What is a Mystery Shopper?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

Many service-oriented industries, such as grocery stores, retail stores, banks and casinos, wish to evaluate their customer service levels, but they find it difficult to be completely objective. Instead, many of these businesses turn to a mystery shopper, a trained and independent service evaluator who visits the facility as a typical customer. Detailed notes of his or her experiences are later sent to managers for careful examination and discussion with the staff. Most businesses encourage these shoppers to be objective and present both negative and positive opinions based on industry standards.

Mystery shoppers visit retail establishments.
Mystery shoppers visit retail establishments.

A mystery shopper may simply walk into a restaurant and order a meal, or she may be assigned a specific challenge to test the flexibility of customer service. He or she may inform the hostess of a restaurant that she is allergic to salt, for example. The restaurant's response to such an unusual request may be part of the test. The shopper may also act hard to please or attempt to return merchandise without proper receipts. This can help managers expose holes in a security system or discover employees who are rude to difficult customers.

A mystery shopper might be told to try a single item, such as a hamburger.
A mystery shopper might be told to try a single item, such as a hamburger.

Professional mystery shopping companies provide different levels of quality control analysis, from a simple sales transaction to an in-depth evaluation of the premises, staff and merchandise. Often, a part-time mystery shopper is asked to purchase a specific product, such as a hamburger from a fast food restaurant, then fill out a detailed form concerning the experience. A person may be paid an hourly wage to walk through a store or merely reimbursed for any purchases made and evaluated.

Mystery shoppers may evaluate customer service at a store.
Mystery shoppers may evaluate customer service at a store.

Not all mystery shopper transactions involve a purchase, however. Sometimes, the time between a shopper's entry and his recognition by the staff is noted, or the shopper may ask a sales associate about the merchandise. Managers may also want to know about the cleanliness of a particular store or any suspicious behavior by employees or customers.

Becoming a mystery shopper is often a matter of registering with a legitimate mystery shopping agency and waiting for assignments. A number of fraudulent programs have appeared both in online and print advertising, so be especially cautious when answering any notice for mystery shoppers. Legitimate companies do not charge a sign-up fee, nor do they ask for personal financial information during the application process.

Mystery shoppers review the quality of service and products at local stores.
Mystery shoppers review the quality of service and products at local stores.
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments


Sneakers41-That is so true. Every mystery shopper thinks that everyone knows that they are a mystery shopper when they first start out because they are very self conscious. The best thing to do is to read the scenario a few days before your shop and actually visualize yourself conducting the shop.

Then after you actually complete the shop write down as much information as you can remember in your car about the exchange and write it up when you get home. Always remember the name of the person you dealt with and what they looked like.

You would be surprised how quickly you forget what they looked like when you get home. Also, always keep the phone number of the company handy in case you run into a problem. Sometimes locations are closed, or if you are shopping an event representative they may not have shown up so you can not evaluate them.

It is also important never to reveal to anyone that you are a mystery shopper. The shop and all of the information regarding it is highly confidential and should never be revealed to anyone.


Oasis11-That does happen from time to time and it is good that you were accurate. Mystery shoppers are needed in virtually every industry.

Mystery shoppers are hired for a specific job and are considered independent contractors. For example, if you perform a job for Gapbuster or TNS you are not called a Gapbuster mystery shopper or a TNS mystery shopper because you are not an employee of these companies.

Likewise you can not subcontract your assignment to another person either. That will get you blackballed in this industry fast. Honesty and integrity are paramount to having longevity in this industry.

If you falsify a report, or send someone else to do your assignment, you will never see another assignment again because the mystery shopping industry is small and the schedulers and editors all talk.

In addition, if you do not complete an assignment on time, you will also receive a bad reputation as being unreliable. It is best to only apply for assignments that you can actually do. Many new shoppers make the mistake of taking every shop that comes along and then they are overburden with more work than they can handle. This leads to burn out and the potential for sloppy work, which you can allow to happen. In the beginning only do one or two shops at the most so that you can get used to the job before committing to more. I highly recommend working everyday so that you will get over the nervousness that you will experience when you first start shopping.


Icecream17- A mystery shopper job requires attention to detail. Many assignments required very specific information.

I recently did an assignment in which the client wanted to know the full description of the person that I was shopping and where was their desk situated in the office as well as what the cross streets were for the business and a full description of the locale including major landmarks.

This does not happen often but you have to be ready to supply all of the details that the client needs. Keeping an accurate timeframe of when you entered the business and when you exited as well as detailed reports regarding the exchange are critical.

This is especially true if there is a dispute regarding your report. Many times when a report is slightly negative an employee will try to put the blame on someone else and this is where the accuracy of the shopper comes into play.

A few years ago, I did an evaluation for a financial representative and although the report was neutral in tone, the fact that it lacked any positive comments caused the employee to question the report.

I told the company what had happened as I wrote it on the report and the company verified the information with the video tape and said that I was right.


It is really easy to become a mystery shopper. All you have to do is go to either the MSPA website or a website called Volition and sign up with as many mystery shopping companies as possible.

Most of these companies offer mystery shopper jobs within the United States but many companies also shop internationally. Companies like Bare International and Beyond Hello offer international assignments as well.

Legitimate mystery shopper jobs can be found on the websites of these companies listed in both MSPA and Volition. You will have to sign up and many of these companies also require a writing sample as well.

The writing sample should pertain to a previous shopping experience either good or bad, but it should never be an actual narrative that was submitted previously.

The mystery shopper application will also ask if you have a scanner, a digital camera, and any audio recording or video recording devices.

Many companies also want to know if you have a Smartphone or a Blackberry device along with a laptop.

They also would like to know if you are willing to travel and for what distance. If you have previous experience in the industry, they will also want to know what other mystery shopping companies you’ve worked with.

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