How to become a mystery shopper
If there's one thing better than getting paid hard cash, it's getting paid hard cash to shop or eat at your favourite spots. Sound too good to be true?
Working as a mystery shopper or mystery diner is a super flexible part-time opportunity for students. Not only do you get paid for your time and get to choose the hours you work, but you also scoop up freebies in the process.
Most of the big retailers are signed up to some kind of mystery shopping scheme, so there's plenty of work out there. However, with around 500,000 people registered as mystery shoppers in the UK alone, competition to land a job is getting increasingly tough.
So is it really worth it? We've done the research and put together this comprehensive guide to ensure you're armed with all the info you need.
Guide to mystery shopper jobs:
What is mystery shopping?
While the clue is in the name, mystery shopping isn't about getting your Scooby Doo on down the local Primark... but it's not far off.
Mystery shopping is a job (yes, it really is a form of employment) where you sign up to an agency or independent company that pays 'mystery shoppers' to anonymously visit businesses around the country in order to check that specific standards are being met (e.g. cleanliness, good customer service, etc.).
It isn't just about clothes or groceries either. You could find yourself grabbing a free dinner at a restaurant, having your eyesight tested or even counting trains at a train station - so mystery shopping is also mystery dining, mystery drinking, and...err... mystery train counting?
The process involved in mystery shopping tends to vary from job to job, but most commonly you'll be given a specific set of instructions to read before venturing into a shop or business.
These instructions will normally include the following:
- Guidelines on what to buy as part of the assessment (this part is normally quite flexible)
- A list of questions to ask in store
- Any photographs you're required to take
- Details of things to watch out for and to take a mental note of (e.g. cleanliness, lighting, if you were greeted as you walked in, etc)
- When you should have your report submitted by.
Once you get home, you'll usually need to write up a report on your findings and send this to the agency. This can take up to two hours to complete, so make sure you leave yourself enough time afterwards to get the paperwork done.
Other forms of mystery shopping jobs
- Tasking apps: Most of the time these don't involve actually buying anything, but you'll still need to sneak around a bit. We've written an article about the best tasking apps
- Postal monitoring: You sign up to have brochures and catalogues sent to your home address and record how long they take to arrive, what state they arrive in, etc.
- Mystery shopping by phone: This one can even mean starting work before getting out of bed! Telephone mystery shopping involves calling up stores with general questions and assessing (and recording!) how these are answered
- Email mystery shopping: Similar to phone mystery shopping, but this method is obviously more for online stores or stores who have a strong online presence
- Online survey: This can entail completing product reviews or simply filling out online surveys related to certain brands.
The pay for mystery shopping tends to vary dramatically, but unfortunately in recent years companies have started offering less money, or in some cases no payment at all.
In the past, some full-time mystery shoppers have reported earning between £30-40,000 per year, but it's worth knowing that this is after spending many years on the job and earning a reputation in the industry. Unfortunately, it seems the days of this sort of mystery shopper salary are over.
Today, you're more likely to be offered work where you won't receive payment or only a few quid, but will be given a budget to spend in store, and will be allowed to keep what you buy as a freebie (so make sure you choose something you really want/need!).
Keep a close eye on what they require you to buy, as often the brief will say you can return the item you've bought the same day or later on, but for mystery dining jobs if the total reimbursement doesn't cover what they're asking you to spend, it may not be worth it.
We've seen jobs where £15 was offered for a meal for two at a popular pizza chain, which wouldn't have covered the meal - especially as you're not usually supposed to use vouchers on mystery shops.
However, the more difficult a company finds it to get someone to complete a job, the bigger the fee will grow. We've found that jobs in city centres get snapped up pretty quickly, and rates stay low, but if you're out in the sticks, doing mystery shopping can be quite lucrative.
For example, we've done the same job in the same shop in central London and been paid £5, and when we completed it in a smaller town we received £15 plus travel reimbursement at 50p a mile.
And yes, some companies will offer travel expenses - and while it's usually based purely on distance, if you ask nicely you could get extra money back for parking or train tickets.
There's a whole slog of companies offering mystery shopper work in the UK, but unfortunately this also means the industry is rife with fake companies trying to scam you into paying registration fees to join agencies that don't exist.
It should always be free to sign up to mystery shopping, so if a site asks for payment, approach with extreme caution.
