Friday, December 19, 2008

Merry Christmas, Mystery Shoppers.
I hope you have a blessed day with family and friends,
and sweet, blessed rest.

Demystified will return January 9, 2009

Saturday, December 13, 2008

A Year End Accounting

I'm taking the month of December off from shopping. Not only will that free me up to celebrate with family and friends, I anticipate all outstanding shops will be paid by December 15th, making a nice, neat bottom line.

So, in round figures, here is how I "did" this year:

I performed 230 shops for 27 companies.
I earned $1477 in shop fees and $123 in bonuses, for a total paycheck of $1600
I drove 3640 business-related miles, at 50 cents per mile (the standard IRS deduction) for a tax-deductible expense of $1820
I spent $391 on other tax-deductible expenses such as printer ink and paper, cell phone minutes etc.
I spent $2611 out-of-pocket that was reimbursed.

I'd say this was a pretty average year for me. How did you do?

Friday, December 5, 2008

Talking about your shops


Okay, I'll provide a little more detail. Don't discuss the details of your shops with others. "I was at Juicy Queen the other day, and I was supposed to ask the manager about catering a birthday, and he said he only caters birthdays for children under age 10, and I said..."

No. Don't. Specific details like this violate the Independent Contractor Agreement you signed with the mystery shopping company. They all have confidentiality clauses, and you need to read them to know what you may and may not say. It's best to just not say anything. The results of your shop are for your employer only. Not your sister in Maine, not your best friend in Omaha, nobody.

The mystery shopping world is very competitive and by nature, secretive. Yeah, it would be great if there was a site where you could look up which mystery shopping company evaluates that favorite boutique of yours, but there isn't. If you ask a shopper, and they are serious about their business, about honoring their confidentiality and contractor's agreements, they will say, "Sorry, I can't tell you that."

So, how did established shoppers find those shops they love? I am currently a shopper with over 100 companies, and I check with each of them at least weekly. I do a wide range of assignments to find out what I like and don't like, what pays well for the time investment and what surveys are a nightmare to complete.

Think of yourself as a shopping superhero. You must keep your identity secret to protect Aunt May!

Go ahead and ask me, " What company shops the Golden Arches?" I know, but I won't tell you. Don't take it personally, I wouldn't tell the President of the United States, unless I have it in writing from my mystery shopping company that I may!

Friday, November 28, 2008

Recording Information: The Tip Sheet part two

Whoa! I didn't get that whole thing about folding the tip sheet in fourths. Do you have a picture of that?

Sure, I have a couple! First, I made a tip sheet listing the departments and what data I need to gather for the report. I listed it down the left-hand side of a sheet of paper turned landscape.

Now I fold it this way:
And that:

And write my list on the blank top when it's all shut:
Now as I walk through the aisles, all a passerby can see is my handwritten list. But if I flip the top open, I have access to all my notes.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Recording Information: The Tip Sheet

Tip sheets are very valuable tools in the mystery shopping arsenal. When you receive an assignment, your report form could run from two to twenty pages or more. Since you are not permitted to bring the forms with you into the store, how will you remember all the data you need to collect? And once you know what you need to know, how will you remember it all?

I like using my home computer to cut and paste single words or phrases from a downloaded reporting form into a second document. I try to get it down to one single-sided page with just enough room to write some sketchy notes. By making it one-sided, I can fold the sheet in fourths and always have it blank on the outside. This leaves room for a for-show list on the front. If someone spots the paper in my hand, all they will see is the list of things appropriate for that store. Paper clips, Bic pens, Post-It notes; or brown sweater, white pumps, half slip. Hidden inside are the clues that keep me on track.

I try to write my tip sheet in the order the observations will be made. Time in, parking lot observations, enter store, cash wrap observations, greeted by employees on the sales floor, clothing displays, price check, name of employee at dressing room. I can jot down information while I'm in the dressing room and refold my paper so the next set of items is easy to see. Many times the reporting form doesn't use the same order and I'd rather my tip sheet be easy to use on the spot. I can reformat my answers later as long as I have the data I need.

I'll often use "native paper" for my tip sheet. If I have a grocery shop, I'll make some coded notes in the margins of the sale paper. If I need to get the name of the employee at the meat department, I'll write "Angus" in the meat section. Then when I see his name, I'll put that on my paper next to Angus, with a coded physical description 6 pounds 2 ounces for chili, 24 ounces for burgers (6'2" tall, age between 20 and 25.) White chili would mean blonde or gray hair, BBQ burgers is red hair (BBQ sauce is red), burgers with gravy is brown hair, that sort of hint. If the store is very crowded, I'll make an anagram of a person's name rather than writing the whole name. Beans, Rice, Ice cream, Angel food cake, Nestles morsels. B-R-I-A-N.

Writing and using a tip sheet will assist your memory, especially on complicated shops. I love thinking up ways to use tip sheets to stay anonymous and still gather all the information I need. For me, it's an artistic pursuit.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Recording information: Discretion

These days, there are recording devices everywhere, especially in retail outlets. See those clear black plastic "balls" hanging from the ceiling at the department store, discount store, drug store, grocery store, and just about everywhere else? They contain cameras and your actions are being recorded. Don't get paranoid, those cameras are there for the protection of the store and their customers.

So, you've done part of your shop and you need to write down some information before you get your next set of data to report. Most shopping assignments will specify that you may not leave the store and return to complete a shop. So, how will you get your notes on paper without being discovered?

Tip Sheet Next week's post will deal specifically with the tip sheet. In short, it is a piece of paper you've prepared with brief notes on the information you need to collect. You can jot information on your tip sheet discreetly if you are careful, but with all those cameras, you still could be discovered.

