The Secret Shopper

Can you really get paid to eat at restaurants or is that an urban legend? “Yes, you can get paid to eat at restaurants. And, yes, it is an urban legend. What?”

Let me clarify. Being a secret shopper is much more than deciding on a Friday night to roll up to your favorite dining establishment and eat whatever you want for free in exchange for a thumbs up or down on your experience. That’s the urban legend part. The reality is much different. So, you are wondering, “Can I eat for free or not?” If you are hired as a secret shopper you can, but not necessarily at your favorite restaurant.

But, before telling you how the Secret Shopper system works, I should tell you what it is. Businesses of all types hire reviewers to present themselves as customers at the business to evaluate their employees and/or the product being offered by that business. In other words, the business wants a targeted customer review.

Generally businesses do not hire secret shoppers directly. Shoppers are hired through an agency that recruits, vets, and assigns people to covertly visit the desired establishment. Sometimes, the shopper is directed to purchase a specific item. Alternatively, the shopper may simply be required to purchase anything. In either case, the purchase is made with the intention of returning the item at a later date.

While agencies may distribute assignments slightly differently, the general process is as follows: Once a person is agency-approved to be a secret shopper, he/she is given access to shopping opportunities. I’ve been offered opportunities at restaurants, different types of retailers (e.g., electronics stores, clothing stores, and grocery stores), and especially car dealerships. The shopper selects opportunities of interest, then requests the assignment.

The shopping assignment may be for a specific day or time of day, and must be completed within a specific time frame. So again, being a secret shopper often requires more than a spur of the moment, “Hey, let’s go shopping!” It takes planning … and stealth.

It seemed to me, that most of the restaurant opportunities were specifically targeting alcohol service, so that excluded me. The auto dealerships offered opportunities to “shop” for a vehicle or to use the service center. The latter seemed to be the most lucrative offer since the shopper would get a shopping fee and receive a free oil change and service. However, getting those opportunities required having a specific make and model of car, which I never had. Shopping for a car was challenging because I had to keep my cover story together. Since the business requires the shopper to be completely secret, nothing can be said that would give any indication that this is a hired shopping experience. Also, I felt bad taking up the sales agent’s time, giving him the impression that I was really interested in a car all the while knowing that I was not going to purchase anything. I was simply going to write a report about his presentation, knowledge, and demeanor.

In order to get paid, the shopper must not only complete the shopping assignment, but also must complete the report correctly and on time. Reporting is where I lost interest because not only are the reports very detailed, they are time consuming due to the number and type of questions (think final exam with essay questions!). Additionally, the formatting was critical. So much so that I almost lost a fee because I stapled the business’ card on the right side of the report rather than the left.

In the end, I realized that completing the shopping and reporting meant I was earning at or just below minimum wage. So, while I enjoyed the experience, I quickly realized that secret shopping was not what I thought it would be, nor was it worthwhile for me.

Why can’t it be easier to get a free meal?

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