No such thing as a free lunch? That’s not something you’ll hear a mystery shopper say. I know this because for the past couple of months, I’ve been stuffing my face at restaurants for nowt – all in the name of market research.
In one busy month, I managed to scoff more than £100 worth of free grub – eating out at least a couple of times a week at big high street chains.
Unfortunately, I can’t say exactly where I’ve been as mystery shoppers are sworn to secrecy (it’s not very mysterious otherwise). Here’s what I’m allowed to tell you…
My mystery shopping diary
During my first month, I notched up an impressive £117.23 for the seven jobs I did. While each paid a small fee – on top of a full refund for my bill, as I always managed to stay within the spending limits – I found this only just covered my expenses on some, although I did end up being about £10 in profit by the end of the month.
|Where I went
|What I bought
|How much I was reimbursed
|Extra fee I was paid
|Well-known pizza & pasta chain
|Two mains, one drink
|Independent London cinema
|One ticket, soft drink & popcorn
|Well-known coffee shop chain
|One sandwich, one hot drink
|American burger chain
|One burger, soft drink & fries
|Japanese fast food chain
|Miso soup, one drink
|Well-known French bistro chain
|One main, dessert & drink
|Well-known Italian bistro chain
|One starter, main & drink
Becoming a mystery shopper
There are a few different sites you can do it through, but I’ve been using Market Force Information since April and I’ve found it to be the best of the various ones I’ve tried. Do watch out for scams. The genuine mystery shopping sites are completely free to use – so if at any point you’re asked for cash, go back and make sure it’s legit.
If you like the sound of dining out and someone else picking up the bill, and don’t mind doing your bit to help companies improve service standards for paying customers, it’s easy to get involved. Simply create a free account (over-18s only). You’ll be asked to complete a questionnaire about yourself and you’ll also need to pass an English reading/writing test – take your time with some of the answers, they can be a bit tricky.
You can apply for ‘assignments’ at restaurants, cafes, sandwich shops and so on, depending on what’s available where you live. It isn’t all food (that’s just what I’ve found to be most MoneySaving), you can also do assignments in shops, on trains and at gyms if that’s your thing.
How it works
Once accepted for a job based on simple criteria, eg, I’m a meat eater, I turn up when they least expect me and stealthily observe the goings-on like a restaurant spy or an undercover reporter, taking mental notes as I fill my belly.
Once I’ve done what was asked of me (sometimes ordering a specific dish, or testing the staff’s knowledge of the menu), I pay the bill and slink home to complete an online survey the same night – evaluating everything from the warmth of the greeting I received and the deliciousness of the food to the wonkiness of my table.
Finally, I can claim back my expenses by uploading a photo of the receipt to the Market Force website. A couple of weeks later, the money will appear in my bank account.
Note: This is likely to be read by a large number of MoneySavers, which unfortunately might mean a bit of extra competition for the best jobs.
Mystery shopping do’s and don’ts
A few things I’ve learnt in my first few months as a mystery shopper:
DON’T expect to get rich. It’s more geared towards freebies than raking in money, although you can make small profits on some jobs. It won’t make you rich, but mystery shopping can save you money if you regularly eat out. Make sure you account for the time it’s going to take and consider your travel costs, which you usually can’t claim.
DON’T rush your work. When it’s time to complete your report after a visit, you should try to set aside at least 45 minutes as some of the questionnaires demand a lot of information. You’ll need a good memory and an eye for detail – missing something you were specifically asked to do can mean you don’t get paid for a job.
DON’T be too fussy. Not all the jobs you’re offered at first will be super attractive. Get a few under your belt, and be thorough in your reports, and you’ll hopefully find determination pays off. The best jobs are reserved for once you’ve proved yourself – by my second month I was being offered a £200 hotel stay with room service thrown in.
DON’T get carried away. Although whatever you spend will normally be covered, there’s a time gap of up to a fortnight between you forking out the cash and it being refunded into your bank account. Don’t take on jobs if you haven’t got the necessary funds going spare – the financial risks aren’t worth it. And only overspend if you’re happy to pay the difference.
DO save your receipts. It’s always a good idea to keep the physical printed copy of your receipts even after you’ve uploaded a digital version with your report. Should anything go wrong, this is the best proof you have of the purchases you’ve made.
DO keep it MoneySaving. My favourite jobs are the ones for things I probably would’ve spent money on anyway. I’ve lost count of the number of posh sarnies I’ve eaten on my lunch breaks, saving me from having to make my own at home.
DO have fun. For me, mystery shopping is a hobby above all else. If you go into it with gleaming dollar signs in your eyes, you’ll only be disappointed. Pick the assignments you’re going to enjoy and have fun playing the part of an undercover reporter. Any profit is just a small bonus.
DO tell your friends. An easy way to boost your mystery shopping earnings is to refer your friends and family. Market Force (the site I’ve been using) pays £1.50 for each new shopper who signs up via a special link you can share with them by email, on Facebook or Twitter. Note: you’ll only get the money once they complete their first job.
Tempted to start mystery shopping? Have a read of this thread on the MSE Forum – it’s full of helpful info and lots of great tips. Feel free to share your own as well.