Lately I've given some thought to "why." Why don't people keep at it? Why is it such a transient industry? Based on conversations I've had with others along with my own experiences, here are a few pointers for getting the most out of your mystery shopping experience:
- Be a business owner. As an independent contractor, you are the boss, so think like one. Keep your overhead low, and always know your costs. I would never take a restaurant shop 20 miles away that pays $7.50. There's a reason the IRS allows you to deduct $.555 per mile for travel: gas is less than half the cost of operating a vehicle. You should also consider whether there is any real value in the reimbursement part of the shop. For example, I regularly shop local grocery stores because the reimbursement is almost like cash: I would have to buy groceries anyway, so why not let the MSC pay for my groceries? On the other hand, the reimbursement I receive at the cash advance store is meaningless. I would never take out a payday loan on my own, so to be reimbursed the fee for doing so has zero value.
- Add value with routes. My car doesn't leave the garage for one or two shops. Last week I shopped 11 gas stations and 2 restaurants in one day. I left the house before 8 AM and was home by 1 PM, making $128 in 5 hours plus reporting time.
- Concentrate to mitigate. Your costs, that is. Learning how to perform a shop might take an hour and require you to print 14 pages of instructions. Taking one $10 shop isn't going to cover your costs. If you are going to invest the time preparing to do a shop, take as many of the shops as you can. You learn once and then get paid over and over again.
- Be picky. This last tip could be the most valuable one. Nearly every MSC will pay more than the listed amount if they must to get the job done. Often the shop cycle is a monthly one and the last week of every month is where you make the real money. I routinely earn $30 for restaurant jobs that normally pay $8. I've been paid $300 to take 4 gas stations that were out in the middle of nowhere, but I've also been paid $40 to audit a gas station in an undesirable area of my own city (the trick is to do the shop early while the prostitutes and crack heads are still sleeping!).
Of course, the key to all this is to think with a clear head. If you live a frugal life, you can afford to pick and choose your income. Some shops (or schedulers) I enjoy and will accept for face value. But there are others I just won't do. This mentality keeps me from burning out or flaking, something I never do (flaking, or accepting a job but not completing it, is the surest way to losing your relationship with the MSC).