My Most Bizarre Mystery Shop Ever

Whenever you head out into the mystery shopping field, you never know what you are going to find. Most shops play out just as expected. But occasionally, something unexpected happens.

That was the case a few years ago when I signed up to complete a typical gas station mystery shop and site inspection. It’s the kind of assignment I have done hundreds of times.

On this particular day, I took a day trip up to the Richmond area and thought I would grab a quick shop in a small town on the return home.

As I turned onto the country road, I scanned each side for the gas station, which should have been located within one- or two-tenths of a mile from the main highway.

fireWhen I spotted what I thought was the driveway to the store, I quickly realized something was not quite right. A police car sat out front and caution tape surrounded the building, or what was left of it. The parking lot was taped off, as well. Much of the store had collapsed due to a recent fire. The pile of rubble was still smoldering.

After double-checking the address and allowing the disbelief to wear off, I snapped a few photos to upload to my report and made note that the store served a terrible cup of coffee.

When I returned home, I did a quick Google search and discovered that arson was suspected.

I submitted the report as a ‘closed’ location, as we are instructed to do when a shop is not open or has gone out of business. It is the one and only time I have ever listed a fire as the reason for a shop closure.

That smoldering rubble definitely represents my most bizarre mystery shop ever.

What has been your most bizarre mystery shop or shopping experience?

Just Start Mystery Shopping

car washA couple of weeks ago, I discovered a new opportunity for a car wash mystery shop. Since I had never completed this type of job before, many questions flooded into my mind as I read through the instructions.

Where do I pay for the car wash – at the self-serve kiosk or with an attendant?

What if I forget to purchase the correct car wash?

What if I don’t time the car wash correctly?

What if I can’t determine the manager on duty and document his name correctly?

I shot over a couple of questions to the mystery shop scheduler to gain more clarity. Even though I felt a bit apprehensive, I entered my request to accept the shop.

There is something about taking on a new type of mystery shop that gets my nerves frazzled. Prior to accepting jobs I have not previously completed, my mind often gravitates toward thoughts about anything and everything that could possibly go wrong.

Enter “the lizard brain” or “the resistance,” as author Seth Godin refers to our unfounded fears.

“The resistance is the voice in the back of our head telling us to back off, be careful, go slow, compromise.”

When we set out to accomplish something new, that little voice cautions us, warns us, pleads with us to remain in our known, comfortable, self-constructed safety zone.

Yet, consider the reality of what happens when we simply start something new. Our confidence grows with experience. We begin to question, “What was I so afraid of?” When we stop over-analyzing and begin taking action, the fear of change subsides rather quickly. As we stretch ourselves, personal growth occurs. Our mind eventually catches up and embraces the fresh opportunity and challenge.

When I was given the car wash shop, I ended up completing the assignment without issue. After submitting the report, I received a 10/10 rating for the job. All those fears I had drummed up in my own mind never came to pass. And I got paid and reimbursed for the car wash, and my tires have never looked shinier since the day I bought my SUV.

If you are concerned about any aspect of mystery shopping, just start. It’s the only solution to overcoming the resistance.

Photo Courtesy: Kelly Teague (Creative Commons)

A Simple Practice to Maximize Profit Through Mystery Shopping

Once you have signed up to complete a mystery shop, you will be given a document or list of instructions on how to perform the job. Unfortunately, some of the documents are long-winded and filled with copious details, and it can take quite a bit of time to read and memorize your scenario.

Your time is valuable, and the more time you are spending memorizing shop scenarios, the fewer shops you are actually completing.

That is why I recommend you invest most of your time accepting and conducting the same mystery shop at multiple locations.

For example, you research how to conduct mystery shops for gas station chain X. Instead of spending all that time learning the requirements for gas station chain X and completing one shop for the brand, pick up 10 or 20 assignments for that same gas station chain.

By doing so, you will have spent time learning just one set of instructions, but will have applied the training across multiple shops. Continue picking up these same shops month-after-month, year-after-year. In no time, you will become an expert on those chain-specific shops.

Because you will be building up a solid track record, mystery shopping companies will start seeking you out when they need high-paying shops completed under a tight deadline.

Most national gas station chains tend to have mystery shopping programs, and many popular national retailers do, as well. If you live in a city with multiple locations of the same shop, you will find that this approach to mystery shopping offers one of the most efficient ways to maximize your time and profit.

Adjusting to Changes in the Mystery Shopping Industry

Even though I have been a mystery shopper for over five years, I find myself struggling a bit in 2015 to adjust to some recent industry changes. One issue is that I tend to make the majority of my secret shopping income from about 5-6 companies.

In addition, I often revert back to the jobs I know well. This works quite nicely when the secret shop spigot remains wide open, but those jobs can unexpectedly disappear for any number of reasons.

As with most areas in life, change is inevitable in the world of mystery shopping.

Here are a few common changes you will encounter as a mystery shopper:

1. A mystery shopping company is bought out by or merges with another company. For example, this happened recently when Beyond Hello bought both Insula Research and Mystery Researchers. I previously created large routes of shops through Insula, but that particular program has been scaled down with Beyond Hello.

2. A mystery shopping company loses a client to a competitor. It may take some research to determine which company obtained the contract for the shops you have done for years. In addition, you may have to start all over and develop a relationship with the new company. Unfortunately, occasionally I have seen a reduction in shopper pay when a client switches mystery shopping companies, even though the job remains virtually unchanged.

3. A mystery shopping company changes approaches to assigning shops. You may encounter shops that were once assigned on an individual basis are now being bundled into large routes and offered to select shoppers. It could be that shoppers now have the option of reserving monthly shops for the entire year. Whatever the case may be, these types of changes can often reduce the number of available shops for you.

4. Competition with other shoppers increases. When the number of shoppers increases in an area, you may find that fewer shops are available and that the ability to receive higher bonuses diminishes. This tends to ebb and flow over times, as many people tend to give up after trying out a few shops.

While I know from experience that mystery shopping provides an excellent opportunity to generate substantial side income, there will be times of struggle. Like any other industry, change is coming whether we desire it or not. The key is to tackle change head on.

Your best bet is to diversify. Work for as many companies as possible, and gain experience over a broad range of opportunities. When you diversify, you insulate yourself from both the minor and major industry changes that lie ahead.

If you are currently a mystery shopper, what changes have you witnessed in the industry, and how have you dealt with those changes?

Mystery Shopping Tales, Mishaps, & Blown Covers

Each quarter, I often sign up for mystery shops that involve covertly taking 4-5 photos of specific signage. While I’ve completed several hundred of these exact jobs over the years, I had never been questioned by an employee about my photography until one eventful mishap.

For these specific, undercover jobs, I am generally paranoid cognizant of my surroundings, constantly checking to see if employees are watching or lurking nearby. At this particular location, I thought I was hidden from view of the closest employee, but I wasn’t cautious enough. She spotted me.

Although I didn’t know she had seen me until I came up to the register.

“Why are you taking pictures?”

The pressure was on. Was she about to turn me in to the manager? Was I about to be read the riot act by the store owner? I had to think fast.

“Oh, it’s really just something dumb I do. I like to post where I’m at on Twitter.”

She started laughing at me. I think she actually bought it.

“You go ahead and tell everyone on Twitter where you’re at!”

Whew! That was a close one. I breathed a sigh of relief as I sped out of the parking lot.

Unexpected encounters will happen in the field. The biggest takeaway – make sure you have a cover story ready to go in each situation.

You never know when a sleuth-minded manager or employee is going to identify you as a mystery shopper.

Has your cover ever been blown while mystery shopping? How did you respond?