Get paid to shop!
Ever wanted to be paid to shop and eat out? Here's the lowdown on mystery shopping...
I've recently gone back to one of my favourite pastimes - mystery shopping.
When I first imagined what mystery shopping would be like, I had visions of myself standing in an Inspector Gadget-style mac in Sainsbury's, shifty-eyed and trying not to look too conspicuous.
...thankfully, it's not like that.
Mystery shopping has been around for 60 years, and sectors that range from retail to the financial sector have all jumped on the service bandwagon, eager to know how their business is really performing.
With so many retailers in need of our opinions, mystery shopping can prove a nice little earner - as long as you don't get carried away.
It's fair to say that mystery shopping won't make you a millionaire, and very few people actually make a career out of mystery shopping. However, it's still an interesting way to make a bit of spare cash - and perhaps get a free meal too...
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The most important thing to remember is that it shouldn't cost you anything to join a mystery shopping panel.
Companies pay for your services, and not the other way round, so never, ever, cough up any 'admin fees' or miscellaneous charges, even if the reason sounds legitimate.
There have been reports of mystery shopping scams that have cropped up on Gumtree, and unsolicited emails asking for bank details or payment.
This is not how mystery shopping works, and if you receive an email asking for any type of payment, do not respond. It's a scam.
If none of these names sound familiar, Aba-i intelligence runs mystery shops at Selfridges and the Arcadia group (which includes Topshop and Burton).
There is no limit to the amount of sites you can sign up to, as there's no obligation to complete any shops. Once you've signed up, again there isn't a minimum number of shops you need to complete, and you can shop and get paid at your leisure.
So what do I have to do?
Mystery shops range from store visits to phone calls, and even sending emails to customer service teams.
Hardcore mystery shoppers can even hook themselves up to a hidden camera in a Donal Macintyre style covert video operation, and take footage of their experiences to send back to base.
It may sound very MI5, but for this work you'll need to be an experienced mystery shopper, and will receive training to carry an 'operation' out successfully.
Now for the important bit. The money.
To claim your cash, you will be expected to write about your experience on a fairly detailed report. This includes anything from the cleanliness and atmosphere, the presence of staff and how you are treated during your shopping experience.
So, how much will you get?
The amount you'll get will depend on who you work for, and the type of work you do. Selfridges pay £10 per completed mystery shop, and others pay anything from £5 to £25 - with some also paying expenses.
Telephone work usually pays less, and you'll make around £1 to £5 per survey completed.
One you've completed your shop, it will need to be verified. Instructions on how to do this will be clear at the start.
If you make a telephone call, you'll probably need to note down the time and the name of the person you spoke to. In-store mystery shops are usually validated by making a purchase and noting details on the receipt.
Mystery shopping isn't all about splashing someone else's cash, and although you'll get paid to shop, you also have to think about other expenses such as travel, and even the money you'll have to fork out for lunch.
Considering you may only get a tenner for your efforts, it may make you think twice about whether it's worth it.
Aba-i Intelligence encourages you to complete your mystery shop as part of your regular shopping routine, so you don't go out of your way to earn the extra cash.
Longer, covert mystery shops, will require you to cover quite a big area. For example, Performance In People says its video mystery shoppers cover an area of around 150 miles.
For this, you'll need a car, and be prepared to visit several locations in one day. Though most times you will be reimbursed for these long haul journeys, you will also have to weigh up whether the effort is worth the relatively small reward.
Finally, as a mystery shopper, you are responsible for declaring payments and paying any income tax due to the Inland Revenue.
So now you're in the know, why not earn some money while doing your everyday shopping?
Advice from fellow mystery shoppers is welcome!
This article was first published in July 2009 and has since been updated.