Alice Sibley

My Mystery Shopping Cover Was Blown! Here’s what happened.

I tried. I really did. I am a very experienced mystery shopper and have been regularly misrepresenting myself to sales personnel on behalf of dozens of mystery shopping companies for seven years. Yet there I was, on the phone with a car dealership salesman, getting my cover blown. I thought I had pulled it off and then, as he hung up the phone, I heard him say those scary, identifying words: “mystery shopper”.

Whoops. What did I do wrong? How did I out myself? Well, to tell you the truth I knew exactly what went wrong. In fact, I had an inkling that I was in trouble from within the first five minutes of the shop. I followed the shop guidelines and everything, but they still failed me. Here’s what happened to me and how you can avoid getting your cover burned too.

Same Salesman, Same Contact Info

I had completed this same mystery shop over 6 months prior and knew I might have torpedoed my shop when I walked in and the same salesman greeted me. It’s their job to remember clients, just as it’s your job as a mystery shopper to remember the salespeople. This guy seemed to remember me and I had prepared for that and made a comment that I had paused my search for a new car because my husband changed jobs and we wanted to wait on making a purchase while he was between jobs. Sounds plausible right? I thought so. I also always shop based on scenarios true to my real life so I didn’t have to remember a different back story every time.

I thought that I had recovered from him remembering me and that things went well, then I realized that he never asked for my contact information by the end of the shop. Salespeople were supposed to get the client contact info and call them to follow up within two days and I had to mark that he failed to complete this requirement. On the third day I got a phone call from the dealership and the salesman called to ask if I needed any further info about the car and see if I wanted to come in to purchase it. I said that I had not yet made a decision (as instructed by the guidelines) and he was very polite but as he hung up I heard him remark to someone else, “mystery shopper”. Busted. They must have had my information on file and probably had me flagged as a shopper either from the prior shop or for sure by this second shop.

Incorrect Guidelines Information

The guidelines for most car dealership mystery shops usually follow the same format. Say that you are there for either a specific car and see if the salesperson covers all the specific talking points or give them information that should lead them to suggest the specific car that you are there to shop. Usually you are given guidelines for how to respond to the dealership’s questions including the price range you are looking to spend, a monthly payment amount to finance or lease, and competitor cars you are also looking at.

This shop required me to say that I was looking at spending $38,000 to $41,000 to purchase this new luxury car. The salesman wound up the soft pitch and asked what I was looking to spend, I lobbed the given numbers at him, and he said that the car started at $44,000 for the base model. Whoops. Guess I hit a foul ball.

Wrong Car, Wrong Shoes

If you have never done a luxury brand mystery shop, here’s fair warning. Portraying a luxury customer is difficult. Suffice it to say, most mystery shoppers are not wealthy or we would not be out mystery shopping as a side hustle. I myself am frugal to a fault and for authenticity’s sake always attempt to be as true to myself as possible when conducting a mystery shop to be more believable. Unfortunately, my frugal self and a luxury new car purchaser do not easily inhabit the same shoes.

Some mystery shop guidelines for luxury car dealerships will stipulate that you drive a recent model car to the dealership, but not all include that in their requirements. This shop had no such requirement but it should have. Why? Because when you arrive at the car dealership they are watching you closely from the moment you arrive and taking in every piece of information about you in an attempt to find out how to best sell you a car. I arrived in a car that was over ten years old and had obvious dings and yellowing headlights. Right away I stuck out as not usually the person who would arrive at a luxury car dealership and purchase a brand new car.

I tried to channel my mother in law (a luxury vehicle driver) while I dressed for the mystery shop and dressed business casual, even wearing a button down shirt she had purchased for me. Your clothes say a lot about you. But not just what clothes you wear, but the condition they are in. Unfortunately my shoes were fairly worn and had obvious scuffs that a luxury car purchaser would have likely replaced ages ago. My purse also was not a luxury item and upon close inspection is obviously not real leather and showing signs of wear. I would have done better to have carefully inspected my clothing for signs of wear and even to carry a designer handbag or at least one that was in better shape.