Cell Phone Of course, during a shop your cell phone will be set to "silent" so you don't get a call during an important interaction. But you can still use your phone to send yourself a text message or email about the data you've collected so far. You can leave coded messages on your home voicemail as well. You can also use your cell phone as a prop to pretend to phone home for the shopping list you "forgot" or directions on how to get to your next stop all the while writing down the info you need to remember.

This is a trick I have fun with. I'll say, "Hey, did B-Bruce call? Well, tell him we need 62 cases of model 35, the dark brown short ones." The B-b stammer tells me the first name starts with B. If I'm nowhere near the person I'm describing, just I'll use their name. If not, I'll stammer and that "b" clue is enough to remind me of their name. 62 cases is 6'2" tall and model 35 means he's about 35 years old. Dark, short, brown all refer to his hair. Please do not use this trick during an interaction or during a timed event.

Bathroom Stall Inside the stall with the door shut you have a legal expectation of privacy. This is a safe place to get out your paper and pen and make notes. Once you leave the stall, you no longer have an expectation of privacy and your actions can once again be recorded.

Because I take my children with me on some shops, we have a rule: No talking about shopping except inside our own house. You don't know who is standing next to you at the ATM, who is browsing the next row over at the library or who might overhear you talking about a mystery shop. Just like being a superhero, it's just safer to never, ever admit your secret identity in public. Ever.

Friday, November 7, 2008

The Guesswork of Reporting

A mystery shopper is asked to give "just the facts" when reporting shops. There are certain parts of the form, however, that require some good old-fashioned guesswork combined with intense observation and a bit of education.

Name Let's say your report requires the name of the salesperson helping you. That's an easy one if the person is wearing a nametag. But what are other ways you can determine their name other than a nametag. Did the salesperson introduce himself to you? Did another employee call to her and she turned to answer? If not, what then?

In some instances you can ask for a business card. In an electronics store, for example, or a high-end clothing store where the salespersons work on commission, asking for a business card won't give you away if you ask near the end of the shop couched in an excuse. "I'm starving. I'm going to go grab some lunch and come back to make my final decision. Can I ask for you when I come back?"

If you know the person's starting initial (from a ring, necklace or earrings) and have a pretty good description, you can leave the store and phone them. "Hi, I was there about 20 minutes ago and there was a girl in the TV section who was just a great help. I think her name started with an "S". She has short blonde hair. Can you tell me her name? I wanted to drop a line to the manager about what great service she gave me." Of course, you won't drop a line to anyone, but if you are calling to praise you're more likely to get the name than if you call with a complaint.

Height I find "estimate the height" a fun game. I know how tall I am in each of my pairs of shoes and as I enter a store or browse a certain department, I'll notice where things "hit" me. So, for example, in a clothes store, the rack hits me two inches below my shoulder. My salesperson looks about an inch taller than me, and the same rack hits three inches below her shoulder, so that is a good confirmation. At a fast food outlet, the counter hits right at my hip bone. It hits the employee right at their waist. In a restaurant, calculating height from a sitting position might be harder and I rely more on my landmarks. Where did the table hit me when I stood next to it? The top of the chair? The bottom of the frame of the painting on the wall?

Age This one can be really tough. For the most part you're going to have to rely on educated guesses. When I was studying for this area, I found training manuals for private investigators to be helpful. Here are some of the extremely general guidelines they provided: Teens generally have shinier skin than twenties, not just on their faces, but on their arms and legs as well. Their conversation tends toward school, friends and hobbies like music. Early-twenties are more likely to have more vibrantly-colored hair (magenta, blue, green, etc.) than other age groups. Friends will still dominate their conversation, but hobbies and interests will be more dominant. Mid-twenties are more likely to have tattoos and multiple piercings, men in this age group are more likely to have goatees or a "soul patch." Work and home, perhaps a pet, is the focus of the conversation at this age.

Upper-twenties to mid-thirties is the newlywed/pregnant/new dad era. In their upper thirties, men begin to soften around the middle and women usually gain one neck crease. (I avoid using facial lines as determiners as sun exposure, dry skin, allergies, smoking and makeup can alter these lines dramatically.) In their early forties, men will usually start to go gray and women might begin coloring their hair (colored hair has a more uniform color where natural hair has individual strands of color.) Women will also start showing thinning of the skin on their hands at this age, allowing the blue veins just under the surface to "pop" a little.

In their upper forties, men are more uniformly gray and the back of women's hands are more wrinkled. Often by their late forties women have gained a second or even third crease in their necks (although carrying extra weight can hide these creases). By the time most men hit their fifties, a definite "spare tire" graces their middle. The skin on the back of women's hands become thinner and more transparent. By their late fifties, women will often have liver spots on their hands that look like large freckles. At about this age, men and women both can develop horizontal lines on their teeth, although this can happen much earlier in smokers.

Again, there are so many variables that guessing age is very tricky. Fortunately, most of the reports I have completed ask for an age range, usually by decade, which is easier for me to estimate than an exact year.

In closing, please do NOT estimate measurements which need to be specific. Elapsed time, the time your shop begins and ends, the temperature or weight of an item, these measurements need to be exact. If you aren't sure, check the information provided with the assignment.

Friday, October 31, 2008

A Scary Halloween Post (Fast Food Shops)

The more often you eat at a fast food outlet, the greater your odds of running into something truly disgusting. Mystery shopping a fast food place is only different in that you are required to taste the food before making a face and throwing it out. Most companies do not allow you to return incorrect orders or food that clearly has something wrong with it. It comes with the territory.

