Hello again! This week I decided to write about my experience with mystery or secret shopping while on my journey to financial independence. I was inspired to try mystery shopping because there are a few personal finance enthusiasts I follow on Instagram who often post about their mystery shops at grocery stores where they will have all or nearly all of their purchase reimbursed for spending a little extra time taking pictures of the store and submitting a report about their experience.
As I’ve mentioned before, I live in a pretty small town (~13,000 population) so our opportunities in many aspects are limited, including shopping and restaurants. There is not much for chain stores around here, which in turn also limits my opportunities for mystery shopping. My main interest area was grocery shopping since I spend much more in that category every month as opposed to fuel purchases or going out to eat. Unfortunately, I have yet to come across any mystery shopping companies that offer grocery shops in my area. The only chain grocery store we have is Walmart, and as far as I know, they don’t utilize mystery shoppers.
So far, I have accounts with five different mystery shopping companies but have only been able to complete shops for two of them (the other three don’t list any available opportunities in my area, but I’m keeping the accounts active for now in case I travel somewhere with available shops that I want to complete). One of the companies only has one client in my area and it’s a restaurant. I did a lunch shop at that location which was accepted and reimbursed, but you are required to wait a certain number of days (I believe it’s 60) before you can do another shop at that location, so I’m very limited with what I can do there.
The other company has around 5-10 fast food restaurant and gas station shops available in my area at any given time, which is nice. As with the first company, you are required to wait a certain number of days before you can do another shop at a location you’ve previously shopped. They also have announced shops at a couple of retail locations in town, but I’m not comfortable doing those. In those situations, you tell the staff you are there to conduct a mystery shop and take pictures. I think it’s a little weird.
Compensation varies from company to company. The first one I mentioned usually just gives you a flat amount, so it is up to you how much you spend on your order, although of course they will give you guidelines to follow for what types of items you must buy (i.e. requiring you to order two entrees, at least one beverage, a dessert, etc.). The first shop I did was at lunchtime, and I was reimbursed a flat fee of $45.00. The cost for my lunch with my boyfriend, including tip, was around $28, so I made about $16 from that shop plus we both had a free meal. I only had to submit a picture of my receipt, no pictures of the restaurant itself which can be awkward to take, plus fill out a report about the timeliness of my food order and delivery and some information about the hostess and my server, so I felt it was worthwhile.
The second company gives you a flat amount for doing the shop, plus will reimburse you up to a certain amount. For example, at a gas station, let’s say the company will give you $10 for doing the shop, plus a reimbursement of up to $5. They’ll require that you buy both fuel and a purchase from inside the store, so it’s unfortunate that the reimbursement amount is so low. In addition to providing pictures of both receipts and filling out a short report, I also have to take a photo of the exterior of the station from across the street or down the block (this is kind of awkward to do at times) and a picture of the sign showing their fuel prices. This company is a little better with restaurants, as they offer enough reimbursement to easily cover your meal, and often it is even enough for the meals for both you and a guest.
Let’s talk about reimbursement. It’s definitely a slow process. On average, it takes about 45 days to receive reimbursement and/or payment for your shop, so if you’re looking for an easy way to make a quick $20, this is probably not the side hustle for you. I don’t mind the wait too much, although of course it would be nice if the reimbursements were sent in a little more timely fashion. You can be paid via PayPal, direct deposit, or paper checks. All of the shops I’ve completed have been accepted, and the questionnaires are fairly short and straightforward, although they do require you to pay a little closer attention to things you may not normally notice as a patron.
In conclusion, I mostly enjoy mystery shopping and think it is something I will do every so often. I look at it as a nice way to occasionally have my normal purchases (such as fuel) paid for and a way to treat myself to a take out meal every once in awhile and have it paid for. I also like it because it’s not a huge time commitment and I can pick and choose the shops I do. If it’s convenient, I will do it, but I don’t have to go out of my way or have a set schedule every week where I dedicate time to it. The main downside is the lack of opportunities in my area. I would love to be able to go out and buy $40 worth of groceries and pet food for the week and have it reimbursed in full after answering a questionnaire about my experience.
Have you ever tried mystery shopping? What are your thoughts on it? Do you think it’s worth your time and effort?