Cynthia Yeldell, Knoxville News Sentinal
August 23, 2003
The name may conjure images of women in trench coats and dark glasses looming around the local mall buying items in secret, but mystery shopping requires neither a disguise nor undercover purchasing.The profession, often portrayed as a way to make $40 an hour while dining free at the best restaurants and getting freebies from stores, is often misunderstood.
Mother-and-daughter team Beverly and Tiffany Gleason and Trish Amburn own Mystery Shoppers, a Knoxville-based company that coordinates a network of 35,000 shoppers. The pair said attention generated by a recent article in the Wall Street Journal has prompted more interest in the job, but scam artists are taking advantage.
Unsuspecting people are mailing $20 or more to addresses in print or Internet ads expecting employment as a mystery shopper. If they get anything in return, it's likely a list of companies like the Gleasons' that hire mystery shoppers.
The Gleasons said they receive telephone calls and e-mails daily from irate people who want their money back. They tell callers someone has scammed them and that it doesn't cost anything to become a mystery shopper.
"Your heart breaks for them because you know they probably can't afford to lose money like that," Tiffany Gleason said.
Jeanie Hoskins, operations director for the Better Business Bureau of East Tennessee, said the bureau gets complaints from people who send money to ads they have seen expecting employment but receive a list of companies instead.
Hoskins said most of the information from the list can be found by simply searching the Internet. The bureau usually doesn't have grounds to take any action.
"It's not illegal to sell information," Hoskins said.
Many of the scamming outfits are based in California, Hoskins said, adding that many nationwide come and go rapidly.
Still, there are many reputable mystery-shopping companies, and it's not a bad gig.
How it works
Shoppers are independent contractors hired by companies like Mystery Shoppers to assess customer service and file a report for the client.
Each time they go on a "shop," they note things such as whether they were greeted upon arrival, if a store is clean and neat and if sales associates know their products.
Mystery shoppers can be paid by the hour or with complimentary services, such as an oil change when an oil change business is the client
. "We generally look at the length of the shop, the time that the shop takes," said Ann Moll, executive sales manager for TrendSource, a California mystery-shopping firm that works nationwide.
Moll and Tiffany Gleason say payment for shops will range anywhere from $5 to $25. Payments can be higher -- when high-end products or services are involved, for instance. If an assignment requires a purchase, shoppers typically use their own money and are reimbursed after the shop.
An assignment description for a shopper at a fast-food location said it would pay $7 for the job plus a maximum of $9 in reimbursement for food. A shopping assignment at a sporting goods store offered to pay $27 to $30, but it required a minimum of one hour spent in the store and an additional hour and a half to two hours spent reporting the experience.
Potential shoppers register their names with a database, such as the list of 35,000 for Mystery Shoppers. Hopefuls may or may not be selected to shop.
"It is something to do if you really want to make an impact on customer service. It is not something to make a career," Tiffany Gleason said.
Shoppers who are willing to search the Internet for jobs and are fortunate in being selected by companies could find work as a mystery shopper on a frequent basis, said Renee Barnett, who started mystery shopping three years ago at the urging of a friend.
"At first you feel really nervous because it seems like there are so many details to remember," she said, noting that keen observation skills are essential.
"It really does come to you naturally after you have done it a couple of times," she said. "Even if I am not on a shop, I always notice how long it takes them to greet me, how well they are dressed. I notice their name, the number of employees and, if there is a bathroom, I always go and see if it is well stocked.
"I have to tell myself to stop."
Barnett says assignments can be convenience stores, grocery stores or a restaurant. Even the U.S. Post Office, hotels, airlines, movie theaters and hospitals have used mystery shoppers.
Barnett said her strangest assignment was to observe customer service at a funeral home.
"You do feel like a little undercover spy," she said.
After shopping, Barnett does the remainder of her work from home, sending in reports from her computer.
Frank Shipley, president of Pinnacle Sales Co., which owns six Jiffy Lube locations in Knox County, said his company has used mystery shoppers for more than eight years and he has no doubt customer service has improved.
"We are like a lot of businesses. The owners can't be in all of our stores, especially if you have multiple locations," he said. "It gives us an outsider's opinion of how things are running at your stores when you're not around."
Shipley said his employees receive a bonus if they get a perfect score on a mystery shopper's report. If a location gets a perfect score, the company treats all of the employees at that location to dinner at a nice restaurant.
Decade of change
The Gleasons say the industry has dramatically changed since their company started nearly 10 years ago.
Back then everything was done using pencils and paper.
Today all of the reports and scheduling are done online.
Through a computer program called Sassie, the Gleasons track which locations have been shopped and which ones have not. The computer also tracks which mystery shopper was used for each assignment.
All of the final reports are sent to companies via e-mail.
"What used to take a month, we can now do in 48 to 72 hours," Beverly Gleason said.
Businesses also can request that shoppers go in with a hidden camera to make a videotape of their customer service experience.
Beverly Gleason said she started the company because she and her daughter wanted to make a difference locally. Today clients include Sprint PCS, Pilot Corp., Dell Computers and Petro's.
"You make your money back by using this service," Beverly Gleason said. "If you save one customer, you make your money back."
Beverly Gleason is also a founding member of the Mystery Shopping Providers Association, which was formed to disseminate information about reputable companies and improve customer service.
The organization's Web site has a list of mystery shopping jobs. The organization has also started a certification program for shoppers.
"Mystery shopping is sometimes viewed as a way to catch people doing something bad," Tiffany Gleason said. "That's not the case. It's a training tool. It's for the businesses, but it's the customer that gets the benefit."