I remember when we started mystery shopping, people would always say that they thought it was a scam. After a while, though, they became more prevalent, consistently arriving once a week with modest pay and a little reimbursement. Usually, it was stores in your general area, most of which you were going to anyway.
They give you a list of instructions to follow, a survey to complete, a time frame for completion and send you on your way. Usually they want you to go to specific sections and ask an employee a specific question. Sometimes, they want to know what product is being pushed, but most often, they want to know what the employee looks like and how they are doing their job. Are they a rude slob or a clean cut professional?
It is a weird mindset you have to adopt to complete this. Usually, they expect you to act like a retail spy. Sometimes, despite this, they expect you to ask questions that makes you sound as if you have suffered some mild head trauma.
Sometimes, they ask you to do something weird. The summer before last, I was told to steal something sizable but cheap from a chain of grocery stores by leaving it under the cart to see if anyone noticed. The first few times, you print off all of the documentation they give you, convinced that you will be leapt upon by grocery security and have to prove that you were hired by a shadowy organization to extract this item, and you chose to accept this mission before the message self-destructed.
This fear is born of a real occurrence in my life. Almost two decades ago, I was a heavy, heavy smoker who ended up out of work. Addiction will drive you to desperation and, after searching though all of your spent butts ‘looking for tails,’ you’re willing to throw aside your morals to scratch that itch.
I went into the grocery store with the idea of buying food, but money was extremely tight and, at that time, cigarettes were in a kiosk right out were everyone could reach it. I took a pack and stacked it with my things, telling myself I couldn’t afford it and that I should put it back. Instead, I slipped it into my pocket. I was allowed to check out before the store detective asked me to step to one side.
I was asked directly for the pack of smokes I had placed in my pocket, and when I sheepishly handed them over, I was taken into the back of the bakery, of all places. Somewhere quite and dark, where no one could see. There, I was made to sign forms saying that I would pay the store $300 to keep them from reporting me to the cops. I was also told to stay away from the store forever or face the consequences.
That I was such a pushover tells you that I am not the type of person that normally steals. For two weeks, I waited in dread, checking the mail to see if wages for my sin had arrived. The scare tactic was effective, and I didn’t step foot in that store again until 3 years after it had been bought by another company. It hung with me like a weight on my soul, a bullet dodged, and I swore I would never cause myself such grief again.
Instead, during that summer, I got really adept at stealing watermelons. Looking at this pattern on the floor, I selected them because it would blend in the best, like old school military camouflage. When I got to the cashier, I was friendly and open, which if you know me, is as surprising as getting punched in the face by your grandmother. I kept them completely distracted from doing their jobs with the force of my friendliness. I became so notoriously good at stealing watermelons, the parent company started training for the watermelon-thief specifically and it became the mark that told the store that you were a mystery shopper. Once you’re ‘made’ at that store, you’re done at that location and cannot shop it again (just like Real Crime!)
Mystery shopping changes how you think about retail. I remember times I would come home full of righteous indignation, because I received awful service and I was not mystery shopping them. When you did get awful service on a ‘shop, you would come home cackling with glee. ‘Gotcha, you jerk! I’ll show you. DON’T YOU KNOW WHO I AM!?’
Mystery shopping also changes how retail treats you, eventually. If you get sent into one place, doing the same scripted reactions over and over, someone is bound to catch on, which is how you get ‘made.’ After that, everyone at that store treats you like gold as if you stepped into a Norman Rockwell painting. Employees will suddenly chat you up as if you were old friends (while making sure that their nametags are pointed directly at you the whole time, of course). I have been flirted with and complimented. I have been handed free bread straight from the oven, given the ‘don’t tell the boss’ extras and received better employee discounts than the employees, themselves, receive. It can be rather intoxicating.
Today, I was contacted about two job offers via text message (which was a unique occurrence, in itself), neither of which will require me to pay for anything up front. One is to go into the office of one of my service providers to complain, and considering I have been bombing this provider on various social media sites for a few months, I am not surprised. The other is to go into a dealership and engage a salesman. One I have needed to do for a while and the other is just fun, but both will pay me extremely well.
That was when it really hit me. Some of the places that I would mystery shop were very slow to change bad habits, to the point that I was genuinely confused at their lack of progress. Sometimes, the reimbursement was a little less than the cheapest thing you could buy to prove you had been there, or you’d get distracted and spent much more than you were to be reimbursed. Granted, you would be paid for the trip as well, so if done right, you still weren’t out anything, but sometimes you’d surpass that amount too.
That’s when it hit me. Like the Ouroboros, this is what Retail America was doing to keep themselves alive. They could care less what my survey said in most cases. At best, I was a little bit of profit, at worst, I was a sales number on a spread sheet and a Joseph’s Goat leading other shoppers inside, because no one like to shop in an empty store.
So, in the end, yes, mystery shopping is real, and you can make quite a lot if you apply yourself.
… and to those people that said it was a scam, it is. Just not the type of scam you thought.