"If only I could get money for this," you might sigh as you cruise around happily on a gorgeous day. Well, you could. But there's a lot more to becoming a paid test-driver than just picking out any car you want and grabbing the keys. The easiest way to become a test driver is to join up with a mystery shopping company. These companies pay people to visit stores and other services, while pretending to be a regular customer, and report back on their experiences. Some mystery shopping companies even specialize in visiting car dealerships, so prospective mystery shoppers who really want those test drives can sign up with certain companies and can be selective about the kinds of assignments they take.
Mystery shoppers and the companies that organize mystery shops sign contracts saying that they can't disclose details, so specific information (like which car dealerships get visited and which cars get driven the most) is hard to find ahead of time. Driving an actual car is rarely the objective of an auto dealer mystery shopping assignment. It's more important to gather information about the dealership and its employees than about the actual cars for sale. Was the sales floor clean, organized and welcoming? Did a sales associate approach the customer right away? This is the kind of feedback they really want. A mystery shopper is instructed to pretend he or she is making a decision about buying a new car, so it's easy to finagle a test drive. But the mystery shopper probably isn't being paid specifically to drive the car, and to a serious mystery shopper (who treats it like a full time job), that kind of frivolity can take valuable time away from other paying assignments.
In other words, the companies that run mystery shop programs are usually more interested in the customer's experience than the actual products the stores are offering. So even though a mystery shopper might have the opportunity to get behind the wheel of a new car, that's probably not the point. Mystery shoppers are usually instructed to pretend to be interested in a specific type or model of vehicle, so if driving sedans and minivans is a total buzzkill, mystery shopping could be more frustration than fun. At times, a mystery shopper might feel like James Bond — incognito behind the wheel — but it's really unlikely that these secret agents will ever get to drive an Aston Martin as part of an assignment.
Behind the Scenes of Mystery Shopping
Mystery shopping organizations don't disclose an assignment's pay to the general public, and there's a lot of variation based on experience. That said, there are some general guidelines. According to Mystery Shopper Magazine, car dealership assignments usually pay around $15, but bonuses often push the payout to $50 or more. That might sound like decent money for a fun little job, but veteran mystery shoppers say that car dealerships are one of the most time-consuming assignments to accept.
According to BestMark, a company that helps improve customer service, summer is typically the busiest time for mystery car shoppers. That's because it's the hottest and most competitive season in the car industry, and that's when customer service issues are most important. Prospective mystery shoppers should never pay a fee to join or register with an organization, and should always make sure the company is part of a respected professional group like the Mystery Shopping Providers Organization.
The process of going to a car dealership for a mystery shop assignment is a lot like going to shop for a car on your own — after all, that's what the shopper is pretending to do. And that process usually involves a test drive. However, it also involves all the drama that comes before a test drive and most (but not all) of the negotiating that comes after it — those are the details that really interest the mystery shopping organization. Expect to arrive at the dealership, wait to be approached, banter with the sales associate for a bit, look at a few cars, perhaps take that test drive and then enter negotiations. While the sales associate leaves to check on paperwork or talk to the manager, you'll likely be expected to keep track of how long he's gone — that's just one of the many important details the companies usually want to know. And after a couple rounds of back-and-forth, it's time to tell the sales associate it requires a little more thought, and then leave. The post-assignment work usually takes a couple more hours. Organizations ask their mystery shoppers to keep track of specifics such as the name and description of each dealership employee they talk to, how long they're left alone in the sales office and if the sales associates are knowledgeable about the cars. All of that needs to be described in detail, even though mystery shoppers are not permitted to record anything or be seen taking notes. Yup ... all that for a test drive and a few extra bucks.
Author's Note: Can you get paid to test-drive cars?
We focused on mystery shopping for this article, because, not to be trite, mystery shopping is something of a mystery to a lot of us. As we explained, though, the thrill of test-driving a car as part of a mystery shopping assignment is often a bit overstated. For job seekers who believe that driving new cars is a calling, there are a few other avenues that might be worth considering. Writing for a car magazine or an automotive blog seems like an obvious choice, but the reality is a lot different than the daydream. For every luxury, exotic or sports car that's offered up, there are plenty of plain Jane sedans, budget compacts, and other even less enticing prospects. But, they've all got to be tested fairly, and each model has to be considered from the perspective of someone who might actually consider buying it. Keep in mind that the best and most experienced writers get offered the best press trips and most exciting test cars, and the pickings for a rookie get even slimmer. Another route to test-driving cars for a living is to get a job at a manufacturer or OEM, driving new and prototype cars long before they're ready for the public. These tests occur on privately owned test tracks, and only sometimes out in public, but usually in secluded areas with extreme conditions, like the desert. See those camouflaged spy shots on blogs and in the magazines? Someone's behind the wheel, right? Get a solid education in engineering or automotive design, as well as some professional driver training, and that could be you!
- BestMark. "Take a test drive as a mystery car shopper this summer." June 10, 2014. (Dec. 23, 2014) http://www.bestmark.com/news/Shoppers/articles/Take_a_test_drive_as_a_mystery_car_shopper_this_summer/631351.aspx
- Evarts, Eric. "Secret shopper buys a luxurious, three-row Infiniti JX35 SUV for the test fleet." Consumer Reports. June 14, 2012. (Dec. 22, 2014) http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/news/2012/06/secret-shopper-buys-a-luxurious-three-row-2013-infiniti-jx35-suv-for-the-test-fleet/index.htm
- Forbes. "How I Made $14,000 A Year Mystery Shopping." March 1, 2013. (Dec. 22, 2014) http://www.forbes.com/sites/learnvest/2013/03/01/how-i-made-14000-a-year-mystery-shopping/
- J.D. Power. "Automotive Mystery Shopping." 2014. (Dec. 22, 2014) http://www.jdpower.com/solutions/automotive-mystery-shopping
- J.D. Power. "Mystery Shopping the Customer Experience." 2014. (Dec. 22, 2014) http://www.jdpower.com/solutions/mystery-shopping-customer-experience
- Mystery Shopper Magazine. "Car Dealership Assignments." (Dec. 22, 2014) http://www.mysteryshoppermagazine.com/assignments/car-dealership-assignments/
- Person to Person Quality. "Test Drive Mystery Shops." (Dec. 23, 2014) http://www.persontopersonquality.com/test_drive_shops.htm
- Read, Richard. "Secret Shoppers Give Mercedes-Benz Top Marks For Customer Experience." The Car Connection. July 13, 2010. (Dec. 22, 2014) http://www.thecarconnection.com/news/1047126_secret-shoppers-give-mercedes-benz-top-marks-for-customer-experience