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Get paid to shop: What it's like to be a mystery shopper

Torchy's Tacos hires mystery shoppers to maximize their customer service. (CBS Austin)

You've probably heard this sales pitch: "Get paid to shop!" It sounds like a gimmick, but a lot of people are legitimately earning extra income as mystery shoppers. Restaurants, retail stores, banks, hotels and other businesses hire secret shoppers to come in and critique their services.

Bruce Dixon is about to get paid to eat. He's a mystery shopper and is going into Mighty Fine Burgers to evaluate the food and customer service. In exchange, he'll get reimbursed for his lunch and paid a flat fee.

“It's not a full-time job replacement,” said Dixon. “But it's pretty good money.”

CBS Austin wanted to find out how much money and if it's worth your time. Consumer Reporter Bettie Cross signed up online with a mystery shopping company.

It's a 15 minute drive to do a takeout breakfast shop at Torchy's Tacos. In exchange for free food, she has to eat up information. Are the floors swept and tables wiped? Do the tacos look good and taste good?

She’s required to take two photos and complete a three page evaluation. Start to finish, her secret shop at Torchy's took an hour and fifteen minutes. In exchange she got two tacos, a drink and was paid a flat fee.

“The average mystery shopper is going to be someone who does it part-time, after work (and) on the weekends,” said Josh Stern, CEO of Reality Based Group (RBG). “But the average mystery shopper is the average consumer.”

RBG estimates there are 1,500 mystery shoppers in Austin and 10,000 in Texas. About 65 percent of mystery shoppers are female. While there are mystery shoppers of every age, the biggest age demographic is between 35 and 55 years old. What all secret shoppers have in common is that they really enjoy shopping and eating out.

“Do you want to go out to a steak house and eat for free? Great, then you're going to do the evaluation along with it,” said Stern.

In addition to the free food, Stern says the pay typically ranges from $10 to $25 for a shop.

“It's a little extra money on the side,” said Dixon.

What really adds up is the feedback businesses get to make every consumer’s next meal a more appetizing experience.

"It has helped. Definitely yes," said Forrest Harrell, a district manager with Torchy's Tacos. "It raises customer service to a different level."


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