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Consumer Confidential: Get paid to shop
A writer goes undercover, makes a few bucks, and learns shopping isn't as fun as she thought.
November 29, 2005: 1:19 PM EST
By Katie Benner, staff writer
Have you seen this shopper?
Have you seen this shopper?

NEW YORK ( - Free oil changes and CDs. Complimentary spa treatments and meals. And a few quick bucks too.

All this and more awaits secret shoppers -- freelance spies who go undercover at establishments and then report back to corporate headquarters on the experience.

The practice is expanding as companies from Fortune 500 firms to small businesses take the practice more seriously, spending nearly $600 million on the service in 2004, up 11 percent on the year, according to the Mystery Shopping Providers Association.

McDonald's has called mystery shopping a major component of its turnaround plan and will use the technique in 30,000 locations worldwide by the end of 2005. Hilton Hotels and restaurant-chain P.F. Chang's also like these covert operations.

In a competitive retail world, companies want to make sure the customer is being taken care of, said David McAleese, CEO of secret-shopping company A Closer Look, which provides services for many major corporations.

"The details that show someone is cared for keep the customer coming back," he said.

Welcome to the shop

Love to shop and figure, Why not get paid? Be forewarned: Contrary to online legend -- and this writer's fantasy -- secret shopping is not easy money.

To get started, you first need to apply with a secret-shopping company, of which there are nearly 200.

Getting picked is no sure thing. Mystery shopping companies say that only detail-oriented, reliable people with great memory and strong writing ability need apply.

An application at one company required a detailed description of my last retail experience, while another asked for a few paragraphs on the kind of shopper I am -- writing samples would be evaluated for clarity and grammar. And with competition for shopping spots growing, these applications are taken very seriously.

A week after applying with three companies, my first and only shopping company, e-mailed me a bathroom inspection assignment. Payment, $15. But payment only comes after filling out long reports, with very specific questions.

After proving my ability to snap pictures of a toilet, I was offered a shoe browsing mission for $20. (Money earned while secret shopping will be given to charity.)

As you might imagine, you can't just whip out a notebook during an investigation, so I had to brush off some very dusty recall skills. An effective secret shopper also needs a flair for pretense... or acting... or lying.

For my shoe-store report, I was asked to remember how long it took for someone to greet me, the name of my sales person, how many people were working and what they were up to while customers browsed. I also had to observe interactions between customers at the register and the person ringing them up.

This was all done while feigning interest in holiday dress sandals, trying on shoes and fending off the sales push.

And as I awkwardly yammered on about heel heights, I realized that my saleswoman was getting nervous -- not because she thought she was under the thoughtful gaze of a secret shopper, but because she feared she was under the intense stare of a lonely, crazy woman.

How to do it

If you still think you have what it takes, be aware that the lure of free goods and fast money have spawned a host of secret-shopping scams.

"While many of these [scam] services do provide additional information on how to become a mystery shopper after consumers pay a fee, they forget to mention... all of the information on how to become a mystery shopper is available for free," said John Swinburn, executive director of the Mystery Shopping Providers Association.

So if a site says to become a shopper for a one-time fee, move on. And while getting reimbursed for an oil change may be a legitimate deal, an offer to make $50,000 a year shopping is too-good-to-be-true.

To find a legitimate service and start shopping:

  • Visit the Mystery Shopping Providers Association web site at for a list of companies that are MSPA members.
  • Contact mystery-shopping companies directly, not the MSPA. Their Web addresses are included in the site.
  • Sign up with as many companies as you can.
  • Be patient. There's been an influx of shoppers in the last year so it may take time for you to get your first assignment.
  • Be quick. When the assignment hits your e-mail account, reply as soon as you can.
  • Complete the first assignment as well as possible to increase your chances of being assigned a more desirable assignment in the future.


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