Friday, May 30, 2008

The Basics of Mystery Shopping: Fast cash?

I have several friends who have turned to mystery shopping as a way to bridge the gap between expenses and the next regularly scheduled paycheck. Most have learned through research rather than experience, thankfully, that mystery shopping can worsen your short-term financial situation. In my case, it was a solid four months before my books showed my business in the black.

Most often, a mystery shopping company will require a purchase to be made, either as part of the shopping scenario or just as a method to obtain a receipt as proof of your shop. The purchases made are money out of the shopper's pocket until they receive their paycheck and reimbursement.

How much out of pocket? My most common out-of-pocket reimbursable is $7.50 per shop. I've had lows of $1.39 and a high of $53, but the largest majority of my shops fall into that $7-8 range. (Friends of Math, you'll understand when I say $7.50 is the mode of my shops: the out-of-pocket amount that occurs most frequently.) If I do ten shops a month with that $7.50 out of pocket each—it adds up quickly, doesn't it?

How long out of pocket? Of the 22 mystery shopping companies I work for most frequently, one pays every two weeks; one pays 60 days after the last day of the month in which the shop was performed (you shop June 4th, you get paid August 30.) The majority of the companies for which I work process payments somewhere between those two extremes. The average time it takes for me to receive payment and reimbursement for shops I've performed is 47 days.

So, plug all that into your calculator, hit the total button and you get: negative numbers for several consecutive weeks! When I began shopping in earnest, my business showed up to a $200 negative balance for the first six weeks. The second six weeks was not much better, although I did manage to hit a zero balance on the books for several days. It was difficult to see income during that time and to reinvest it into more shops rather than spend it. It wasn't until the third six weeks that I was in the black consistently.

The shopper's pay I have seen ranges from $5 to $200. I know there are shops that pay more, usually from companies that require a great deal more time and expertise than I have to offer. Evaluating a timeshare or resort would pay more, for example, but would also require a multiple-day commitment and very extensive reporting.

In all, I'd say there is some money to be made in mystery shopping. But if you are looking to pay yourself out of debt, buy a new car or finance a college education, mystery shopping will meet only a fraction of your needs.

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