Secret Shopping

Depending on the type of shop or research assignment, a secret shopper (aka mystery shopper, researcher, or service evaluator) pretends to be an actual customer or potential customer of a business. In the process, the shopper gathers information and makes specific observations on behalf of the client company. After completing the shop, the shopper submits an online report and mails in receipts for reimbursement.

As a shopper, you may be asked to pretend you’re looking for an apartment, interested in joining a gym, looking for cell phone service, or buying a car, among other things. Your job may be to rent a video, bring your car in for an oil change, have a meal, have a drink at a bar, go grocery shopping, etc. My experience has been that most (but not all) shops are for small-ticket items. My three biggest reimbursements to date were for a pair of prescription glasses, for having my basement carpet cleaned, and for having my house cleaned.

Almost any type of business can benefit from using mystery shopping services. The types of shops you do can be as varied as you like, or you may decide to specialize in certain kinds based upon your own personal preferences and the pay or amount of work involved. Since you’re an independent contractor, there is no penalty for turning down assignments that don’t interest you. And if you want to bring your kids with you, you often can.

One particularly nice feature of secret shopping is that you can be assigned jobs that are out of your home area. This means that if you plan ahead, you could potentially load up on dining jobs, for example, at a vacation destination and end up getting reimbursed for many of your meals–plus earn a little cash. I took my kids on a day trip to Ocean City one random summer morning and snagged a fast-food job for each leg of the trip.

I urge you to carefully review each assignment before accepting it. My first job was at a truck stop, and one requirement was that I take a shower–or at least pretend to take one. This in addition to inspecting the coolers, shelves, indoor/outdoor signage, diesel side of store, convenience-store side of store, gas pumps, diesel pumps, attached restaurant, and more. With two preschoolers in tow, what should have been a one-hour shop took the better part of an afternoon.

Those ads claiming that you can make a career out of secret shopping are deceptive. Most of the jobs pay a nominal fee, and unless you live in (or near) a big city, there simply aren’t enough jobs to keep you busy on a regular basis.

You’re not going to make much if you restrict yourself to Frederick. However, if you’re willing to go to Baltimore or DC (and suburbs), you can often load up on a bunch of jobs and do them all in a day. Secret shopping companies get assignments in batches and then try to fill them simultaneously. One month, a particular secret shopping company might have a couple hundred parking-lot assignments; the next month, they might have a bunch at Walmart or McDonald’s.

If I were dedicated to trolling all the sites of companies that hire shoppers in our immediate area, and were willing to do any and all available shops, I could probably do ten or so a week (remember that the jobs are available to all other shoppers, so the good ones get snagged quickly). As it is, I tend to consider just the jobs that are emailed to me–and that I can tie into my schedule daily activities. I used to check the sites from time to time, and that’s how I got the higher paying jobs, but I no longer have time for that.

BTW, some of the companies call me at home when they’re desperate to get a job done. They’re often willing to negotiate on payment by the time it’s come to that.

The following companies employ shoppers in our area. I’ll be adding to this list as time goes on. For now, I’m providing contact info only for the companies that I’ve personally shopped for and had good luck with. Reader additions are welcome!

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The insider's guide to saving time and money in Frederick, Maryland