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. You get paid for your time, choose the hours you work and scoop up freebies in the process.
Most of the big chains are signed up to some kind of mystery shopping scheme, so there's plenty of work out there. However, with thousands of people registered as mystery shoppers in the UK alone, competition to land jobs is getting tougher.
So, is it really worth it? We've reviewed the best mystery shopping companies and put together this comprehensive guide to arm you with all the info you need.
Guide to mystery shopper jobs:
What is a mystery shopper?
Mystery shopping is flexible paid work that involves anonymously visiting businesses to check whether specific standards are being met (eg. cleanliness and good customer service). Mystery shoppers are assigned tasks after joining one of many consumer research panels.
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... mystery train counting?
How does mystery shopping work?
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.
Mystery shopping jobs typically include:
- Guidelines on what to buy as part of the assessment (normally quite flexible)
- A list of questions to ask in store
- What photographs 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)
- When you should have your written 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
There are other types of secret shopper jobs, including:
- 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 got a full guide to 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 – While it's similar to phone mystery shopping, this method is obviously more for online stores or stores that have a strong online presence.
- Online survey – This can entail completing product reviews or simply filling out online surveys related to certain brands.
How can you earn money as a mystery shopper?
The pay for mystery shopping tends to vary dramatically, and in recent years, companies have started offering less money.
In the past, some full-time mystery shoppers have reported earning between £30,000 – £40,000 per year, but this is after spending many years on the job and earning a reputation in the industry.
Today, you're more likely to be offered work where you won't always receive a cash payment, 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 – while it's usually based purely on distance, if you ask nicely you could get extra money back for parking or train tickets.
Best mystery shopping companies
Here are the best mystery shopper companies to sign up for:
- Payment – Generous (some are unpaid, like restaurant visits, but you'll receive a free meal out of it)
- Pros – Generous payment
- Cons – Reporting process is time-consuming.
Ipsos is one of the biggest consumer panels in the world. There are a wealth of assignments on Ipsos Mystery Shopping 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 register here first then click the green button below.
One downside is the reporting process for Ipsos can be quite time-consuming as you're expected to work for your cash, but then again they do pay generously! A small number of mystery shopper experiences from Ipsos are unpaid, like restaurant visits or sports activities, but you'll receive a free meal or activity.
- Payment – Very low or just reimbursement for items you buy in-store (worth £5 – £10)
- Pros – Variety of assignments
- Cons – Customer service.
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 have a mystery shopping app that allows you to locate and pick up jobs in your current location – handy for making money quickly when you're already out shopping somewhere.
- 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.
Clickworker is a well-established micro-tasking company that has also 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 don't make you go to specific addresses, so you have a lot of free choices. A short trip to the high street or nearest retail park is usually all that's 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 – Depends on what products you scan and how often
- Pros – Free to join, fun to do, established company
- Cons – Can take a while to accumulate points and claim rewards.
You may have heard about Nielsen before as they run a popular media view panel (where you can win prizes for giving your views of TV, radio and more).
This market research site, Homescan consumer panel, is more geared towards your shopping habits.
When you sign up they'll send you a scanner that you have to use to record your household purchases, such as your grocery shopping.
Mystery Dining by HGEM
- 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.
Love eating out but hate having to fork out for it?
Mystery Dining offer free meals at certain restaurants to 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 a reviewer rating badge – go for gold and you could be awarded a Michelin star experience!
- Payment – You are paid as if it was a job and payslips are used. RedWigWam also takes care of your tax.
- Pros – Well paid jobs.
- Cons – Can be hard to get jobs in some areas unless you're quick.
RedWigWam are primarily a temp working agency but they also offer mystery shopping jobs as a part of this.
They'll notify you when there are jobs going in your local area and you have to snap them up quickly.
We've seen jobs ranging from heading to a supermarket and asking questions, through to handing out vouchers.
- Payment – Between £5 – £50 per visit
- Pros – Free drinks and they reimburse you for travel
- Cons – You only have 2 years to get involved in it.
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 might like to sign up with Serve Legal as a pub tester. They're a test purchasing company that tries 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.
GBW (previously GAPbuster)
- Payment – Between £5 – £35 per job
- Pros – Paperwork is clear and easy to complete
- Cons – Payment is quite low and reimbursement slow.
GBW used to be known as GAPbuster, but has quite a few famous clients. 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 – £7 – £12 per job, plus travel expenses
- Pros – Spending money offered upfront
- Cons – Jobs are few and far between.
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 – £5 – £10 per job + freebies
- Pros – Clear instructions and quick payment
- Cons – Jobs are normally only available in bigger UK cities.
Grassroots mystery shopping is a great choice 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 eachthe day.
Video options are also available which tend to pay more, and payment is normally received around three to four weeks after the job.
- Payment – Between £10 – £35, but some pay more if the assignment is complex
- Pros – Payment is among the highest we've seen
- Cons – Bad customer service.
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 – Varies
- Pros – The money is good
- Cons – The website is very basic, and jobs can be quite complex.
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.
As jobs are often for a specific type of shopper (ie. 25–35-year-old, or males who wear certain sizes of clothing), the rates can vary 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 – 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.
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 – Largely £10+
- Pros – The jobs are interesting
- Cons – The website.
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!
Mystery shopping do's and don'ts
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 bigger panels on our 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.
What to do as a mystery shopper
Here is how to make the most of your job as secret shopper:
- Work regularly – While you can choose your own 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 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 tax facts 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
Now you know how to become a mystery shopper, make sure you don't do any of the following:
- 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 may ask for your bank details, but this will be to pay you for work. The MSPA website (Mystery Shopping Providers Association) is helpful for getting information on legit panels.
- Forget to ask for details – 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.
On a money-making roll? Find out how you can earn cash by filling out surveys online.