Hits and myths of the mystery shopper

Emily Stott, ex-mystery shopper and author of Shopped, reveals her secrets

GETTING paid to shop is surely a dream job. But it isn’t just the stuff of fantasy — I’ve been working as a mystery shopper for 15 years and in my new book I debunk a few myths about this secretive world.

First things first: mystery shopping won’t make you rich and it’s hard work, as you cover a lot of miles and spend a lot of time writing reports. Expenses are rarely offered and pay is low but it is the ultimate flexible part-time job. When my son started school and I had to juggle the school run with a part-time job and freelance writing, mystery shopping slotted in easily.

Mystery shopping requires a good eye for detail, an excellent memory and the ability to write descriptively. Reports can range from box ticking to in-depth questions requiring a blow-by-blow account of your experience. You can be asked to recall everything from the wording of promotional material to a staff member’s eye colour. It also helps to be comfortable acting a role — I’ve had to be fitted for bras and test supermarket toilets!

According to the Mystery Shopping Providers Association (MSPA) there are 50,000 mystery shopping visits every month. We time the fitting room queue, take covert snaps of dinner and count how many shop assistants smile. I was once asked by a lone shop assistant to come back in half an hour to give him the chance to go to the toilet while on other occasions the service has been so charming I’ve almost felt obliged to buy £600 shoes.

Last year I was asked to complete a visit to a London jeweller to ‘buy a gift’ and left with more than £20,000 worth of goods — sadly I didn’t get to keep that particular swag.

We mystery shoppers are self-employed, although there are a lot of companies you can register with — an internet search is your best starting point. You can choose your assignments and usually when to perform them. You might have to make a purchase, which you either have to return for a refund half an hour later or send back to the research company.

Occasionally, though, you can walk away from a 20-minute boutique visit with a pair of £150 designer jeans that you get to keep or a head of highlights that you couldn’t give back even if you tried.

Sign up to enough companies and you could take home £200 a month. If you can be available at the last minute and prove reliable, you’ll be first on the list for the best jobs. The only question is, could you keep your secret a secret?

Emily’s Shopped: A True Story Of Secret Shopping And Self-Discovery (September publishing), is out now