On a good day, Katy Berbrick can load up on groceries and put gas in her tank without spending a dime.
She does it as a mystery shopper who poses as a regular customer and files a report on the experience. In return, she gets paid and reimbursed for purchases.
Anonymous shopping has been around for decades but lately has gained the attention of people looking to earn extra cash. In turn, businesses hiring shoppers see it as an opportunity to improve customer service in an increasingly competitive market.
Berbrick, 18, took up mystery shopping earlier this year to supplement her income working at a store. A college student, she wanted something with flexible hours and liked the idea of being able to pick and choose jobs.
Berbrick shops grocery stores, gas stations, restaurants and clothing stores. She also has opened new accounts at banks and deposited money into dummy accounts. You can get paid for shopping for almost anything, she said. "And what girl doesn't like to shop?''
From stores to movie theaters to apartment complexes, anonymous shoppers visit businesses that contract with mystery shopping companies that arrange the shoppers. Many stores are mystery-shopped twice a month, sometimes more.
"You would be really hard-pressed to find someone selling to the general public who hasn't used mystery shopping,'' said Ron Welty, president of IntelliShop in Perrysburg, Ohio, which hires secret shoppers for businesses, that include Outback restaurants and Radiant convenience stores.
Welty serves on the board of the Mystery Shoppers Providers Association representing 275 mystery shopping companies. The trade group offers certification for shoppers, hosts conferences and posts scam warnings. It estimates there are 1 million mystery shoppers nationwide.
Claudia McCutcheon is a gold member, the highest level. A retired medical sales rep, she has made up to $1,000 a week. In addition to basic stores, she shops new-home subdivisions and apartment complexes, often wearing audio and video equipment to record the exchanges.
"I like the free groceries, the free gas, the free movies,'' she said. "I've taken the grandkids to Adventure Island and stayed at hotels all for free. You can't beat that.''
McCutcheon, 60, formed a Tampa Bay Mystery Shoppers Meetup Group in Brandon last year. Members meet monthly or so to share experiences and encourage newbies.
Getting started often is the toughest part. Inexperienced shoppers must build a good reputation before companies assign them the plum jobs. But once they've proven themselves reliable and adept at writing reports, the jobs come to them.
Scott Stewart in St. Petersburg gets more secret-shopping requests than he can handle. He has a full-time job and does mystery shopping on the side. He visits about 15 Publix stores a month, earning $7 plus $10 worth of groceries at each. A few weeks ago, he and his wife enjoyed a $250 dinner at the Palm Restaurant for free.
Shoppers receive instructions for each store and often complete a questionnaire and write a narrative of the experience. They admit to becoming sticklers for good customer service.
"After you do it for a while, everywhere you go," Berbrick said, "you're critiquing it.''