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Shopping on the sly

With South Carolina's unemployment rate holding steady at 6.6 percent for a couple months now, many consumers are looking for a way to put a few extra bucks into their rainy-day accounts.

They have a choice: Either cut back on expenses or increase income.

So instead of reducing fuel consumption or holding off on that new TV, how about earning $15 to go to the mall? And $50 to visit the dentist? What about a $20 bill to order a beer?

Sound too good to be true?

Not necessarily.

More than 1.5 million people are estimated to earn extra money as secret shoppers, according to industry groups. Mystery shopping had an estimated value of nearly $600 million in the United States in 2004, according to the Mystery Shopping Providers Association, or MSPA.

In that year, the only year tracked by MSPA, more than 8.1 million mystery shopper trips took place. Estimates are upwards of 10 million trips in 2006.

Anyone with a few extra hours can sign up at agencies that contract with restaurants, retail stores, doctors' offices, banks, fast-food joints or gas stations. Mystery shoppers can earn between $5 and a couple hundred dollars to pose as average customers and later critique the business through surveys or focus groups.

"In most cases, a person will not become wealthy by being a secret shopper," said Deborah Coburn, a vice president of AboutFace, named the 2005 mystery shopping company of the year by the National Center for Professional Mystery Shoppers & Merchandisers.

"However, secret shopping can provide extra spending money," she said. "Restaurant shoppers are reimbursed for their meals, often at fine dining establishments. Some shops require the shopper to purchase a product or service for which the shopper is reimbursed."

The idea is that customers will eventually get better service if the secret shopper logs whether employees wore their nametags, how long it took and employee to greet them or whether a receptionist was attentive.

"Employees are usually on their best behavior when their supervisors are present. But business owners and managers cannot be everywhere at once," Coburn said. "That's where secret shopping companies come in."

An Internet search for mystery shoppers rings up hundreds of companies that offer to coordinate consumers with businesses in need. But the Federal Trade Commission warns that the industry is now serving as a front for scams that ask the consumer to pay a membership fee or deposit large checks and send money orders for the overage.

Coburn said the most important thing for a potential secret shopper to remember is they should never pay a fee.

However, hundreds of valid companies offer opportunities to make money. The MSPA Web site links to job listings by state, and advertisements for nearby jobs include $15 for cosmetic shopping in Loris, $35 to shop for eyeglasses in Florence and $19 for motorcycle shopping in Mount Pleasant.

The honest feedback is more than worth the cost to some businesses, especially on the Grand Strand, where customer service is a part of most jobs.

"Secret shoppers provide an invaluable service to businesses in the hospitality industry. Many restaurants and retailers use their services," Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce President Brad Dean said.

"But beyond evaluating the business and its operation, they give you an affordable look at your business through the eyes of a trained customer."

Even the chamber hires secret shoppers to visit its four offices and evaluate the atmosphere and employees, he said.

Deb Bramlett, marketing director at Coastal Grand Myrtle Beach mall, said she requested as many as four mystery shopper trips a year when she worked at Myrtle Beach Factory Shops.

No one was ever fired because of the evaluations, but many stores used the ratings and comments on their failing stores to achieve near-perfection by the time the next visit came around, she said.

The evaluations were thorough. The 3-inch thick stack of paper included two pages about every store, restroom and customer service center, she said. Each listed the time and day of the evaluation, which employees were working and how many customers were in the building.

"I gave a copy of the report to the store manager, and we sent a copy of the report to the district or regional office," she said. "We didn't send it to the district and the regional to be vindictive. We sent it to use as a tool to increase their sales."


Many companies require mystery shoppers to register or apply before browsing job boards, but here are a few postings Web users can access:

$15 for shopping at a high-end retail accessories store in Myrtle Beach

$18 to open a checking account in Shallotte, N.C.; Southport, N.C.; Sunset Beach, N.C.; Conway; Little River; Loris; Murrells Inlet; Myrtle Beach; North Myrtle Beach; or Surfside Beach

$8 plus up to $7 reimbursement to order fast food in Murrells Inlet or Conway

$8 plus free bowling for two in Beaufort

$12 for lingerie shopping at Frederick's of Hollywood in Charleston

$15 for cosmetic shopping in Loris

$35 to shop for eyeglasses in Florence

$19 for motorcycle shopping in Mount Pleasant

Be skeptical of mystery shopping promoters who:

Advertise for mystery shoppers in a newspaper's help wanted section or by e-mail. Sell certification.

Guarantee a job as a mystery shopper.

Charge a fee for access to mystery shopping opportunities.

Sell directories of companies that provide mystery shoppers.

Offer a disproportionate payment for completing a simple job, especially if the job involves cashing a check or wiring money.

Source: The FTC and AboutFace