Reimbursement VS Paid Mystery Shop – Which Is Worth More?

paymentThere are many reasons people mystery shop – and a good mystery shopper will find the ways to make it most profitable for them.

For just as we are not all scientists or all hair stylists, we all have ways of handling our money that make sense for each individual.

Most people do want to gain something of value from mystery shopping. Very few people do it ‘as a hobby’ where they only expect the excitement of the shop to be the reward, and the reimbursement or pay would not matter.

To most, it does matter – a lot.

So if you take a shop that is reimbursement ONLY – for a meal, an item, an experience – are you being ‘paid’?

And if the reimbursement doesn’t cover the entire cost of the meal, the item or the experience – aren’t you ‘paying’ money to make money?

The answer to both questions is yes… and, no.

Reimbursement ONLY? What about my time?

The question above is a common one. If you want me to ‘buy’ something and you are reimbursing me for the item, but I still have to go to the place of business, make my observations and then come home and enter my report – where is the compensation for that?

Some mystery companies will pay you a stipend of $10-$20 for the time it takes you to write up your report. But do not dismiss the shops that only offer reimbursement. Consider:

  • A meal paid for by someone else is a meal you do not have to pay for yourself. You’ve saved that amount of money from your regular expenses. (Same for an item you would buy for yourself or as a gift or the entrance fee to a movie or activity).
  • Consider the ‘value’ of what you are being reimbursed for as your ‘pay’ and you are likely being paid more than you would for many shops that you are ‘paid’ to conduct.
  • Reimbursements for expenses required to conduct the shop are not included in income on your W-4; payment is. So you will not be paying taxes on your reimbursements.

If the meal, retail item or experience is something you would have purchased anyway – you are way ahead of the game – and you won’t be taxed for it!

Reimbursement Limits – Why Do I Have to Pay the Difference?

If you are assigned a reimbursement shop with a ‘maximum’ reimbursement, but you pay more for the meal, item or experience – it may seem like you are ‘losing’ money.

Again, if it is a restaurant, amusement park or retail shop that you would have shopped in anyway – you are SAVING the difference between your total bill and what you will be reimbursed. And, check with your tax accountant to find out if you can actually write off the difference as an expense.

If you choose to take a shop for reimbursement at a place where you dislike the food, product or experience offered – then, yes, it could be that you are losing money.

Remember, however, that you are an independent contractor. You do not have to take every shop. Especially one where you believe you will ‘lose out’. In those cases, you would have to decline the meal or experience.

Reimbursement only shops can be very lucrative – and fun! Read the fine print, understand maximum reimbursements – and then go an enjoy ‘working’ while having your meal, trip or experience paid for.

What type of reimbursement only shops do you enjoy? (No company names please)


About Market Viewpoint

Market Viewpoint offers comprehensive mystery shopping services, complete customer service audits, employee and customer surveys, customer focused marketing strategies, and customer service training to help you improve your customer service and outshine your competition.
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18 Responses to Reimbursement VS Paid Mystery Shop – Which Is Worth More?

  1. Jane Cairns says:

    So far, I haven’t done any shops that are reimbursement only. I’ve done a few that pay a fee plus reimbursement; these are usually for a cold “blended” drink or a dessert like ice cream. I’ve also done a couple for a burger-and-fries type meal at somewhat more upscale “fast casual” places than the norm for this type of meal. I look forward to hearing what others are doing so that I might find a way to expand the types of mystery shops I do.

    • Jane – Thanks for your insight into the types of shops you have been doing that involve reimbursement. Those cold blended drinks and desserts likely were welcome during the hot summer! So glad to see you are making it work for you!

  2. Dave Mayo says:

    I do shop for food. Sounds like a panhandler. Occasionally I have to eat elsewhere after the shop and in one shop I waited over 2 hours to walk out the door. It was a “Muphy” shop, If anything can go wrong it did go wrong.

    The manager did personally serve me. I am sure he thought I was a Mystery Shopper and had to stick it out to the end but I told him I was retired and had no urgent need to be elsewhere. I was just curious to see just how long it would take to get something edible on a plate.

    He comped the meal. I was getting paid for it anyway so I made nothing

    The location did go out of business in that location within three months of my visit, they were that bad.Servers were bringing food to empty tables No one else wanted to go there for they want to get their food and get back to work. They left hungry and angry.