When in doubt, check out the MSPA website (Mystery Shopping Providers Association) to see if the company is listed. If their name's not down, run a mile!
Signing up is generally pretty pain free: there's no need for CVs or references - just fill out an online survey and you're all set. However, some of the biggest names on this list require you to do a spelling and grammar test. You get a few tries to fill it out correctly, so don't worry too much.
Here's our take on some of the most popular mystery shopper sites in the UK.
Formerly known as Retail Eyes, this is one of the UK's most well-known mystery shopping sites and with 300,000 registered members, it's certainly one of the biggest.
They host a massive range of jobs - with everything from visiting opticians to checking out local pubs - so chances are you'll be able to find something up your street.
They also recently launched a mystery shopping app that allows you to locate and pick up jobs in your current location - handy to make a quick buck when you're already out shopping somewhere.
Payment: Very low or just reimbursement for items you buy in store (worth £5-15)
Pros: Variety of assignments
Cons: Bad customer service.
Clickworker is a well-established microtasking company that has recently expanded into the mystery shopper realm. Most of the assignments involve going to a shop in your area and taking pictures of product shelves.
The best part is that you can choose whichever shop from the chains provided. They do not make you go to specific addresses so you have a lot of free choice. A short trip to the high street or nearest retail park is all that is usually required.
What's even better is that there is no purchase necessary for these assignments. clickworker regularly offers mystery photography jobs for most countries in Europe, the Middle East and the USA.
Payment: Usually around €8 - €12 plus other bonuses
Pros: No purchases required, possibility to rework and resubmit jobs
Cons: Payment in Euros only via PayPal or bank transfer
Mystery Dining by HGEM
Love eating out but hate having to fork out for it?
Mystery Dining offer free meals at certain restaurants to those culinary experts (or near enough!) who are willing to take the time to write a detailed report on their experience afterwards.
To join up you need to first ‘pass’ an application process to see if you’re the right fit. Rejection rates are quite high, so make sure you take the time to do this part properly.
Also worth noting that the more you work and the better job you make of it, you'll be awarded with a reviewer rating badge - go for gold and you could be awarded with a Michelin star experience!
Payment: No payment offered for most jobs, but usually you get a big enough budget to pay for your entire meal and sometimes travel expenses covered
Pros: Free meals!
Cons: Reporting process takes longer than mystery shopping as requires more detail.
Are you 18 or 19 and looking for a chance to earn a bit of extra money (and get some free drinks out of it?)
You should probably sign up to Serve Legal, as they're a test purchasing company that are essentially trying to find out if young-looking people are being ID'd when they should be.
Serve Legal employ mystery shoppers to go into all sorts of shops, bars and pubs to try and buy different age restricted products. Because they mainly employ people in a small age bracket, they're always looking for new shoppers to sign up.
Apparently it's a huge help if you have your own transport, as some of the locations you'll need to shop at can be spread far and wide.
Payment: You get around £7 per visit, and how much of that is profit depends on what you choose to buy
Pros: Free drinks, and they reimburse you for travel
Cons: You only have 2 years to get involved in it.
Another reputable company, there are a wealth of assignments on GfK covering the whole of the UK and often smaller UK suburbs as well as bigger cities.
You won't find yourself caught up with lengthy applications here, either. All you need to do is complete a survey on their website to sign up and you're good to go.
However, one complaint would be that the reporting process for GfK is notoriously time-consuming. In this sense, you're expected to really work for your cash, but GfK do pay generously!
Payment: Generous (but undisclosed)
Pros: Generous payment
Cons: Reporting process is time-consuming.
GBW (previously GAPbuster)
GAPbuster have recently rebranded themselves as GBW (we're still not sure why, or what GBW stands for). McDonald’s is their biggest client so this company is a great choice if you fancy some free Happy Meals!
They have been reported to send out repeat assignments to the same location as well to monitor improvements, so this might not be the best choice if you're looking for variety.
Payment: Between £5-10 per job
Pros: Paperwork is clear and easy to complete
Cons: Payment is quite low and reimbursement slow.
Retail Maxim is a popular agency with a lot of subscribers, but we have heard complaints that this has resulted in jobs being scooped up a matter of minutes after they're posted online!
This means you'll have to be quick in order to bag yourself a job, and also be quite flexible with your time.
