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How would you rate your last shopping experience? That’s what business owners and corporate executives are asking customers. In this competitive economy, high-quality products and good service are key for repeat purchases. Company insiders cannot truly assess these criteria themselves, as employees tend to be on their best behavior when they know the boss is watching. That’s where mystery shoppers come in.

A mystery shopper presents himself as a typical customer and interacts with employees. The mystery shopper is able to furnish a detailed report of employee behavior and appearance, as well as note the condition of the establishment’s physical surroundings and quality of the products it provides. The information gleaned by the mystery shopper is of major value to corporate management, as it helps companies to improve themselves.

Most mystery shoppers are independent contractors who are hired by mystery shopping companies or market research firms. They are dispatched to evaluate the business establishments of the mystery shopping companies’ clients. Shoppers are hired on an “as needed” basis, and though it’s not a steady job, the days and hours are usually flexible.

The shopper typically enters a retail store and waits to see if a sales associate greets them and offers assistance. Occasionally, a purchase is required. Mystery shoppers usually are paid a flat fee for each shop, anywhere from $10 on up, though sometimes their compensation is the item that they purchased. If the shop occurs in a restaurant, the mystery shopper is reimbursed for their meal. A mystery shopper must maintain anonymity and discretion, must be detail oriented, and must have a keen awareness of her surroundings. She should be able to write an accurate, descriptive report, and must do so soon after completing the shop.

So, how do you become a mystery shopper? Start by searching the Internet with the keywords “mystery shopping”. Literally hundreds of mystery shopping companies have web sites, and most offer the opportunity to apply online. Scan your local newspaper’s classified advertisements, as mystery shopping companies may try to recruit as they have a need in a particular area. Occasionally, one mystery shopping firm may refer you to another, and some corporations have an internal rating program in which you can enroll.

Beware, however, of advertisements that claim that they can procure mystery shopping assignments for you, or that they can provide a list of mystery shopping companies and their addresses. More often than not, a hefty fee is required. With a local newspaper, Internet access and a little resourcefulness, there is no need to spend money to become a mystery shopper.

Once you become a “Shopping Sherlock”, you’ll never stop. Even when you’re not on assignment, you’ll find yourself rating food quality, timing the service at your favorite restaurant, and noting the cleanliness of the local grocery store. You’ll have a true appreciation for those business establishments that go out of their way to service the customer. And, you’ll enjoy, because mystery shopping is fun, rewarding and an easy way to earn a little extra money.