"Secret" Shoppers Are a Thing—and Here's How to Be One

We recently studied all kinds of fashion careers in detail to uncover which one would most suit your personality as well as your skillset (should you even be interested in the first place), but there's one rather intriguing role we hadn't yet evaluated: the mystery shopper. What is a mystery shopper? Well, that's what we're here to answer—and no, it's not when you accidentally use your credit card after a night out and indulge in a sudden urge to order everything on Net-a-Porter only to forget your actions the next day… We've done a bit of digging around to find out all about this reportedly popular retail position.

"One of the big misunderstandings about mystery shopping is that it’s all about monitoring staff performance," says Olwen van Dijk, marketing manager of AQ, the global mystery shopping specalist. "In the past, this was certainly the case, and employers used to use it as a sort of appraisal system… Mystery shopping is now being used to measure a wide variety of things—any sort of KPI can be measured, whether it’s frontline performance based or whether or not the store’s setup complies with the company standard." 

Keep reading to find out what a mystery shopper really is.

A mystery shopper is…

  • Employed by an external mystery-shopping service company that has been commissioned by a brand or shop to carry out an analysis of the in-store experience.
  • Really observant. It may be that you have to record the time it takes for a shop assistant to ring your pieces through the till and pack them into a bag, or recall the layout of a store-fit. Your findings are used by major companies to decide on such things as staff bonuses and promotions—so pay attention. "After a shopper has completed their visit, they normally have 24 hours to submit their survey—done online via the system through which they applied for the shop," says van Dijk. "The submitted survey then proceeds into a quality assurance phase. Now, different companies do this in different ways (at AQ we have a very strict QA process, which is a little more time consuming than at other companies). If there are any questions about the survey, the shopper will be contacted for clarification. Once finalised the data is crunched and the results are collated and presented to the client."
  • Often required to work shifts and at varying times. This can suit someone looking for flexible part-time work. There are some reports of full-timers earning £30k to £40k. It's been dubbed a great "side hustle," but know that the stream of commissions may not be constant. According to The Guardian, 50,000 mystery shoppers are signed up, yet only 10% of them get work. 
  • Not always easy to spot: Now with leading companies such as Marketforce introducing mystery-shopping apps or AQ using Sassie and/or Shopmetrics for employees to complete their tasks on, it's unlikely you'll see someone walking slowly around a store with a notebook.
  • Potentially online and not even in a physical store: "Where before we might only have done mystery calls—to check the customer service—we also do things like check response time and style from websites, social media, emails, and chat services," explains van Dijk.
  • Likely to get bigger and better jobs the more reliable and trusted you become, so do think about working your way up the secret-shopping ladder.

a mystery shopper isn't…

  • Given heaps of cash to get spendy with (unfortunately) for free. Essential, requested expenditures are reimbursed. "Some scenarios require that shoppers make a purchase, whether it’s to check the cashier procedures or see how helpful staff is after the decision to make a purchase has been made. In other cases—like food & beverage visits—a purchase is always necessary; it’s a little hard to check out the quality of the food if you can’t order any, after all," explains van Dijk. "In these scenarios, shoppers are reimbursed—usually up to a certain limit—for their purchases, sometimes instead of a shop fee (the payment they normally receive for their time) and sometimes on top of the shop fee." 
  • Put into situ without any training or guidance. You don't necessarily need any particular training to sign up, but companies like AQ will ensure that staffed are really skilled up by providing thorough training manuals: "These contain all the relevant information for their mystery shopm including the scenario they're required to perform, things they need to watch out for, and any other pertinent details that play a part—quick example, if one of the requirements is to photograph the dish you've ordered at a restaurant, we might get include a sample picture to show them what we're looking for," says Dijk. "After they've reviewed the training manual and materials, shoppers are usually required to take a test. This is done online and through the system, and checks to see whether they have read the manual and fully understand what is required of them. Occasionally, depending on the project there might also be language proficiency test to make sure that they meet the necessary language standards that the client (and we as the supplier of the surveys) require."
  • A girl who just loves to shop. Apparently you need to be dependable, have a fine attention to detail and have a great mastery of the written language to draft up in-depth reports. In fact, doing too much of a good thing could put you off shopping altogether…
  • Expected to incur "membership" charges: If a mystery-shopping company is asking you to pay to take part, it's likely you're looking at a scam in progress.
  • Exempt from tax: Just because this might be a side hustle doesn't mean you shouldn't declare the earnings to HMRC. Keep track of your expenses and earnings, get in touch with HMRC to discuss further and check out this mystery shoppers forum on Money Expert for support.

For further information and to check if a company is legitmate, head to MSPA-EA.org.

Next up, how to look expensive on a budget.