In observance of Halloween, I offer you these True Tales from the Gross Side of Fast Food Mystery Shopping, each experienced by yours truly:

"Recycled" food wrappers You know, the kind that clearly were used before, and not for the same thing you are eating. The tip-off is how badly wrinkled they are and the greasy fingerprints on the outside. There's usually another hint like melted cheese stuck to the inside of wrapper when what you have ordered is a cold wrap.

Unidentified Fried Objects Yes, I've had a deep-fried UFO stuffed amongst my french fries. I suspect it was just a piece of lemon that fell into the deep fryer, but...ew.

Undercooked Meat Probably my scariest mystery shop of all was the one on which I encountered a lukewarm beef patty. It was seared crisp on the outside and deep, cold red on the inside.

I won't even bore you with the stray hair stories, those are too dull and boring and you've probably encountered them yourself during a quick trip to the drive-thru.

If you go the fast food route, you might want to bring along a digital camera to discreetly document evidence. When I run into something I feel could be a safety issue and not just a nauseator, I'll drop a line to my scheduler and offer my time-and-date-stamped evidence. I've been taken up on my offer more than once, although I'm not privy to the results of my efforts.

My point is that if you are squeamish, perhaps consuming food for a living probably isn't your best option.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Let's Be Careful Out There

Scam uses 'mystery shopper' hook to lure victims

05:36 PM PDT on Friday, October 17, 2008

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Surviving in our troubled economy is growing more challenging by the day and con artists are taking advantage of the situation.

One of the latest scams hitting Oregonians uses mystery shopping to rip off victims.

Legitimate mystery shoppers really do exist, stores sometimes hire them to survey how clerks treat customers.

Nicole Benson from Salem thought that’s what she was signing up for when she discovered a mystery shopping application on line.

Two weeks ago she got a letter in the mail saying she'd been hired and it included a $3,800 check.

She was instructed to deposit the check into her personal account, then test Walmart's moneygram service by wiring $3,400 back to the secret shopping company. She was allowed to keep 4 hundred dollars for her mystery shopping salary.

Benson said, “I felt really stupid at first, oh my god I can't believe I did this because my Mom said are you sure it's not a scam and I said well the check seems to be good?”

Four days later her bank learned the check was a phony. Benson’s personal bank account was frozen and now she is out $3,400. She says she can’t afford to pay her mortgage payment this month.

She's one of two victims in Marion county in the past two weeks.

In this case the crooks are hiding behind international lines in Canada so there is little local law enforcement can do.

Remember, anytime someone asks you to return money though a wire or moneygram, it should be a huge red flag that something is wrong.

Friday, October 17, 2008

If only they could all be like this

I had a peach of an assignment this week. Walk into a store, look for a certain display. If it's there, mark off on the form where I found it and leave. If it's not there, ask the manager for it, put it up and leave.

Store #1: No display. Got display from manager, put it together in one step, stocked with product, applied price sticker, put on register counter, write down manager's name. Time: 10 minutes

Store #2: Found display. It's stocked, labelled and on the register counter already. Time: 2 minutes

I only traveled 15 miles round trip for both stores and no purchase was required. I figure including gas, the travel time, paper and ink to print the forms, and the amount of time I spent online and offline for this job comes to $5 and about 1 hour.

I was paid a most generous $16 ($8 per store) for this assignment. Now that's the kind of compensation that makes mystery shopping worth doing. $11 an hour isn't CEO pay by any means, but the requirements were so easy and the shop was so quick that it was a real joy to perform.

Friday, October 10, 2008

You'll get a thicker skin

I work very hard to earn good scores on my mystery shopping reports. Toward that end I am truthful. The great majority of stores capture you on film from the moment you park your car until you leave the parking lot and can dispute any untruths or exaggerations you report.

Being an independent contractor, my income depends on my scores. It's not a bonus, and I don't have a salary. There are no sick days, no paid vacation and no insurance. I don't get paid extra for finding things wrong with shops, nor for "perfect" shops. I have no incentive for slanting reports in any way. The best shot I have at a great score is to fulfill the shop's requirements, report exactly what happened, quote exactly what was said and get my reports in on time.

If you are a mystery shopper for very long, you will encounter an angry employee who was "burned" by a mystery shopper. Their frustration can stem from what they consider an unfair evaluation, or be directed more at the corporate response to the evaluation. Managers getting bonused without the employees receiving recognition is often a sore spot. Some employees see mystery shoppers as spies, sent by the corporate office to "catch" them being bad.

There has been much discussion among mystery shoppers about a post that was made to a Starbucks message board almost four years ago. I do not post the link here to encourage badmouthing of mystery shoppers, but to warn you: Do this job long enough and you will be outed as the shopper at least once. You will be maligned and slandered, called names, misunderstood and called a liar. It's as much a part of the job as making a mistake big enough to cost you a shop fee. It happens, you learn and move on.

Friday, October 3, 2008

When the Manager gets shopped

I performed a "reveal and reward" mystery shop this week at a local restaurant. It was an easy shop and a restaurant I enjoy but rarely go to. It was a "reveal" shop, which means at the end of the shop I tell the manager that I have mystery shopped his location and give him the results. This particular shop included a reward if all the requirements for a successful shop were met, and it was a nice little reward: American Express Gift Cards for everyone on shift during my shop! Nice.

It was an easy requirement, too. There was just one "catch phrase" that had to be said when I placed my order. And to be honest, if he had used the "catch phrase," my lunch would have been more enjoyable for me, because it was something I wanted anyway! The person who took my order was the manager himself.

