How would you like to get paid £40,000 a year for shopping? Some mystery shoppers achieve this, but it’s not as easy as it sounds
The customer next to you in the queue looks innocent enough. But instead of a shopping list, you notice she’s carrying handwritten notes about the appearance and cleanliness of the store. She’s been timing the progression of the queue on her phone … and is that a tiny camera lens peeking out from her purse? There’s no trenchcoat in sight, but odds are, you’ve just spotted a mystery shopper.
There are approximately 50,000 mystery shopping trips carried out every month in the UK, according to the Mystery Shopping Providers Association (MSPA), and as more and more spending takes place online, the demand for mystery shoppers is growing. “Retailers are becoming increasingly aware that shoppers who are prepared to set foot in a physical store want a service and an experience they can’t get online,” says Simon Boydell, spokesman for Marketforce, which has more than 300,000 mystery shoppers on its books. “Our clients want to measure how well their stores are delivering on that experience.”
Sainsbury’s, John Lewis, the Post Office and Metro Bank all use mystery shopping company ABa to score their stores, which then helps to determine staff bonuses and identify any training issues. “We assign different store locations to each shopper and rotate them so that they never go back to the same shop within three months,” says ABa spokeswoman Jill Spencer. “Each day, they typically spend up to eight hours visiting five to 10 stores, plus another hour or two filing detailed reports on every aspect of their visit.” For that, the mystery shoppers can earn up to £155 a day. They are also reimbursed for their petrol and hotel stays, and compensated for their car depreciation (the shoppers can be expected to drive as many as 20,000 miles a year). Meanwhile, video mystery shoppers, who film their visits with a hidden camera planted in a buttonhole or handbag, can earn even more – around £300 a day.
Shoppers are usually repaid any money they spend in the stores, and may also be allowed to keep the products they buy. “I’m typically given between £5 and £20 to spend at each store, to assess the service I receive at the till,” says Laura, a 50-year old mystery shopper from Devon, who has been paid to visit around 7,000 shops since 2001. The purchase usually has to be related to a service or a type of product that the retailer wants her to check. “I’m always given a scenario, such as buying something from a specific department or a new product range, but within that framework, I can often buy whatever I want – and keep it.”
Like most full-time mystery shoppers, Laura is self-employed, taking jobs from ABa and other mystery shopping companies as and when they come up. Her income is typically £30,000 to £40,000 a year, and that doesn’t include all the freebies she gets on the job. “With the perks, it’s enough to live on. But I don’t do it because I love shopping. In fact, I hate shopping now. When I’m not working, it pains me to have to go out and buy a pint of milk.”
She does, however, find it satisfying to return to a store she has previously mystery shopped and see standards have improved. “I know it must be because of my feedback or why would they pay me to give it? Some of the retailers I shop at win awards for customer service, and I think that is down to us mystery shoppers. I feel I’m not just doing a service for my company, I’m doing a service for all shoppers everywhere.”
Sadly, regular mystery shopping assignments that pay like Laura’s are few and far between. In fact, competition is so fierce, she keeps her job a closely guarded secret and even her friends and family don’t know who she works for (Laura is not her real name).
It’s estimated that more than 500,000 people have registered as mystery shoppers in the UK, but just 10% or fewer manage to get regular work each month and this has led to a dramatic reduction in compensation. “Where once you got a fee, reimbursement for your purchase and mileage, you now often just receive a contribution towards a purchase,” say Val, a 51-year-old former mystery shopper. “I worked for 40 different mystery shopping companies for almost 20 years but I gave up entirely three years ago because I had bills to pay and very few assignments paid what I considered to be an acceptable rate.”
Nowadays, mystery shopping companies mostly rely on the promise of freebies to incentivise their workers. “Marketforce shoppers typically get a couple of pounds for a visit as a token gesture for their time and effort,” says Boydell. “At the most, we’ll pay £15 to £25 plus reimbursement for say, a meal for two or a hotel stay. We don’t directly employ any shoppers so we don’t have to pay them the minimum wage.”
Shoppers for Marketforce do not receive any recompense for their travel and, on average, get just £5 to £15 to spend during each visit, but Boydell argues the shoppers are deliberately chosen because they would be visiting those shops anyway or “are happy not being paid”. For example, no fee is offered for all-inclusive trips to five-star hotels abroad, yet these jobs are usually snapped up “within 10 minutes or less” of being advertised online.
“I’d go on a cruise for nothing,” says Laura. “But I think mystery shopping companies that pay you a nominal fee to travel to a restaurant and eat a meal are exploiting people. I won’t touch those jobs anymore.” There are plenty of people, however, that would. Hannah, a 41-year-old City lawyer, has conducted nearly 500 visits for the Mystery Dining Company in her spare time without receiving remuneration or travel expensesAs a prestigious “platinum diner”, she is regularly hand-picked by the Mystery Dining Company to carry out their most exclusive assignments, enjoying £200 meals at Michelin-starred Mayfair restaurants, five-star hospitality at Ascot and overnight stays at boutique hotels.
But there’s no such thing as a free lunch – even if you work for a mystery dining company. Hannah says she typically spends two to four hours after each visit writing detailed reports on everything from the quality of the food to specific interactions with staff, whom she always needs to be able to name or “subtly” describe. Trickiest of all, she must memorise all these details while eating her meal – unable, of course, to openly write anything down.
“There’s lots to remember, and sometimes it can detract from the experience. You’re expected to give feedback while it’s fresh, so I’ve had to get up at 5am to write a report before work. It’s a challenging thing to do; you need to be focused, articulate and detail-orientated.”
Yet to some, mystery shopping is so attractive that “a few hundred people” every week are willing to spend up to two and a half hours filling in surveys at ukmysteryshopper.co.uk, just to be in with a chance of effectively winning a £100 mystery shop. “We make money when we sign people up via our surveys, we don’t work for any brand we mystery shop,” says spokeswoman Amy Mills. Within the surveys, she admits “there may be questions that if you select yes, you’ll get text messages and there may be a charge for those messages”. Would-be shoppers need to read the terms and conditions of each of the 15 10-minute surveys they are asked to complete, she says, adding that just five of those who have taken part will be selected “at random” each week to receive a £100 voucher. Their reports are then published online, apparently with their name or photo.
The MSPA warns that the industry is rife with highly organised scams. For example, emails or calls asking for money upfront may purport to be from legitimate mystery shopping companies whose entire websites have been copied to lure in unsuspecting victims. “Never pay a fee to register for work. A genuine mystery shopping company would never ask you to,” says Adam Kaye, MD of mystery shopping company GAPbuster Worldwide. “There are unscrupulous people out there who promise significant sums of money if a shopper pays to join, but even the most prolific mystery shoppers aren’t exactly millionaires. The reality is: if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.”
Working as a mystery shopper
• Visit the mystery shopping forum thread on moneysavingexpert.com for word-of-mouth reccomendations about different companies and how they operate.
• If you are unsure about the authenticity of a company, check whether it is a vetted member of the MPSA at www.mspa-eu.org.
• Stay on the right side of the taxman: “It is unlikely that there will be a taxable profit if the mystery shopper is simply reimbursed for the cost of meals they are required to eat to fulfil their assignments,” says a spokesperson HMRC. “Profits will arise, however, if any assignments involve a fee or if the mystery shopper is reimbursed for the cost of goods which they are allowed to keep. In which case the tax charge will be based on the value of those goods.”
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