Is mystery shopping the perfect way to earn a free lunch or dinner? Some sources say it is. These fans say mystery shopping is the ideal side hustle for a foodie or a mall rat, providing both pay and free stuff. But others say the job has an ugly underbelly — lots of running around, detailed paperwork and miserable compensation.

What’s the truth? SideHusl decided to investigate. 

We signed up with several mystery shopping concerns to find out how many jobs you could get and what they involved. We wanted to know whether you really could score free meals or products. Could you work whenever you wanted? Was this job fun and flexible? How much work was involved and what would you earn doing it?

Realities

What we found was a mixed bag. The work can be fun and highly flexible. But it can also be tedious, time consuming and poorly paid. The key is which companies you work for and how selective you are about the gigs you accept.

Here’s the result of our investigation, broken into the good, the bad and the ugly.

The good

There are literally dozens of “consumer experience marketing” firms that use thousands of mystery shoppers to check out everything from bars and restaurants to shoe stores, bike shops and health care facilities. (You can find reviews of four of the largest mystery shopping sites — BestMark, SecretShopper, ACloserLook and MarketForce — on SideHusl.com.)

By signing up with all the mystery shopping firms, workers in big cities can typically choose from dozens of different options every single day.

In some cases, the jobs were engaging. For instance, one suggested that you bring your toddler to Griffith Park in Los Angeles, where you were to ride the miniature train. Another wanted you to get ice cream. Several offered reimbursements for lunches and dinners in exchange for  reviewing everything from sandwich shops to elegant restaurants.

There were also reviews of salons and stores that promised to reimburse you for services and products that many people would otherwise buy on their own.

The bad

On the other hand, the pay is bad — and even worse when you consider your out-of-pocket expenses.

For instance, when we tested BestMark, there were 16 shops available within 50 miles of our tester’s location. However, the nearest assignment was to test the waxing services at a salon 17.5 miles away. The pay: $18.

Given the transportation time, the time required for the service and the time necessary to provide the write-up, we estimated that this job would require a minimum of two hours to complete, making the pay roughly $9 an hour if you had no expenses. But, if you accounted for mileage at the IRS’s 58 cents per mile rate (35 miles x 58 cents = $20.30), our tester would have lost money on this job.

Another assignment was to test whether a video game retailer would stop an underage kid from buying a game for mature audiences. The shopper was supposed to bring his/her under-age child; split up in the store and both independently buy — or try to buy — something. Total pay for the shop: $11 — and you had to buy something with that. In a best-case scenario, the net pay for this job worked out to about $3 an hour. 

When we tested SecretShopper, there were fewer job options, but more involved meals. Since many mystery shopping advocates see this side hustle as a way of grabbing a free lunch, we tested how it worked.

I took my mom to a local “grab and go” mystery shop that promised a $38 reimbursement. The only problem? Two sandwiches and two soft drinks set us back $41. So, once again, the experience was a net loser financially speaking. That said, since the main part of the “job” involved taking my mom to lunch, I had no gripe with the time spent.

The ugly

However, the biggest complaints about mystery shopping involve the paperwork and deadlines.

Each shop typically requires reading at least three typed pages of detailed instructions. Any misstep can jeopardize your pay. In addition, you must file a detailed report, usually within 24-hours of completing the shop. If you miss the report deadline, even by a few minutes, the mystery shopping company may decline to pay you. 

How bad is the paperwork?

SecretShopper asked our tester to review a bike shop. The fee: $20, with no additional reimbursements. To complete this shop, the mystery shopper was provided with five single-spaced, typed pages of instructions. These instructions told the shopper that he/she needed to do six things:

  1. Call the shop before hand and ask specific questions, noting the name of the employee and all sorts of details about how quickly they responded, etc; 
  2. visit the shop’s website and provide your opinion about how well it directed you to the shop and aided your bike-shopping experience
  3. Email the shop with questions and report back on how quickly and how well your note was answered and who answered it. (This needed to be done several days before you physically visit the shop.)
  4. Go to the shop and time how quickly and well you were helped; whether the shop  and the parking lot were in good shape
  5. Use the restroom and report on that too
  6. File at least 3 pages of detailed paperwork, saying who you talked to in each of those experiences.
  7. Everything had to be completed before noon Central Time the day following your in-person shop. 

The really ugly

That’s a lot of work for not much pay. But, it gets worse.

Mystery shoppers typically use their own money to buy the products and services that they’re reviewing. The mystery shopping firms agree to reimburse them later. (If you’re given an up-front check to pay for a mystery shop, don’t cash it. It is most likely a scam. If you are given a big check, it’s definitely a scam.) However, many mystery shopping firms are slow to pay, taking as much as two months to reimburse or pay their shoppers.

Worse, mystery shopping firms also reserve the right to refuse payment if the shopper’s report “doesn’t meet standards.” That vague caveat is used by some companies to stiff shoppers who filed timely reports. Your only option in these instances is to report the mystery shopping firm to the Better Business Bureau or complain on social media.