Sadly, the requirement wasn't met. When I gave the manager the forms to sign showing that he had an unsuccessful shop, he was embarrassed. He wanted to rush me through the process of completing the paperwork and get me out of the store as quickly as possible. He knew that because of his mistake his team wouldn't get a bonus and realized they might get upset if they knew he had been the one who "blew it." I was discreet, and didn't let on what was going on, and made a hasty exit as soon as his part of the paperwork was done.

I felt bad for the team. In these days of economic turmoil, every little bit helps. But I felt worse for the manager.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Certification: Why?

Lila P. from Athens, GA asks,
"On the MSPA website, I saw stuff about certification. What is it and is it something I need to do?"
Certification is a step that can set you apart as a mystery shopper. The MSPA has two levels of certification: silver and gold. The silver test is done on their site online and takes about an hour. As of this entry, the cost of the silver certification is $15 and is tax-deductible as relevant business training. The silver certificate indicates that you know the basics of mystery shopping. The test is so simple and inexpensive, I recommend it to every shopper who has reached the point of making a profit from their shops.

Gold certification has just recently joined us in the 21st century. In past years, you would need to travel to a nearby large city and attend classes to prepare for the gold certification exam. Depending on where you live and if the travel and seminar dates were convenient for you, the $100 testing fee could be the smallest part of the expense involved. In 2008, MSPA released a DVD version of their gold certification seminar. It is easy to watch the DVD at your convenience in your own home, take notes and then use the provided link for gold certification testing. Once you purchase the DVDs, a link is sent to your email for testing. You must purchase the DVDs from MSPA to receive the link. As of this entry, the cost of the gold certification DVD program is $99 plus shipping.

The gold seminars are still being held, and many shoppers who have attended felt it was a valuable experience. You can't get to know other shoppers in your living room like you could at a seminar. Some seminars have representatives from mytery shopping companies, offering shoppers and companies the chance to meet face-to-face.

The gold seminar includes the nitty gritty details of mytery shopping that often mark the difference between a casual and a professional shopper. You'll learn important details about tax preparation, audio and video recording, and tips for writing a "perfect 10" narrative.

Do you need the gold certification, Lila? Yes and no. Often, shoppers holding gold certification will be preferred over those with no or silver certification, but then only by certain companies or only for certain jobs. It can put you in a group of shoppers considered for higher paying jobs. With other companies it will make no difference whatsoever. The $99 you'll put out for the DVDs can't be recouped by reselling the DVDs, but you can use it as a tax-deduction. You'll need to budget for this business expense, save up, and make the investment in your future only after you know you enjoy mystery shopping enough to continue with it.

Most mystery shopping companies have a place on their application for your certificate level and number. If you change your email address after receiving your certification, you will need to notify MSPA for a new certification number, then update any mystery shopping companies that have your certification number on file.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Finding Companies

You'll want to be very, very careful when signing up with a mystery shopping company. There are scams galore that pass themselves off as mystery shopping companies or opportunities. Providing your name, address, phone number and Social Security number online is a recipe for identity theft. But those are the very pieces of information required by shopping companies. What to do?

Do your homework There are sites that warn shoppers of scams and questionable companies. The Mystery Shopping Provider's Association can be trusted, and on their website is a forum for shoppers to discuss scams and questionable companies as well as a listing of their member companies. The MSPA checks out their member companies very thoroughly.

Ask fellow shoppers There are a number of forums for mystery shoppers to connect with each other, including the Mystery Shopping Forum, the forums at, the WAHM forum, the Yahoo group Lila's Lounge and Mystery Shop Resources, to name just a few. As you read posts, you'll find a group that meets your needs and likely fall in with a great group of people.

Use common sense I don't want to insult anyone's intelligence, but I need to say it: If you are completing an online form and you are asked for personal information, you need to be on a page that begins https:// and not just http:// The "s" stands for secure. It's not foolproof, but it's a layer of security beyond nothing. Remember, do not put any details on a non-secured website that you don't want published in a newspaper with world-wide readership.

Let's be careful out there.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Payment Problems

At some point in your mystery shopping career, you will experience a problem with the way a shop was paid. The wrong way to handle payment problems is to get your scheduler on the phone and start yelling and accusing.

The Right Way Good thing you've been keeping excellent records! You have been keeping excellent records, right? Look up the issuing company's IC Agreement you signed with them and read up on their payment policies. It will outline the dates they pay, the method of payment and what to do in case of a problem.

Now go to your assignment form, shop form and receipt. Double check everything to make sure you completed the assignment exactly as you were instructed. It is common for a mystery shopping company to deduct from your pay or not pay you at all if you started a shop even one minute too early, ended it too late, did not spend the right amount or forgot to upload a receipt. Take it one step at a time and check everything on your end first.

When you have all your information in order, contact the company using their preferred method. Be calm, have your facts ready and be willing to work with them instead of insisting on your way.

I have experienced payment issues in less than 3% of my shops, and about half of those were my fault. I don't push to get paid for a job I do if I did not complete the assignment as it was explained to me. There have been times when the paperwork indicated a certain purchase was optional, but the payment was denied me because the purchase wasn't made. Because I have the original paperwork, exactly what was agreed upon can be read to (or scanned and a copy sent to) the person helping me. If a scheduler offers me a bonus but it doesn't appear in the paperwork, I don't insist upon being paid the bonus. Part of my job includes making sure my paperwork is in order before I do the shop. If I fail to do that, any payment issues must be abandoned as "Contractor Error," in other words, my fault.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Looking good, seeing well

Earlier this month I performed a shop at one of those super-upscale sunglasses stores at the mall. They had models ranging from $50 (on clearance sale) to $500 (included bluetooth to attach to your phone, ipod or PDA). It was a fairly easy shop, evaluating the store's atmosphere, cleanliness of the displays, salesmanship, etc.

