Written by elcarev68
In 2009 it had been ten years since I had run a marathon, so I figured I ought to check off another item on my bucket list. I still couldn’t afford a Karmann Ghia convertible, so I skipped to the next item on the list: try being a secret shopper.
My first shop was a specialty salad place. The meal was delicious, the adrenaline surge of playing secret agent was a total rush, and the critical feedback from the editor conveyed warm encouragement. I tried another to prove to myself that I could ace the report, and then put a very satisfying checkmark on the list, figuring my secret agent days were done.
Two months later I was blindsided by the discovery of $60K in previously unknown debt for which I was responsible, followed immediately by a series of major expenses, followed by several years of chronic illness in my household. Mystery shopping moved off the bucket list and onto the to-do list.
I did every shop for all eight of the mystery shopping companies that I could find. I did gas stations, fast food, retail, cars, etc. I also did a lot of merchandising. I was the balloon person for big box stores. I stocked millions of prepaid cards, and processed returns at a hardware giant. Plus, I was answering online surveys, collecting bottle cap points, collecting scrap metal… anything for a buck. All this was on top of a 60+ hour per week salaried day job.
I was barely keeping it all together when in 2013 CRI had a glitch in their computer system. Through an internet search for help in getting reports submitted, I stumbled upon Mystery Shop Forum.
That was the turning point for me. I found out there were hundreds more companies available than the eight I had found on my own, with thousands more clients. Most importantly, I learned of these wonderful things called “bonuses.” (In my first four years of MS’ing I never asked for one. Now I don’t work without one.)
I still work my 60+ hours/week day job, and probably put in 40-50 hours/week MS’ing between research, shops, and reports. In 2014, there were more devastating medical bills, and I wound up doubling my MS goal for the year by completing exactly 1,000 shops and earning $24K in pay plus $4K in income-equivalent reimbursements. It was only possible due to the advice shared by veteran shoppers on the Forum from whom I’ve learned to shop much, much “smarter” (meaning for me more money earned and less time expended.) I’ve learned how to let go of perfectionism in reporting, become uncomfortably hardlined in my bonus demands, organize my shopping into an actual small business, and let go of a lot of shops that I really enjoy because they don’t pay enough.
OK, that’s my narrative. Obligatory Q&A?
My favorite MSC(s)? Maritz and AMA.
My favorite shop(s)? Whatever has the highest dollars earned to time spent ratio. Trite? Perhaps, but completely true. I’ll go anywhere and do almost anything for enough pay.
My biggest self-dope slap moment? Completing and reporting at a wrong location… as in 80 miles wrong, in a town with a totally different name and on a highway with a totally different number.
My specialty? Gas stations and various integrity audits.
Shops I don’t do? Fine dining, because I’d rather do three gas stations for $100 in profit and brown bag a sandwich for supper for the same amount of time onsite, driving and reporting. Also, nearly any shop that pays less than $20.
Most memorable shopping moment(s)? Making a higher education admissions representative cry with my backstory. Driving 150 miles just to take a photo of a bathroom door that I had forgotten. The devastation I felt watching my hidden video of a valet stealing $1.75 in change from my ashtray, knowing he would be unemployed within days. The look on the clerk’s face when I said I needed the $1 receipt to turn in to my Probation Officer.
Top advice to shoppers? Maintain your integrity. If you schedule a shop, complete the shop. If you screw up, then fess up and don’t cover up. Your word and your reputation will build your business.