See that woman in front of you at the fast-food joint ordering 10 different kids' meals? She could be a spy. Ditto the guy returning 50 pounds of dog food to the pet supplies outlet on the busiest day of the week.
They're mystery shoppers, also called secret shoppers. For a fee, they will test the customer service at local retailers, restaurants and other service-oriented businesses. And while getting paid to shop sounds like a dream come true for some, there's a lot more to it than running up someone else's credit card or enjoying a three-course lunch for free.
"People who do mystery shopping work for it," says John Swinburn, executive director of the Mystery Shopping Providers Association, a trade group for companies that hire shoppers. "People who promise big rewards are painting an unrealistic picture. It's very rare that a mystery shopper makes a living as a mystery shopper."
Still, mystery shopping has a certain allure. And if you work the system properly, you can make some extra money on your own terms by wandering the aisles of your favorite stores.
There's no such thing as a typical mystery shopper. While the assignments are popular with stay-at-home parents and retirees, they also attract college students and executives who are between jobs or changing careers.
"It runs the gamut," says Anne M. Obarski, executive director and founder of Merchandise Concepts, which hires shoppers for clients.
Businesses usually have some very specific questions or instructions for the shopper. "You can't just go and observe and decide, 'This is what I like, this is what I don't like,'" says Swinburn. "It's very objective."
For the typical shopper, pay ranges between comped meals to $25 to $50 for more complicated assignments. A job involving a more intricate script, a longer written report or some technical expertise could get you several hundred dollars.
Typically, shoppers don't work directly for the business they are evaluating. They usually are hired by third-party market research or similar firms on behalf of the client.
Your location is also a factor. There are more assignments in large urban and suburban areas, but there are also more shoppers to fill those jobs, says Swinburn.
Mystery shopping ups and downsLike anything else, mystery shopping has its ups and downs. One positive: You can set your own schedule. "What's great about this is that you can work as much as you want or as little as you want," says Ilisha Newhouse, author of "Mystery Shopping Made Simple."
And the hours are flexible, for the most part. You might spend a day shopping and that evening or the next day writing reports for clients. "It's not necessarily an 8-to-5 thing," she says.
But the work is often sporadic, meaning you probably can't make a steady living at it. You can, however, pick up a little extra money to supplement your income. Just be sure it's an assignment you want.
Newhouse loves to read, so she thought she'd landed a dream assignment when a company asked her to shop a bookstore. But when she learned the target business was an adult bookstore, she declined.
In this case, the job violated Newhouse's personal code. Some other reasons to turn down an assignment: It's too far away, it's in a lousy neighborhood, the pay is too low, or you don't have sufficient knowledge about the product or service to be credible.
Finding workSo are you ready to hit the stores? Before you sign up, remember the cardinal rule of mystery shopping: You never pay for the opportunity to shop. Ever.