  3. Cathy says:

    I have done several casual & upscale restaurants. The casual would pay a 5.00 shop fee plus the reimbursement. The upscale usually paid a 15.00’fee plus reimbursement. Sometimes, I would get a bonus- the fee would be 30.00. This was usually when it’s at end of month & need the shop completed.
    I liked doing the upscale shops because it allowed me to try restaurants that I could not afford on my own. The reimbursements were generous most of the time. But they usually included a bar visit. Thus the allowance had to include all food, taxes, tips & bar. I usually enjoyed the shops but did not like doing the bar or the long reports. The reports were about 35-40 pages long. I printed out my narratives once. I had 12 pages. And this did not include the checklist yiu had to do & support in your narratives. Took longer to write the report than to do the shop.
    And the larger the reimbursement, the more work you have to do.

    • Cathy – yes, some report forms can be long. But if you are being reimbursed a fair amount for an upscale restaurant, it is usually reflected by needing more detail. Learn which shops you enjoy doing and focus on them.

  4. Ann says:

    I agree with Dave, I enjoy the shops for food. If I do take a toy store or something like that, I usually save the item and donate it at the end of the year to the community shelter.

  5. niecyangel says:

    I love doing restaurant shops. I love trying new places and this is a great way to do that without spending your own money. In the last month alone I spent less than $10.00 of my own money (the amount I paid after the reimbursement) and I went to a casual restaurant twice and also did one fine dining shop. All for $10.00! That is less than it would’ve cost me to go to the casual restaurant once and only pay for my meal not my companions. Also, since we almost always have leftovers we literally got 12 meals for $10.00. You can’t beat that price. Even eating at home. I love that you don’t have to pay taxes on the reimbursement amount and I love giving the “overview” of what occurred during my shop. My only complaint is that some companies have a lot of repeat questions in the report. Anything from the people I observed to the timing and the amount I paid. It doesn’t change between when I entered it on page 1 and when you asked me to list it on page 2 of the form. It makes the report take a lot more time than it would otherwise. Also some reports don’t give you enough character space to give a precise and complete overview of your visit and answer all the no responses but they all say use complete sentences and give a detailed account of your visit. I do prefer shops that have a separate box for the editor to read just in case there is something I wasn’t sure about in the report or if an odd situation occurred and there was no where on the report to list it, etc.

    • It sounds like you have figured out a way to make this work for you – which is the whole idea of being a mystery shopper/independent contractor! Congratulations! As far as the report forms go, we try very hard not to repeat questions, because it is harder for our reviewers as well. They need to double check that everything is consistent. However, some of our report forms are based on the client’s requests. All companies continue to try to work to guide and coach our clients on the best reporting formats.

  6. Kevin Beck says:

    I personally will do reimbursement-only shops for food IF it’s a type of meal I would enjoy, and if the expense of getting to the location isn’t excessive. It helps if I’m on a route that day, and can combine the trip with other shops.

    Putting my professional accountant’s hat on, I’ll also address the question about the amounts paid in excess of the reimbursement amount: If you can justify it as a business meal, where you are with a client or business associate, then the excess is fully tax-deductible. If you cannot justify any normal business purpose for the meal, then only 50% of the excess spent is deductible. So the best idea is to stay within the reimbursement amounts if you can. And if you are not operating with a business motive, but just doing this as a hobby, then none of the excess is deductible.

    I know when I type this that there are many shops that specify that you have to order and eat alone, so most all these cases would fall into the second category of expenses. These would be the times I would recommend that you stay within the limits. Almost all fast-food and casual dining shops fit this category. But most fine-dining shops require the shopper to bring a guest. This is where you can take advantage of the fully-deductible category, since the reimbursement amount may fall short of the total. Just advise your guest how to assist you with the shop in advance, so that you complete the shop according to the specifications.

  7. Raymond says:

    I often do shops where you need to purchase either a small item to have a receipt for proof or more expensive item.
    I either choose an item I really need , or return the item for credit as soon as I can.
    This works well depending on distance to your location or intention to return to area of shop for other assignments.

  8. Christine Merriam says:

    We had some fast food shops that required purchasing a drive thru and inside meal. There are a lot of homeless people around, so it was their lucky day. I am trying to watch my diet. I often just take the required taste of things and once again, the homeless benefit. I make a little off the payment for the shop.

  9. EB says:

    I have also used reimbursement only shops in the airport. Once I was traveling and had a long layover. I found an assignment and it gave me something to do and eat for free.

    • EB – what a great way to utilize your time. Having all your information on your phone and tablet so that you can quickly find a job when you are delayed is the sign of a good shopper! Thanks for sharing.

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