Wrong Model

I had to give a price point that was lower than the starting price for the base model, so I attempted to keep most of the discussion on the features of the base model to keep the story believable. Through the course of our interaction, I realized that basically no one buys the base model at this luxury car dealership. They had very few base models on the lot and most people bought the intermediate model. I tried to note that I didn’t really need some of the features offered in the higher end models to keep up the rouse but in retrospect it is strange that a person that is looking at purchasing a brand new luxury vehicle would focus on cost savings and say how they don’t need some luxury amenities. My frugal feathers may have been showing a bit.

Woman at a Car Dealership

Now I hate to say this because it is sexist but it is absolutely true. If you are a female mystery shopper at a car dealership, the salesperson will almost always fail to attempt to close the sale with you or discuss price or financing because you are a woman. Especially if you mention a spouse or they see a ring on your finger. There, I said it. I hate to think that men are assumed to make car purchases without consulting anyone but that women are assumed to always need someone there with them. (Protip: always consult your spouse if you are going to buy a car, no matter who you are) Ok, now off my soapbox.

As a woman, I have done several mystery shops at several types of car dealership shops and never have had the salesperson attempt to close the deal. Because of this, it may be seen as a tell that you are a shopper if you ask shop required questions about financing or lease payments. Recently, I have seen some shop guidelines that require female shoppers to portray themselves as single and not mention a significant other during the shop. This by itself may not be a clear shopper giveaway but combined with the other issues noted above it certainly didn’t help.


The best way to not be identified as a mystery shopper is to be yourself and not stand out in any way. Blend in and don’t be memorable to the salespeople you interact with. This is not always so easy and in circumstances where you must spend a lot of time with a salesperson take care to make your story believable and dress the part. Double check the guidelines and if there is something in the guidelines that will blow your cover, either a too low budget or a uncommon question you have to ask the salesperson, email the scheduler and point it out to see  there is a way around the question or to modify the guidelines. When you do shops where you have to give information about yourself, including your name and contact information, be prepared for the company to keep it on file and to potentially identify you as a shopper in the future.

Be aware of what the average customer in any shop scenario looks and acts like and do your best to replicate that customer. There’s no real damage to your cover being blown and being identified as a shopper. Really, it just means that you cannot shop that company or location any more and it can cut into your income stream. But there are many, many more stores out there to continue shopping undetected. Happy shopping!

Alice Sibley is an avid mystery shopper, penny pincher, and blogger at Earning My Two Cents and Real Chic Real Chic. She lives in Louisiana with her husband, toddler, and two dogs and when she is not blogging she is enjoying re-watching old episodes of The Office and making well timed “That’s What She Said” jokes.

Your Comments:

  1. Tejas Jinturkar says:

    Absolutely True!!

  2. Linda Nicola says:

    I have done a lot of dealership shops lately. My vehicle is a 2013 Mazda 2 and I pass it off as the vehicle we tow behind our motor home. My story is that my vehicle was totaled, and I am driving the Mazda until I purchase a new vehicle. My last vehicle was totaled so it is an easy story for me to tell. Every sales associate jumped at the chance to try to sell me a new small vehicle to tow behind the motor home. Every sales associate asked me for the sale of the vehicle I had test-driven. Very few of the sales associates gave me a proper printed quote but I did receive a lot of post-it notes with the price, monthly payments and interest rates written on them. I have done so many dealership shops in the last two months, I will not be able to do anymore for at least a year or more.

  3. Chris says:

    I once did a luxury car shop acting as attorney for an estate, and my fiend was with me as the purchaser (using funds from the estate). It went over quite well.

  4. Shamit Brahma says:

    I avoid doing these shops as they don’t pay enough to the amount of time it requires to do these shops. Getting actual quotes on paper is another major problem.

    I guess luxury car shops are a bit different. I do have a luxury car so that is not a problem. I do remember when I had a Hyundai, I used to park far away and walk to the dealership. I always had the story that my friend dropped me off.

  5. Dave says:

    Last car shop I did I went in as a construction worker looking to buy a second car vehicle for pleasure driving. My car is 8 years old and decent shape but is a work vehicle. The shop went well in that aspect but failed in that the salesperson could not find the car in the lot he was looking for. He spent ten minutes walking around with the key clicking the remote and no car. I wound up test driving an alternative vehicle I spotted in front of the delearship.

