Secret Shopping Pays Off!

by Deborah Kohl Kremer

About 20 years ago, I answered a want ad for a mystery shopping company. I really didn't know what that was, but as a yet-to-be-employed recent college graduate who loved to shop, I sent my resume. Little did I know that this initial contact would provide me with supplemental income for, what I would hope to be, the rest of my life.

For those unfamiliar, a mystery shopper conducts an undercover shop, posing as a regular customer but then reports back to the company's home office about the employees conduct, the cleanliness of the facility, and in the case of restaurants, the quality of the food.

There are hundreds of mystery shopping companies and they are easily found by doing a search on the Web. What I've learned through the years is that you probably won't get rich as a secret shopper, but if you're smart, you will come out ahead. When contacted about an assignment, before accepting, make sure it is worth your time and effort. I once shopped a car dealership that was about 25 miles from my home. The pay was $50, which I considered worth the trip, but I planned ahead, finding some thrift stores in that area that I could visit on the way.

If you are assigned a fast food restaurant or a pizza place, chances are, you might have a coupon somewhere around the house for that restaurant. We once were assigned to shop at a buffet style restaurant, where we were reimbursed for two adult meals. I called ahead to ask about any promotions and found that on Tuesday nights, kids eat free. Guess which night we went?

Most shopping companies need to rotate shoppers so that the same person does not shop the location each time. My husband and I both sign on with the same shopping companies, so that he conducts the shop one time and usually I can get the assignment next time. As long as those pay checks are coming to our house, we don't care which one of us actually fills out the form!

When shopping retail locations, sometimes you are required to make a purchase. I have regularly shopped a popular candle company where I have to make a $10 purchase and I am paid $10 to complete the questionnaire. Later, I can return the candle if I want, but usually I keep it to give as a gift.

Several years ago, I began shopping an upscale coffee shop. I was required to purchase a drink, a baked good, and a pound of coffee. I was reimbursed for my purchases and paid $20 as well. Luckily for me, there were nine locations close to my home, which I was assigned to do every month. Although the company no longer does this shop, I did it for a few years. It was an easy $180 per month, plus we gave everyone we knew a pound of coffee for Christmas!

Another way to make the most of restaurant shops is to check out the menu before you go. Get out a calculator and see how much food you can get. I regularly shop at several locations of a higher end restaurant/bar. I am required to order two meals with either an appetizer or a dessert. I am reimbursed up to $45. To stretch the money, we always order water to drink, and we get an appetizer that we can take home. For example, potato skins and quesadillas are great reheated the next day, but a plate of nachos doesn't work so well. Another trick we've found is to go during Happy Hour, when appetizers are half price. We can eat our nachos at the restaurant and take the steak dinners home for tomorrow. Anything to keep me out of the kitchen is well worth the trouble.

Secret shopping is a great way to make some extra money or save for a vacation. Over the last 20 years, there have been months when we brought in $500 and other months when we just got a free pizza. The business really fluctuates, so you have to take the jobs when they come. Last year, in restaurants alone, I was reimbursed about $1000, so there was no extra money in my pocket from these shops, but we did get to eat out several times a month. Mystery shopping is smart but mystery shopping with a plan is even smarter.

Deborah Kohl Kremer has been saving money since elementary school and freelance writing for about 20 years. Her work appears in various newspapers and magazines.

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