Note: I am not an attorney and this should not be considered legal advice.
Registering to be a mystery shopper is much different from applying for a job. Because of anti-discrimination laws, most employers will not ask questions about an applicant’s gender, age, race, marital status and other issues. However, you will often find these types of questions and others when you register with a mystery shopping company.
Can they do that?
Short answer: Yes, they can.
Legally, Independent Contractors (IC) are treated much differently than employees. However, even employers can ask applicants some of these questions, if there is a job-related necessity for it. The explanation of why mystery shopping providers may need this information, and why you should not be angry or offended by these questions, is below.
Mystery shopping companies ask what may first appear to be inappropriate questions when they need shoppers with specific characteristics. For example:
Shoppers between the ages of 18 and 27 may be need for assignments that test compliance with laws regarding sales of alcohol or tobacco.
Some clients may want shoppers in certain age ranges to match the demographics of their typical customers. Mystery shoppers need to fit in. For example, having a 24-year-old shopper attend a presentation about Medicare supplement insurance policies seems just plain silly.
Clothing stores that sell clothing only for males or only for females usually want shoppers who can try on the clothes.
When a company does mystery shops of car dealerships, they may need shoppers with certain makes of cars to shop the service departments. Or, for a sales shop, they may want the shopper to arrive in a vehicle comparable to those sold by the dealership. That is why some ask about the year, make and model of cars in your household.
Children may be required for certain shops. Generally day care centers and similar shops provide a scenario to follow and children are not brought along on the shop, so it doesn’t matter if the shopper has children requiring care. However, there have been assignments involving children’s shoes or apparel where the client wanted a child on the shop to try on the items being purchased.
Even race can matter. Some clients, such as banks and other financial institutions, home builders and apartment communities, are covered by non-discrimination laws. Those companies or the government agencies that regulate them may do what is called “matched pair testing.” For example, there may be several shoppers sent in to a bank. Each is given a persona with the same income, credit history, etc. and the only difference is their race or ethnicity. The shop is to determine if they are treated equally or if there is discrimination based on race.
There are other demographic characteristics that clients may look for so that the shopper fits their typical customer profile. For example, many mystery shopping companies ask about household income. That is usually because they have clients who want their shoppers to fall within a specified income range, or to have at least a minimum income. Why do they care? They may believe that they will get a better, more accurate report from someone who is similar to their usual customer and will have expectations in line with those customers. Even though the report questions are mostly objective, someone who has never dined at a high-end restaurant may be very impressed with everything and give the restaurant a higher-than-deserved rating or they may even be intimidated by the experience. However, someone who is accustomed to fine dining may be more objective and less awed.
One note about the income question: What if your household income recently changed significantly due to retirement or a layoff or some other reason? Should you list your current income or your “normal” income? Some companies have told me that it is generally fine to list your prior income, as that is indicative of your lifestyle. The purpose is not to deceive anyone but, as noted above, some clients are looking for shoppers who are familiar with upscale shopping, dining, salons, etc. and they use the income question to identify them. If that is you, show an income that matches your current or recent lifestyle.
You will see a lot of other questions when you register with mystery shopping companies. Everything from where you shop and dine to what kind of phone you own and more. Each of those questions is there for a reason.
The most important point to take away from this is that when mystery shopping companies ask these questions, they are not trying to exclude you from doing shops, they are looking for shoppers to include as eligible for shops with specific requirements.