  6. Sandyf says:

    Reading the above article I just want to comment that I fit the persona to a T that Alice said she did not think was believable. The main difference is that I can afford a luxury car, even two or three of them and I can afford it in cash or with financing if that is a better deal. Actually I would not call a $44,000 car a luxury car but then I live in Los Angeles where luxury is probably over $100,000. It is certainly believable to me and if was not treated well at a dealership due to the car I drove or the clothing I wore then they would not get my business. I drive my cars until they die…my last one died at 14 years old so I happen to have a newer model right now but if I was buying I would look at a luxury car without most of the bells and whistles. Do you want to know how I got rich? It is by being frugal..for me it is natural. I am not a consumer at heart and am a practical person. But I do occasionally purchase the upscale brands when I think it makes a difference. I am not advocating going to an upscale shop in your dirty and torn pants with scuffed up shoes as I am sure the msc does not want that but it should not make a difference and if it does that is what the msc wants to know. For the record I do not do upscale shops unless there is a reimbursement so I have not done car shops. Personally my car before last I did not buy from a dealer who at the end of the day called me honey and sweetie. After all his time with me I called around and found the car elsewhere and just bought it from another dealer who spent no time at all with me.
    Wealthy people come in all types as do not wealthy people. Some are very attuned to the prices of things and their value and that is how they maintain their wealth. Others quickly spend all they have and can quickly fall on hard times just like everyone else.

    • Alice @ Earning My Two Cents says:

      OP here and yes that is so very true. I felt the whole time that there is a type of person like you and my parents (and hopefully me someday!) that could just walk in and buy a new car outright, but they are not the frequent luxury car buyer. My Dad just bought a brand new Toyota all tricked out with add ons and could just write a check for it, but he isn’t drawn to luxury vehicles in the first place. Also, I think few luxury consumers are looking for the base model and likely want the bells and whistles which us frugal folks aren’t likely as attracted to.

  7. david says:

    New car “shops” are easily performed is you keep one thing in mind: never make small talk, is a form a social engineering used by salesmen. They are taught to key in on one(1) particular word(s) or experience you may have had, e.g. if you are a sports fan, they key in on the name of team, etc. if you have a favorite vacation spot, again key in on a word or phrase to associate to who your are.

    Dealerships are informed that they are being “shopped” thus the time spent with you costs them “big” money. If you are “spotted” as a shopper, you will be passed onto a person who is not in sales: decoy.

    Easiest scenario to spot is if the sale’s person “plays’ with their phone a considerable amount. They have perfected the art of maneuvering the camera in such an angle to photograph you. The way to dissuade this behavior is keeping moving in your seat or about the dealership.

    Never ask nor push to receive a complete tour of the dealership, allow them to offer their business card…the latter are dead ringers that you are a “shopper”. No one who is buying a car, cares about the service department.

    Keep mental notes of what you wore that day, if you are doing a second shop at the same dealership, your clothing speaking volumes.

    I work for 20 different companies and have learn to become invisible.

  8. Paula says:

    I’ve done a large number of car sales shops. However, until recently ,I avoided luxury car shops because one of the companies required shoppers to own a 2012 or newer model car, which I did not.Apparently, not many other shoppers had luxury cars either so they lifted the requirement. I don’t believe that u have to dress as if u have money because a lot of weathly people I know are conservative or frugal. So my main concern is looking nice by being near & clean & that works for me! The only trouble that I’ve ever had is that the salesman got really mad when I didn’t be buy the car that day.

  9. Zeke says:

    Good article, but how many times does “I” appear in it? Sheesh.

  10. Fern Ouslander says:

    Read how females treated at “car buying”. I went to dealers with spouse, but buying was strictly me, my money, my choice. Salesman kept addressing spouse even after he told this person I was the one making the purchase. After this happened 3 times, I stood up told my hubby, “let’s go”
    and walked out. When they called me a few hours later to apologize, told them sorry too late.