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The Mystery Shopper

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As occupations go, the freelance mystery shopper is unlikely to earn enough to slide them into any higher tax bracket. However, it is a fun option for part-time self-employment and can be managed around family and other commitments.

A mystery shopper is someone who is contracted to a third party, to undertake anonymous customer research for a particular business. They do this by visiting identified outlets or branches of a company and then reporting back to the client on specific issues. The client generally has a very good idea of the information they need and the assignments are targeted to these identified areas. It is vital that the shop or business being visited has no idea that the person that they are dealing with is a mystery shopper - who will then report to their employer - otherwise they may treat this visitor more favourably than they do their regular customers.

The Job

The mystery shopper doesn't just trot around the shops making purchases and reporting back to base – nothing so simple. The entire operation is based on assignments and all of them are very, very specific and confidential.

The shopper will be contacted by email or phone and offered the assignment in the first instance. At this point the payment for the work is stated and this can be between £9 and £30 depending on the work required. There may be expenses in addition but these depend on whether any actual purchase is required in which case the item and/or price of the purchase will be stipulated. On the plus side, they will usually be able to keep their purchase, which may or may not be useful.

The task, which may be a telephone call or a visit, is usually required to be carried out on a specific date. This will be agreed on the acceptance of the mission.

With a date and approximate time agreed, a detailed briefing will be despatched. This will include specific instructions such as a cover story and the scenario required to be played out in the shop or office. This is where the whole thing goes up a notch. The mystery shopper then takes on the job of an actor or spy (depending on how serious the mission is) learning the key phrases and rehearsing the scenario as specified. Members of their family can be helpful at this stage, in order to get into character and help role-play the scene.

The Assignment

On the appointed day and in character, the mystery shopper has to be on top form. Memory and observation skills are key, because no written notes are permitted.

Account should be taken of the state of the outside of the premises (even including the adjoining businesses) as this is often the first question on the follow-up report. On entering the business it is important to note where all the staff are and what they are doing (this is usually the second question). When inside it is vital to follow the brief, as actions and speech are the only thing scripted and it is the response to this particular scenario that the business owner is seeking. When engaged with a member of staff it is important to remember their name; this may be on a badge but if not, it should be asked. If no name is forthcoming an accurate description of the staff member will have to be provided – and this can be difficult where all staff are dressed the same!

The assignment may involve visiting a shop, wholesaler, bank, restaurant or any type of business, and the scenario will be specific to that outlet. For example, in a restaurant the mystery shopper may be required to order a particular meal then change their mind for the day's special; or you may be asked to complain about a perfectly delicious meal. At a wholesaler's they may be provided with a trade card to check out that staff are promoting the 'right' goods. If they are required to make any purchase they will have to use cash as their debit card details will not match those on the trade card1. In a clothes' shop the mystery shopper may have to make a purchase and then return it, or have very particular requirements which mean the staff have to work a lot for no sale. Suffice it to say that any conceivable situation could be played out in any number of establishments, but don't worry - the brief will provide the template.

On completion of the assignment the results have to be returned by phone or online within eight or 24 hours depending on the initiating company – and the questions will deal with the smallest detail of this secret mission.

If the questionnaire on the minutiae of your assignment is completed in a timely fashion, payment will be made directly to the mystery shopper's bank account within the month.

What's the Point?

If you value customer service you'll understand why some businesses are keen to make sure their staff adhere to the law, their company standards and act in keeping with their corporate image. These institutions are prepared to pay a third party to turn up and ask awkward or basic questions in an effort to prove that all of their staff training has been effective.

If you are interested in making a bit of extra money and have the memory of Mr Memory the Memory Man there are a number of mystery shopping companies who will be only too glad to have your help2. Be careful though as there are some scams out there and remember a genuine mystery shopping organisation will never ask you to cash a cheque3.

1Unfortunately, the trade card will have to be returned at the end of the assignment.2Some major chains also employ mystery shoppers directly on a permanent basis.3This is a scam where you are asked to put a cheque into your account then deposit the cash in various accounts supposedly performing a mystery shopping assignment. Your cash will disappear for good and the cheque you lodged will either be cancelled or alternatively you could be guilty of laundering money for international crime lords.

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