They do send out cheques to cover shopping trips in advance, which is good for those of us who can't afford to wait for reimbursement later.
Payment: £7-12 per job + travel expenses
Pros: Spending money offered upfront
Cons: Jobs are few and far between.
Grassroots are the company to go for if you’re not interested in being bombarded with emails advertising available positions.
The best way to find work with Grassroots is to keep checking their website, as it’s constantly updated throughout each day.
Video options are also available which tend to pay more, and payment is normally received around 3-4 weeks after the job.
Payment: £5-10 per job + freebies
Pros: Clear instructions and quick payment
Cons: Jobs normally only available in the bigger UK cities.
Tern Consultancy is a nice option if you’re looking to try out some of the different varieties of mystery shopping, as they also offer opportunities for video and audio-only shopping (which also tend to pay a bit more).
However, ironically for a company that assesses customer service, we've heard that theirs isn't all that great!
Payment: Around £12 per job
Pros: Payment is the highest we’ve seen
Cons: Bad customer service.
International Service Check
If you love fashion, this mystery shopping company should go to the top of your list. International Service Check has some of the biggest names on the high street as clients, and their jobs often include trying on outfits and asking for help finding specific items.
The base pay for every job is £12, which is a good starting point, but as jobs are often for a specific type of shopper - i.e. 25-35 year old males who wear certain sizes of clothing - the rates can go up significantly.
You'll be emailed and invited to apply for most jobs if you fit the description they look for, so keep an eye on that inbox!
Payment: At least £12 a visit
Pros: The money is good
Cons: The website is very basic, and jobs can be quite complex.
This is a smaller company and the types of jobs are quite diverse - we've completed tasks where we had to record ourselves in a bank meeting, and another where we asked to try on designer jewellery.
It's worth having a look, because some of the fees can be as high as £40 a visit.
Payment: Totally depends, but often £10+
Pros: Very quick customer service - it's easy to get in touch if you have a question
Cons: It's really difficult to sort jobs by location on the site.
Another lesser-known mystery shopping company, but the jobs are a little bit different to normal.
Tasks usually involve talking to members of staff and making yourself known as a mystery shopper (not much of a mystery then!). The website can be a bit tricky to navigate as a newbie, but just click on Field Team and you should be ok from there!
Payment: Largely £10+
Pros: The jobs are interesting
Cons: The website.
What to do as a mystery shopper
- Work regularly: While you can choose your hours, the secret to getting the best jobs is being flexible and offering to work regularly. The more you work, the more your reputation will grow, and the work will start a-rollin' in
- Memory practice: As you won't be able to have a notepad handy on the job (this will give the game away), you'll need to perfect your memory so you can remember details for your report later. Think of it as good practice for exam time!
- Keep the tax man happy: It's unlikely that you'll earn enough to be taxed, but mystery shopping technically counts as self employment - so if you do think you might earn over the personal allowance threshold, make sure you declare it. Check out our students tax facts page to see if this applies to you
- Sign up to multiple companies at once: There are loads of mystery shopper sites out there, but work can be scarce, so signing up to multiple companies simultaneously will increase your chances of finding something that works for you
- Keep receipts: Whatever you buy as part of a mystery shopping effort, make sure you always hang on to the receipt in case a company asks to see them.
What not to do as a mystery shopper
- Be late: You'll have to submit a report after each visit, and this normally has to be done within a specific time frame. If you hand your report in late, you might not be paid and could be axed from further jobs
- Ever pay to register: No reputable mystery shopper business will ask you to pay to join. They'll probably ask for your bank account number and sort code, but this will be in order to pay you for your work
- Forget to ask for details: As we covered - there is a lot of variation in the kinds of reimbursements and payments with this kind of work. Make sure you know exactly what you're signing yourself up for before taking on a job
- Rely on mystery shopping as a source of income: While this is a fun way to make some extra cash, it's not a reliable form of income. Some companies will take up to two weeks just to reimburse you for money spent as part of a job, so this isn't a good idea if you're on a particularly tight budget.
So whilst you're not likely to be able to pay off your student loan with your earnings, mystery shopping is fun to get involved in, and it's also something interesting to put on your CV if you do it regularly enough.
If you're looking for a bit of fun and freebies, give mystery shopping a whirl!