It has been a while since I've seen the latest tech in glasses, I guess, because I felt like a real dinosaur. I saw one model that didn't have screws at the temple for adjusting the fit and asked about it. I nearly jumped a foot in the air when the salesman snapped the arms right off the glasses! Handy for sports she said, or babies-in-arms, I thought. That memory metal is very cool, and who knew titanium was so light?

I settled on a pair that cost about $150. That's way more than I'd normally pay for something like sunglasses, but after my shop fee, the cost went back down into my budgeted range. Of course, even a "deal" isn't a deal unless it's something I'd buy anyway. But I really needed a pair of shades. A summer's worth of squinting has deepened my crow's feet and not done my retinas any good.

Who knew mystery shopping could be so educational?

Friday, August 29, 2008

Helpful Tech

One of the mystery shopping companies I work for has offered a cell phone package at a discount. They will eventually make it possible for shoppers to enter their information online from their cell phones right to the company site while the shop is being done. It's a very cool idea, and if you need a cell phone and plan on the high end, it could be worth the asking price. But, chances are you already have a cell phone on a good enough plan for now.

Because the payment process for mystery shopping is not an immediate process, (remember it took almost three months for me to show a profit?) you probably won't want to invest in a lot of tools right off. Most shops can be completed without most of these tools anyway. In no particular order, here are some of the tools I use most regularly.

Cell Phone I like having a separate phone just for business calls. I can keep track of minutes on that phone to report as a business expense and I can be sure that phone is always answered in a business-like fashion, which is important having teens in the house who like to answer the phone, "Moon Pizza, your pie-in-the-sky." My cell phone has built in tools like a calendar and stopwatch. I use the calendar, and set an audible alarm for shops so if I get distracted I have time to get back on track and be punctual for my assignments. I use the stopwatch function on almost every shop. Most assignments will require at least one timing, and a cell phone is a much more natural item to be seen holding than a stopwatch. You will want to be careful though, it is very bad form to use a cell phone during a shop as it might keep the employees from interacting with you.

Stopwatch There is one batch of shops I perform that require a stopwatch and specify that a cell phone stopwatch is not an acceptable form of capturing timings. The mystery shopping company provided an inexpensive stopwatch for me for this batch of shops. I like that a stopwatch can be easily concealed in my hand during a shop. But be sure the "beep" is turned off, though, or you'll give yourself away!

Scales and Thermometers The shop that requires a stopwatch also requires two thermometers and a scale. The instructions for calibrating them are on the company's website, and it is very important you calibrate your equipment faithfully. The company requiring the use of these tools provided them to me at a lower cost than I could have purchased them, thank you!

Digital Voice Recorder I've touched on the use of a DVR in previous posts. I love my recorder for leaving myself notes about shops. Recording conversations is legal in most states, but you need to check carefully before investing. There are also some venues at which recordings are absolutely forbidden, like movie theaters. Be careful who can hear you when you use it, too. If you need to hold the recorder, consider purchasing the model that looks like a cell phone. Much more valuable to me, though, is a lapel mike and clip. I can conceal the recorder, lapel mike and cord under my clothing and get very accurate recordings without being discovered. I don't like to rely on technology 100%, so I use my recorder as a way to back up my memory instead of providing all the data for my shops.

Assignment Spreadsheet I was well on my way to writing an Excel spreadsheet that would hold all the necessary information I would need to keep track of my business when I stumbled upon The Mystery Shopping Bible. It has an amazing assortment of worksheets, all tied together with macros that move information around and create all the forms and data you need for your business. It is a valuable tool, very reasonably priced. It is automatic and easy to use, even for beginners. If you're an old pro at Excel and can modify macros, the bits and pieces that are outdated and in need of a bit of sharpening up will be an easy fix for you. The author of the spreadsheet is a shopper herself and very familiar with all the bits and pieces that need tracking. The company list with clickable links to their websites is worth the purchase price alone.

Computer and its friends Of course, you'll need a computer. All the companies I deal with except one require the end-of-assignment surveys to be answered online. A fast, reliable internet connection will save you headaches and frustration. An email program is essential as this is the most favored method of communication between company and shopper. You'll need access to a printer for printing out tip sheets—the page of required information you'll need to gather on a shop. A scanner is a huge plus, as most shops require your receipt to be scanned or photographed and sent digitally to the mystery shopping company. A digital camera is needed for some jobs, but not a great quantity of jobs. Photographing a receipt to send with your report can produce varied results, scanning produces a much more readable file. If you keep financial information on your computer, please back it up at least monthly. One computer crash could require days of reconstruction work at tax-time. And know where the closest business is where you can send and receive a fax, unless you own a fax machine. If your computer connection goes down and you are under deadline, some companies will ask you to fax your report rather than miss the deadline entirely.

Do remember to keep on file every dollar you spend on tools for your business and review them with your tax preparer.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Let that be a lesson to me.

Sometimes I have days when I am convinced I am not cut out to be a mystery shopper. It happens. Best thing I can do is just fix what I can and move on.

Earlier this week, for instance, I had a shop to be done any time during the day. The requirements were so VERY simple. Just buy items to total a certain dollar amount before tax, pay for it with cash and listen for the cashier to say a single phrase. Simple.


I added up my purchases very, very carefully so when I got to the checkstand I'd have exactly two dollars and seventy five cents over the required amount. I have performed this shop before and I know there is mental pressure at the checkstand. The interaction must be timed. I must get the cashier's name and full description and be able to quote exactly what is said. All while looking like just another shopper.

