What is Mystery Shopping? And Is it Legit?

Published on May 17, 2022 by Lauren

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  • Paying off debt can be a bit of a drag, especially if you are reducing your spending on the fun stuff — eating out, shopping, or entertainment — to become debt-free. Mystery shopping is a great way to add back the fun stuff in your life without any impact on your budget or debt pay-off plan. Side hustles are also a great way to add extra money to your budget to help you reach your financial goals faster.

    What is Mystery Shopping

    What is Mystery Shopping? And Is it Legit?

    Many companies — restaurants, gas stations, big-box stores, and more — want to know what their customers see when they do business with them. So they hire third-party companies to contract with mystery shoppers; they pose as normal customers but report back on their experiences. In exchange, the company reimburses the mystery shopper for the purchases they made as part of the shop and sometimes adds a little extra money for their time. 

    While you won’t make a mint as a mystery shopper, it can be a fun way to eat out, go shopping, pump your gas, or get an oil change for free. If you choose shops that pay well, you can even come out ahead and make a little extra cash to put toward your debt payoff.

    And yes, mystery shopping is totally legit. You’ll need to fill out a 1099 tax form and supply your social security number, address, and PayPal account to each company you want to work for. 


    Which Mystery Shopping Companies Should I Sign Up For?

    There are literally dozens of mystery shopping companies out there. Which ones you sign up for depends on your location and what kind of shops you want to do. Each company has a presence in different geographic areas and contracts with a different grab bag of companies. 

    The most effective way to hone in on which companies have shops in your area is to use job boards like Jobslinger and Gigspot, search for the zip code you want to shop in, then sign up with the companies offering the shops you want. 

    Registering is the most onerous part of the mystery shopping process, as you have to sign up with multiple companies to get a reliable number of shops. However, you only have to register with each mystery shopping company once; then you can do any number of shops with them.


    Best Mystery Shopping Companies

    Here are some of the best companies to perform mystery shops for. This list isn’t comprehensive, but these are some of the high performers in the industry that offer many shops in multiple areas.

    • Amusement Advantage: Focuses on amusement locations (movie theaters, theme parks, aquariums, bowling alleys). Most shops allow you to bring children with you — an uncommon perk. 
    • Ath Power Consulting: Offers high-paying shops with banking and credit card institutions. Many of these require a credit check, so if you’re watching your credit score closely, these might not be for you. 
    • BARE International: Shops are lengthy, but have a good work-to-dollar ratio. Some of their better shops include retail audits and testing center shops.
    • Coyle: Shops at high-end hotels and restaurants around the world. Competition is high for these shops, so get some experience before going for these. The reports are notably long for these shops.
    • Customer Impact: Their main areas are in the midwestern United States, but they do offer shops in other areas. They pay around $10 to $20 for most jobs, but they offer more for merchandising or audit shops.
    • Intellishop: Lots of shops from a variety of places. They offer great last-minute bonuses.
    • SeeLevelHX: A big name in the mystery shopping world. Offers shops in industries like restaurants and hardware.
    • Alta360 Research: Gas and parking shops. Some shoppers complain of low pay for the work involved.
    • Sutter Marketing: Offers compliance shops for alcohol and tobacco products at pharmacies and other stores. 
    • Reality Based Group (RBG): Solid mystery shopping company that’s mainly in the midwestern US. Focus on retail and restaurants.
    • Confero: Works with well-respected brands across the US. Ranked one of the best mystery shopping companies with MSPA.
    • Ipsos: (formerly GfK and Maritz): Offers a wide variety of shops in many locations. Some shoppers have noted issues with slow payments recently.
    • Market Force/Shopper Force: Some shops have a “make an offer” button, allowing you to bid on jobs. They focus on fast food, dine-in, airport, and gas station shops. 
    • Mercantile Systems: Dine-in restaurant, storage facility, and hair salon jobs.
    • Pinnacle: Focuses on the financial and banking industry.
    • Second to None: Founding member of the MSPA. A good, well-established company.
    • Secret Shopper: Offers a mobile app for assignment reporting. Also offers some international shops.
    • Shopper’s View: A legitimate agency with a variety of shops in many states.
    • Sinclair Customer Metrics: Offers gas stations, convenience stores, grocery, banks, and fast food shops. 
    • ACPView: This company offers rideshare and public transit stops, as well as phone mystery shops you can do from anywhere!

    Mystery Shopping Pro Tips

    Doing your first mystery shop can be a little nerve-wracking if you’ve never done it before, so we’ve compiled a few tips to make sure you start off on the right foot. 

    1.) Don’t pay for a list of mystery shopping opportunities.

    Legit mystery shopping companies are paying you to collect information for them, so there is no need for you to pay to get mystery shops. If a company asks you to pay money for their “exclusive” list, run the other way. Free resources like Jobslinger and GigSpot will provide you with enough shops to keep you busy. 

    2.) Read ALL the shop instructions beforehand.

    Every mystery shop hones in on different aspects of customer service. Some will ask you how long it took your server to deliver the check after your meal. Others want you to make an alteration to a menu item. Still, others ask if the cashier was smiling and thanked you for your business. 

    If you forget a specific item the survey asked for, you may have your pay docked or your shop disqualified, so be sure you don’t miss anything and read the instructions before you shop.

    3.) Take lots of notes.

    This can get tricky since you have to jot down things to jog your memory without being detected by the staff. One easy way to do this is to text yourself. It will timestamp when things happen for you (which is often a requirement in mystery shops) and anyone watching you will think you’re just texting a friend. 

    4.) Keep your receipts.

    This is how the company verifies that you actually showed up and did the shop. If you’re worried that you’ll lose the receipt before you get a chance to fill out your report, snap a quick picture as soon as you leave your shop.

    Ready to Try Mystery Shopping?

    If you’re already out running errands, getting gas, or out for dinner, you might as well make money on the trip! 

    Mystery shopping will reimburse you for your purchases (plus maybe a little more), but it’s not a heavy money-maker. Think of it as getting compensated for things you want to buy anyway rather than a full-fledged side hustle. 

    But if you want to have a fun time out on the town without adding to your credit card balance, mystery shopping is a great way to do it. 



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