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March 24, 2023

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Mystery Shopping & Merchandising

Many people have heard of mystery shopping, but not all of us understand exactly what it’s all about.

Mystery shopping is focused on monitoring and improving quality and service to ensure consistency with brand standards using anonymous resources. About 85% of this work is done in person; a growing trend involves home-based mystery shoppers who conduct their work by calling (as opposed to visiting) catalog companies, call centers, and others, which account for 15% of the industry.

With mystery shopping, an individual walks into a retail store, restaurant, grocery store, convenience store or gas station to monitor and measure specific behaviors. Among them: associate greetings, the length of the wait to be served, the availability of merchandise, the knowledge of the sales team, and so on.

Many companies request “shops” of their own locations as well as those of their competitors. It enables them to understand how their services stack up against the competition—both generally and in specific areas. One hypothetical example: A mystery shopper assignment and analysis might measure the wait in line at Target vs. the wait in line at Wal-Mart. More specifically, an assignment might measure how much information the Target sales associate in electronics knew about a specific digital camera, compared to the sales associate at Wal-Mart for that very same camera.

Another option, one that is not covert, involves merchandising, in which you’re charged with helping major manufacturers and retailers present their product consistent with brand standards in a retail environment to generate sales. You could be asked to do anything from assembling displays, distributing coupons, sampling food, restocking shelves, or demonstrating products. The needs and the skill level vary; a company might post opportunities for someone to sample cheese in a grocery store and it might be looking for techies to demonstrate a new video camera during an in-store promotional event.

In both cases – mystery shopping and merchandising – you accept an assigned task and then you must prove that you completed it, which is typically done by completing and submitting an online survey about the experience. You might also be required to take photographs of your work. It’s all spelled out clearly in advance before you agree to the work.

According to Market Force Information, a nationwide leader in mystery shopping and merchandising among top brands, some of the requirements in the online questionnaire for a mystery shop may include:

  • Were you greeted properly?
  • Were all display items priced and in good condition?
  • Were accessories priced and well stocked (no empty peg hooks)?

Getting started and making money. Both mystery shopping and merchandising pay by the assignment. You work as an independent contractor, which means you work when you want, but work is never guaranteed.

Most mystery shopping assignments pay between $8 and $10. Merchandising is generally in the range of $13 to $18. Some assignments offer free meals and/or groceries either as a form of compensation or in addition to a small fee. More complex assignments pay more – up to $30 or so per assignment. If you’re being offered substantially more, that’s a red flag and you should question the legitimacy of the assignment.

There are hundreds of companies throughout the country that hire shoppers and merchandisers. Keep in mind: retailers don’t hire shoppers and merchandisers directly; all of this work is handled by a third-party vendor. Some hire for both; others handle one or the other. Every shopper who makes at least $100 a week is registered with several companies and they actively take on several assignments per week. Some women I spoke with make upwards of $500 a month because they’re diligent about working at it. (If you live in a remote area without access to ample stores and restaurants, your options are severely limited. Home-based “shops” might be best for you.)

Register with multiple companies because they all have different needs and they serve different clients. One woman told me she was frustrated because she only had access to fast food assignments, but she hates fast food. She finally realized she didn’t have to limit herself to just one company. Now she works with about a dozen and she services a range of industries.

Beware of clicking through to sites that ultimately take you to ads that are not legitimate. There are absolutely NO legitimate wire transfer or check-cashing offers. STAY AWAY from anything that references either one.

It’s all in the details. Most companies critique your online application for proper spelling, grammar and punctuation, especially since your proof-of-completion reports are submitted in writing to the client. Poor spelling will knock you out of the running.

Pay attention to distance. Don’t accept an assignment that pays $10 if you have to drive 20 miles each way to complete the task. The gas will eat up your fee.

Many assignments require you to monitor the exact time of specific tasks: How long did it take someone to greet you? How long did you wait on line for service? If you’re easily flustered and don’t like to multitask, this probably isn’t the right fit for you. You’ll find many people who’ve tried this type of work—and hated it. They complain it’s tedious and time-consuming—not worth the minimal money they were paid.

Two trade associations offer extensive information on their respective industries. The Mystery Shopping Providers Association and the World Alliance for Retail Excellence and Standards offer listings of legitimate companies, a code of ethics guiding their industry and tips for success.

Avoiding scams. Many people are concerned about scams and rightly so. Scams are everywhere in this space, so arm yourself with knowledge before getting started. There are some specific tips to keep in mind:

  • Never ever pay to be a mystery shopper or merchandiser. No legitimate opportunity requires a fee. (The MSPA offers a certification process that is optional, not required, to get work.)
  • Never get involved in check-cashing schemes. Legitimate opportunities will never require you to cash any checks. If your assignment requires you to order a specific item in a restaurant, you’ll have to front the cash, but with a receipt you’ll be reimbursed.
  • Never respond to unsolicited requests by phone, email or mail to become a mystery shopper or merchandiser. Most likely a fee will be involved with promises to teach you the “secrets” of making big bucks with little effort. That “secret” is a lie: there’s no way to make lots of money with minimal effort in these industries.

This information was compiled by Women For Hire. You may link to this page, but copying is prohibited.