I didn't count on an unadvertised special.

The total was over the dollar amount by three dollars and something, so I checked it off in my brain as being okay and moved on. But when I got to my car and looked at the receipt, it was thirteen cents short of the pre-tax total required by the shop. There were two happy little marks on the receipt indicating that I paid less than the shelf ticket for those two items. Oh boy! An unadvertised special! What a treat!

Thirteen cents invalidated my whole shop.

Fortunately, I was able to go back later that day and make a single purchase over the required sub-total. I saved the receipt, filed my report and returned the item at a later date. Of course, if I was paying proper attention to the subtotal, a package of Tic Tacs would have spared me the headache. But, with all the other things vying for my notice, I slipped. Not sleeping the night before, having a child sick at home, hubby being away on a business trip, two prior shops and two following shops that day, these things all played a part in my lack of attentiveness. But it was my job and I blew it.

And no, I didn't even ask if the mystery shopping company would accept thirteen cents less. I signed up for a certain dollar amount and if I can't fulfill that requirement, I shouldn't agree to perform the shop. Was it my fault the items were marked down? No, but being 100% would have kept me from the reshop.

Note to self: Get to 100% before starting a shop.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Other Things to Do

Many mystery shopping companies offer other types of assignments besides mystery shopping. Here's a brief menu of some alternative shopping options.

Reveal shops: Sometimes called reward shops, these assignments start out like mystery shops, but end differently. If, for example, the parent company is pushing a certain promotion in their stores, you might be asked to go and make sure the proper signs are up, the correct buttons are worn on the aprons of the employees and the right catch phrases are being used. If the store meets the company's requirements, you will reveal yourself to the manager as the shopper and give them a certificate or other reward. If the store doesn't meet the requirements, you'll be asked to reveal yourself to the manager and point out what was deficient in your assessment. The upside to this kind of shop is a very exciting moment when you present gifts for a job well done. The downsides include revealing yourself—which means no more mystery shopping at that location; possible angry or belligerent reaction by a not-rewarded manager and his staff; and an additional step to the paperwork as you must return rewards and certificates to the mystery shopping company if not used.

I have performed a handful of reveal shops and will probably not do many more. The ones I have chosen are about 30 miles from my standard shopping area, so I don't expect to be recognized locally. But that 60 mile round-trip was very expensive at the gas pump, and my shop fee barely covered it. Most of the managers didn't seem to care one way or the other that they didn't meet the requirements, but one gentleman was heartbroken. He didn't get angry, he got very sad, realizing that his employees would not receive $10 gift cards because he hadn't put up the correct posters. I felt so bad for him.

Audits: Audits are an interesting group of shops. You print out your paperwork, call to make an appointment with the store manager, and present him a letter of authorization from the corporate office that authorizes you to audit the merchandise at his store. It's usually a small part of a larger store, prepaid cell phones in a discount store, for instance. You'll get specific instructions about what signs need to be up, what brochures need to be where, and what merchandise to count. You can take your instruction sheet with you and make notes while you work. Some audits require photographs, and the instructions will give you specific directions on what to photograph, file size and how to upload your photos. When your audit is complete, the manager signs off on your form and you enter your results online like a regular mystery shop. Blind (manager-unaware) and open (manager-aware) checking of movie theaters falls into the auditing category, as does checking to be sure the proper film trailers (those "coming soon" ads) are attached to movies.

I don't mind doing audits, and they generally pay better than a mystery shop. Because I am at a store "officially," I don't try to blend in with the customer base, but dress in business casual attire with hair and makeup done.

Merchandising: This type of assignment varies widely and can include refilling gift cards on a rack, setting up a floor display, changing the prices on a certain item, and many more possibilities. There are merchandising divisions in larger mystery shopping companies, and other companies specialize in merchandising jobs. Some jobs require heavy lifting or mechanical ability, you'll need to be sure you are capable of meeting the requirements before accepting a merchandising job. Many merchandising assignments are ongoing and provide a reliable, if small, income. You might, for example, spend two hours setting up a jewelry display at a department store, then visit your display once a week to refill sold out merchandise or do other maintenance tasks taking only 15-20 minutes of your time.

As of this writing I have only performed two merchandising assignments. I wanted to give it a shot, but it's really not my kind of work. But, that's the great thing about mystery shopping, there's something for every taste and talent!

Friday, August 8, 2008

Ah, Payday!

There are three ways mystery shopping companies get my paycheck to me: direct deposit, PayPal and hard copy check in the mail. Regardless of how the money comes in, I deal with it in the same manner.

First step is updating the master spreadsheet on which all my assignments are listed. I sort the data by company to determine what is owed me and write my assignment reference numbers on the check stub or a piece of scratch paper.

From my filing drawer I pull the manila file with those assignments. I go through each piece of paper in each folder, shredding all but my receipt and my shop notes. For each assignment, I enter the data from the check: amount, date paid, check number, PayPal reference number, direct deposit reference number, etc. into my spreadsheet and print out a “cover sheet.” This cover sheet is a tax record and includes:

Shopping company name, address and phone number
Shop name and address
Assignment Date
Mystery shopping company’s assignment number
My assignment reference number
My shopper identification number with the company
The amount of the shop fee, reimbursement and bonus
The date payment was received, payment method and amount

I attach the cover sheet to the front of the packet of papers I intend to keep, one packet per assignment, and file it in a storage box in the attic until tax time. I reuse the now empty file folders for new assignments. I enter the deposit in my Quicken application, including the amount, check number and my assignment reference numbers. Eventually I'll I take the check to the bank and deposit it in my business account. PayPal payments wait in my PayPal account until the end of the month when I make a lump sum transfer to my business account.

