Members of the Mystery Shop Forum have frequently asked if it is financially feasible to survive solely on mystery shopping income. Volunteers, who were successfully earning $2,000 or more per month, were solicited and Mystery Shopper Magazine is proud to present the first in a series of interviews on the topic.
MSM talks with Ms. A:
MSM: Please give us a brief overview of your background prior to mystery shopping and, if you will, discuss what past work experiences have contributed to your success as a mystery shopper.
Ms. A: I worked in HR for several years and then was a manager for several different companies. Most recently, I was a real estate broker and although I am still licensed, I am no longer active. I also once held a job as a buyer/planner that required a strong focus on details and exceptional organization skills, which are crucial in this field.
MSM: How did you first learn of mystery shopping and what was the impetus for you to begin? At what point, did you realize it could become a lucrative venture?
Ms. A: One night, I was bored and learned of it while browsing the Internet. I had recently left a high-paying job and, since I was just starting out in real estate, I wanted to supplement my income.
I cannot identify a specific point at which I realized it would be as lucrative as it has become for me. The ratio of my work hours just gradually began shifting toward mystery shopping and away from real estate. The shift increased significantly in 2008, when the real estate market slowed down.
MSM: Monetarily, can you give us an approximation of what you consider a “bad month”, a “good month” and a “banner month”? Do you count “useful reimbursements”, such as gasoline, groceries, etc. when computing your “earnings”
Ms. A: A “bad” month is less than $3,000; a “good” month is $4,000 to $4,500; and a “banner” month is anything over $5,000, which I have only been able to hit twice. I do not count any reimbursements in my income, although I am not saying I shouldn’t or wouldn’t; it’s just that I don’t at this point.
MSM: Please describe your average workweek, including number and types of shops, amount of time spent away from home and the time required to report the shops.
Ms. A: If I’m working locally, my average workweek is probably 32 hours spent conducting the shops and then another 15 hours of data input. About once a month I do a road trip, which of course skews the numbers. As far as the mix of shops, I do a lot of bank shops, cell phone assignments, compliance auditing (pharmaceutical, financial and real estate) and video, video, video. As a general rule, I stay away from reimbursement-only shops as well as most food and restaurant shops. So far, year-to-date in 2014, I have averaged 112 shops per month and $36.00 per shop.
MSM: It would be difficult to generate significant earnings from mystery shopping without a sound strategy. What is yours and what makes it so effective?
Ms. A: I do as much video as possible. I evaluate every possible assignment for financial value, and don’t do many “just-for-fun” shop and, as I said, very few reimbursement-only shops. Although exceptions are rare, I did do a reimbursement-only Lego shop last Christmas, when I drew my 10-year-old nephew’s name and his wish list consisted, primarily, of Legos.
When I first started mystery shopping, I used to immediately dismiss anything that was more than 10 or 15 miles away. Now, I will look at it and consider it as long as I can find other work in the area, so that it makes overall financial sense to make the trip. If I can’t quickly find enough jobs, I move on. Learning where I might find other work, which MSCs might have it, and the type of work they might have, all comes with time and experience. The key is that time is money. I read many posts by forum members who don’t seem to grasp that important concept.
I keep a spreadsheet of all current and past work. I use graphs within my spreadsheet, which enables me to quickly see and track my current pay-per-assignment and compare where I am financially now versus a year ago or a month ago, etc. I am very organized and keep on top of my filing, data entry, etc. It takes a few minutes to set these things up and although you may need to tweak them along the way, in the long term, the time it saves and the information you glean from it is well worth it.
MSM: How stressful is it maintaining this level of income, month after month? What do you do to keep from getting burned out? Most importantly, how do you maintain order and tranquility in your personal and professional life in spite of an uncertain availability of work and a chaotic schedule?
Ms. A: It’s only stressful when my calendar isn’t full, which fortunately isn’t too often. When that happens, I obviously have a little more time on my hands, so I will check out job boards of companies with which I haven’t worked for a while or consider taking assignments that I normally wouldn’t take. I call those my “desperation jobs” and sometimes I find they’re not so bad after all, whereas other times I add them to my “Not-Again-In-a-Million-Years” list.
I haven’t had a problem balancing personal and professional lives. I don’t have children living at home and since I know my schedule several days out, I’m able to plan accordingly. To keep organized, I keep all my appointments–both personal and professional–on my smartphone calendar, which is synced on all my devices. I keep a running task list of pretty much everything, such as appointments I need to schedule, calls I need to make, etc.
I’m very selective about how I spend my time. The Mystery Shop Forum is my guilty pleasure, but I am careful not to spend too much time on there. I keep my life balanced by doing things for ME, such as taking guitar lessons, learning Spanish, doing volunteer work at the local women’s shelter and making time for important people in my life. These things make me feel fulfilled and that is mainly how I avoid burnout.
MSM: What advice do you have for new mystery shoppers and for experienced mystery shoppers, who want to increase their income?
Ms. A: Do your time, pay your dues, and be patient. You will NOT make $4,000 per month starting out, and may never be able to achieve that, depending on where you live and your personal situation. Establish connections with as many MSCs as possible, do excellent work, be reliable and know when to cut your losses. Don’t load up your schedule with a bunch of shops for which you won’t be paid for 60-90 days, but don’t dismiss all shops just because of their length of payment terms. Quickly cut loose MSCs that don’t pay on time or at all.
If you don’t have a smartphone, get one. If you don’t have a spreadsheet or another method to track your work, payments and evaluate your income and expenses, make one. Read the forum for tips and information about MSCs with which you’re not familiar and have some fun and make some connections while you’re there.
Don’t be afraid to negotiate for more money on ANY shop. Remember, this is business, not personal, and the worst they can do is to say “no”. Know your own worth and your time’s worth and be firm, but always remain professional. Above all, be careful how you spend your time. Evaluate your average pay per shop and know the costs associated with the earnings.
MSM: Thank you for your generosity in sharing all of your insights and knowledge. You have definitely inspired many of us to get more organized and become more focused on the bottom line.