a clothing store that caters to your demographic, such as Supreme, or Under Armour, while a woman in her 70s likely would not. These opportunities are not available to uncertified Research Participants, as all the information they are required to provide is their name and gender.

In addition, as a Brand Agent, you are now able to become a “Client specific” Certified Brand Agent (CBA), the top tier of Service Evaluation Concepts agent, and the highest standard in the mystery shopping industry. A Certified Brand Agent is a Brand Agent who has been tested and certified to verify that they have a thorough understanding of the specific nuances of a given brand and their governing brand guidelines. Only CBAs are able to assign themselves to particular engagements.

Becoming a CBA requires reading client engagement guidelines and passing an exam to certify you are qualified to take part in that particular assessment. If you fail the exam on the first attempt, you will be able to retake it two more times. Once you have passed, you will be a Certified Brand Agent for that particular assignment until the specifications of the engagement change. When completing your first certification, you will only be able to assign yourself one secret shopping job. After you complete this first task you will be able to assign yourself additional jobs.

Woman paying at checkout in a clothing store

What Makes a Good Mystery Shopper?

Becoming a mystery shopper doesn’t require any formal qualifications, but there are certain skills that will make a person successful in this role.

A good shopper should be able to make multiple visits to a location without the staff realizing that they aren’t a regular customer. In order to ensure that they aren’t identified, a shopper should make an effort to blend in as a member of that store’s clientele, and not behave in a way that might rouse suspicion.

Things that may tip off a store employee include:

  • Taking notes in a place that is visible to staff
  • Staring at nametags
  • Asking questions that would reveal the individual as a mystery shopper
  • A shopper should also be able to think on the spot and improvise in order to maintain their cover.

In instances where a shopper is identified by the staff at a location, the client will not let the shopper take another assignment at that location, and may refuse to accept their report. In this case, if a report is not accepted, the shopper will not be paid.

Mystery shoppers should also be reliable, ethical and trustworthy. They should follow through on the shops they have committed to, visit at the right date and time, follow the objectives they were given, and submit their report in a timely manner.

All reports should be unbiased, and contain accurate representations of what occurred during the secret shopper’s visit. Some companies will cross-check the details of a report with video surveillance, to ensure that it is accurate.


Final Thoughts

The central aim of mystery shopping is to gauge elements of the customer experience that a business currently provides, so that they can be improved. The benefit to a company hiring a market research agency is that, in bettering customer experience, they can improve sales and grow their business. 

These improvements also have a positive impact for the consumer. In helping businesses grow by improving their customer service, you are making consumer-focused practices a competitive advantage. To remain competitive, rival businesses within the industry will have to improve their customer service too.

At Service Evaluation Concepts, we have assisted businesses in growing their revenue through consumer-focused practices for over 35 years. In that time we have built up a global network of brand agents more than 600,000 strong. We have worked with businesses from Fortune 500 firms to mom and pop shops, and in industries ranging from banking and healthcare to retail and food services.

If you are interested in becoming a Mystery Shopper, and being paid to help improve the customer experience your local businesses provide, simply click this link to begin your journey.

By browsing this website, you agree to our privacy policy.
I Agree