While my spreadsheet is open, I can quickly browse it to see what payments are due in the next few days, which are in danger of becoming problems, and which problems (if any) need my follow-up.

If I have dipped into our family checking account for any business expenses, I pay that back first before I pay myself.

I like to “pay” myself once a month, usually on the last day of the month. I have a formula I use to determine how much to withdraw from my business account. The exact percentages can vary, but this month’s paycheck will be disbursed:

10% of my gross (total income before taxes are taken out) to donate
10% of my gross to my retirement account
10% of my gross to the savings account that holds my tax liability
20% of my gross to my checking account for personal use (my paycheck to myself)
50% of my gross remains in my business checking account as seed money for next month’s shops.

Dull and boring stuff, I know, but good record keeping is a must. You'll thank yourself at tax time for keeping meticulous records!

Friday, August 1, 2008

Fast Food Shop: the shop

Ride along with me on a fast food shop!

Before leaving the house, I review my paperwork (instructions and the company-provided note taking form) to refresh my memory as to what I'll need to notice. I jot down my starting mileage (starting 7/1/08, the government will give me a tax credit of 58.5 cents per mile for business miles, well worth keeping track of) and I'm off!

I keep a digital voice recorder close when doing my shops. I very rarely use it for recording the actual shop because I don't want to become complacent and lazy. Trusting in machinery is dubious: should the machine fail and I haven't exercised my memory and observation skills enough to complete a job survey, I risk losing the payment for that job. But I find it helpful to take verbal "notes" before and after a shop. Before purchasing the recorder, I also checked the laws of my state very carefully to make sure if I use the machine on a shop I was recording legally.

So, I turn on the recorder and take note of: time, date, temperature, cloud cover, time of day (not time so much as light: twilight, sunrise, pitch dark, etc.) and traffic near the shop. I pull into the parking lot and quote into the machine exactly what is written on the illuminated sign out front. I drive around the parking lot once, reading off the posters in the windows, counting the cars in the lot, making note of potholes and if the painted lines are wearing. I also make note of trash in the driveway and on the sidewalk: how many napkins, discarded cups, straw papers, and where are they? Are there bread racks or a delivery truck in the parking lot? What about the dumpsters? Are they overflowing? Tidy? Rusty?

I pull into the drive-in and start my cell phone's stopwatch when I ring for service. I push "snapshot" when the speaker attendant asks to take my order. I jot down initials I've memorized for what he says, and notes for what I don't have initials for. So, for example, if he says, "Hi, thanks for choosing Mega Food, may I take your order, please?" I write, "Hi, TFChMF, MITYO, P?" I place my order, very carefully following the instructions the shopping company has provided me (no special orders, one entree, one side, one drink only, and only those items on the approved list.) I continue jotting notes inconspicuously as the attendant repeats my order and tells me the cost. As he rings off, I hit the stop button on the cellphone stopwatch and simultaneously hit "start" on a regular stopwatch. I make notes about the length of time the order-placing transaction took. And now I have a second watch going to time the food delivery part of the shop. I pay for the order using my business credit card and wait for the food to arrive.

While waiting, I jot down some written notes about the condition of the menu board next to my car, the advertising in the car area, what the waitresses are wearing, if the building is clean and well-lit, etc. There's a flurry of activity while my food is delivered, because in just under 10 seconds I have to notice, remember, then make notes of: exactly what the waitress says, what she is wearing, her name, her physical description, if she smiles, makes eye contact, repeats my order, tells me the cost and thanks me. Whew.

I turn the recorder back on and dictate the condition of the drink cup and lid. I walk step by step through opening the bag (rolled, folded or open?), taking each item out, examining it visually, then tasting each item: hot? fresh? crispy? messy? and setting it aside. I continue doing that with each item in the bag, then make notes about the "other" stuff in the bag: salt? ketchup? napkins? how many of each? If anything is really out of line I'll jot a written note, but if all is as expected, just a voice memo is enough to jog my memory.

Now I can eat at my leisure. I didn't tonight, but I usually bring a child along and this is the time they know they can start talking to Mom again. They are well trained. Be quiet and invisible during "quiet times" while I'm working and you'll get a meal out! They will gladly consume all those nasty calories for me while I sip on some iced tea I've brought from home. I take my time and watch the employees for anything out of the ordinary. Tonight's a strange one. We have a man making deliveries that isn't in the uniform of the shop! He's in another uniform, though: he's a uniformed security guard the shop pays to keep the peace. I guess he is bored or maybe wants to help out, but this is absolutely beyond the scope of "normal" and gets reported.

I've agreed, by accepting the assignment, to stay in the parking lot for a certain period of time after my meal is delivered. When the time is up, I turn on the recorder, note the time and any observations that jump out at me as I leave. Then, I drive home and note the mileage as I pull into the driveway at home.

Now the report. I kick my teenager off my computer and go to the shopping company's website where I am taken question by question through the note-taking form I used on the shop. There are six sections on this particular survey. Each section contains 8-10 questions and one narrative. I fill out the questions, clicking in the radio box for each answer. But I don't fill out the narrative just yet. I save the form online and switch over into my word processing program. I find it much easier to transcribe my notes from the voice recorder and my written notes in a word processor first, get everything in full sentences, check for the "flow" of information, do a spell and grammar check, re-read again, then save it all and cut and paste it into the survey form on the shopping company's website.

I go to my Excel document in which I keep all my shopping information and plug in the amount I spent on the shop and mileage. This generates a form I print out to which I attach the receipt, scan the form and receipt and send them electronically to the shopping company. They will use this information to validate my shop and get my paycheck in the works! Yay, paycheck!

