There's just no telling who's a mystery shopper these days. In an
increasingly competitive marketplace, businesses are beginning to rely heavily
on the services of mystery shoppers in an effort to hang on to customers.
What started as a service to the retail industry has spread to almost every
sector that deals with the public.
Insiders, however, say it's difficult to make a full-time career out
of mystery shopping.
Mystery shopping firms contract shoppers to go out into the field. While
they won't give out the names of their clients, they include financial institutions,
health care organizations, hospitals, fitness centres, restaurants, fast-food
chains, convenience stores and department stores.
What It Is
Mystery shoppers visit businesses and evaluate customer service, product
quality and store presentation. The shoppers follow specific instructions
during their visit and complete written reports after leaving the store.
The "mystery" part refers to the fact that they visit designated stores,
restaurants, banks and apartments while posing as typical customers. When
they leave, they fill out questionnaires that are custom-designed for each
client. "As a shopper, you'll serve as the eyes and ears for our clients in
your community," says Mark Michelson, president of Michelson and Associates
Inc., an Atlanta-based mystery shopping firm.
At Michelson and Associates, mystery shoppers range in age from 21 to 70,
with the majority being women between 30 and 45. "Our shoppers can be pre-selected
based on specific client criteria, such as demographics, type of car and shopping
habits," explains Michelson. "Sixty-eight percent of our representatives are
women with annual household incomes of over $50,000. Seventy-two percent have
attended college. Over 30 percent are professional researchers who work full
time for other research companies."
Michelson says anyone can be a mystery shopper. "As long as they're observant,
can follow specific instructions, be objective, and follow through on their
commitments. Pay averages $15 per assignment, and if someone were extremely
aggressive, they could get up to 20 assignments per month."
"It's definitely more of a hobby job," says Tom Mills, operations manager
for Howard Services, a mystery shopping firm in the Boston area. "I know of
a few people who make careers out of mystery shopping, but it's really more
a supplemental income. By working for a bunch of companies, you could conceivably
make about $250 per week."
While an independent contractor may not strike it rich by becoming an agent
for a mystery shopping firm, there's definitely a world of opportunity out
there for anyone who wants to start their own firm.
"I got into the business because I was a manager for Staples, and the mystery
shopping firm they used was really bad," says Mills. "We started the business
by working out of a basement. My partner was formerly a security consultant."
Mills says the sector looks deceptively simple to break in to. "As a business
owner you think to yourself, 'If I can find 100 places a month who need mystery
shopping, then I'll be all set.' Unfortunately, you need about 500 to get
by, and about 800 or 900 to be set."
There's more to mystery shopping than meets the eye. The industry is working
to make businesses aware of the competitive advantages mystery shopping can
Andy Booth of Managing the Service Business Ltd. explains: "Mystery shopping
is often viewed as the poor relation of other research techniques. To the
uninformed, its undercover approach seems slightly absurd. Some research companies
rely too heavily on rigidly structured, purely quantitative questionnaires
that are insensitive to local variation and are focused solely on policing
As a first step in rehabilitating the technique's reputation, Booth suggests
using the term "service auditing" in lieu of mystery shopping. "It doesn't
have the same negative connotations -- after all, a mystery shop need not
involve the actual purchase of goods, but may, for example, check out how
well informed sales assistants are about products in stock."
The consensus is that working for a firm in the industry can give you the
valuable experience and credibility you'll need to start your own firm. But
for the most part, being an independent mystery shopper is more of a hobby
than a career. Anyone with the goal of getting into the field should also
have a long-range goal of running their own firm if they want to make a profitable
career out of it.
Michelson and Associates
Contains a wealth of information on the mystery shopping field
A firm specializing in security and loss prevention consulting
Mystery Shopping Providers Association
Working to promote the industry