Almost done! Now I put my notes, the receipt, all the information I've collected from this shop back in the file folder holding this and only this job, and file it in the filing cabinet in the section marked, "Completed Shops." This part of the cabinet is sectioned by company first, with the oldest shops in the front of each section. I will check my business email carefully for the next three or four days. Sometimes if I don't make some bit of information clear, I will get a note back from an editor asking to clarify. Editors like immediate responses to these clarifications, and I like to make editors happy.

If there are no clarifications needed, I won't see this paperwork again until payday. Payday, our next installment!

Friday, July 25, 2008

Got the job? Terrific! Now what?

Paperwork, of course! The assigning Mystery Shopping Company will direct you a web page containing specific instructions for your shop, and probably tools like printable note taking forms and surveys. This is how you will know exactly what measurements and timings to take, what to look for, ask, and do on a shop. Read this information carefully as soon as you have access to it. Sometimes errors are made, for example: women are sent on jobs requiring an inspection of the men’s restroom or dressing room, or a man is assigned a job during which he must try on three maternity items! If you find something about your assignment that doesn’t look right, contact your scheduler before the shop. Don’t wait until the last minute, please.

When you first accept jobs or you are working for a company you have little experience with, pull out their Independent Contractor’s Agreement you signed when you applied. Make sure you know how long it will be until you are paid, what will disqualify your shop, how you will submit your receipts for reimbursement and enter your survey data. Don’t go on your shop until you know all these things and are comfortable with them.

You’ll need to make a note of the date and time of your shop on a calendar you carry, on your computer, on your cell phone’s calendar, a calendar which hangs on your refrigerator, somewhere. If you have a busy life or tend to be forgetful, many computer program calendars include alarms that can be set to remind you of upcoming appointments.

Personally, I print out the information I need from the company’s website then enter the information in my computer’s calendar system. I assign each job a reference number for my own use and add the following information into my master database:

Mystery Shopping Company
Assignment # (provided by the company)
Assignment Start (some assignments can be done during a range of dates, this would be the first possible date the job can be done)
Assignment End (the last possible date the job can be done)
Shop Date (the actual date I plan to do the shop)
Location Name (store name)
Store # (the identifying number provided by the company to the Mystery Shopping Company)
Mall or Shopping Center Name
Address of the shop including City, State and Zip
Phone number of the store (in case I need it for directions or to confirm their hours)
Special Instructions (Is a purchase required? During what hours must the shop be completed, etc.)
Shop Fee (what I get paid for doing the shop)
Reimbursement Amount (how much the Mystery Shopping Company will reimburse of any required purchases I make)

I print out a map to the location with the help of Mapquest or Googlemaps and check it carefully with my common sense and what I know of the area. Immediately upon accepting the appointment, call and confirm the location and hours. Again, 99.9% of the time your assigned dates and times will be right, but there is always the odd job out. I’ve had two different assignments at stores that were closed for renovation. A call back to your scheduler in the case of error will be greatly appreciated.

Now that I have all the information in my hand, I grab a manila file folder to keep it in. On the tab I write my reference number, the MS Company, store name, date and time of the shop. I keep these in a file drawer next to my computer. Shops I have yet to complete are filed in date order, with the next shop that needs to be done right in front. Each night before bed, I grab the next day’s folders, give them a quick read-through, gather any instruments or devices I need for the shops and put it all together by my purse.

Now, I get a good night’s sleep and I’m off and running!

Friday, July 18, 2008

Get a Job

You’re all signed up and ready to work! Now it’s time to go get an assignment.

The companies I work for generally use four methods of letting me know there are jobs to be done:

1) Here’s a list Some companies email me a list every morning of all open assignments in my area. I can take a quick look down the list and determine if there is something I’d like to do, then go to the website and apply for each job individually.

2) Here’s an opportunity Other companies email me each and every assignment they post as it is being posted. If I’m fast on the mouse, sometimes I can win the race to the company’s page to get the assignment.

3) Here’s a message One or two of the companies I work for will put all their job opportunities in a message box on their website and send me an email letting me know when a message has been added to the message box.

4) Do-it-yourself The vast majority of companies I work for have search engines on their site for finding jobs. This requires me to log in to each site, enter my search area, wait for the results and then read descriptions and choose jobs that interest me.

Most companies will use one or any combination of these four methods. I tend to work more jobs for the companies that use the first method of assigning jobs because it is most convenient for me. But near the end of the month when last minute jobs bearing bonuses are common, I will use the do-it-yourself method daily and glean a few more high-paying jobs.

Please remember that most companies that send out jobs or messages send them out to everyone in their shopper database who qualifies to perform a certain job. Anywhere from two to two hundred people could be seeing the same message you are, and schedulers do not take kindly to being asked, “Why didn’t I get this job?”

Companies use a term you need to be aware of: Self-assign. If you personally meet certain criteria, you will be able to assign yourself jobs from the company website. If you do not meet these criteria, or if the job or company does not offer self-assign on this particular opportunity, you will need to “apply” for the job along with all other interested shoppers and the company will let you know if you have won the assignment. The criteria vary widely from company to company and even assignment to assignment, and few companies will share with the shopper the method they use for determining who may self-assign which jobs.

The Do-it-yourself method can be very time-consuming and frustrating, but you will get to know the market very well visiting company websites on a regular basis. There are companies who specialize in certain assignments, others who restrict themselves to certain parts of the country, or even parts of certain cities. There are tools that make the process a bit easier, we'll explore some in a future post.

There is one more method some companies will use when time is short, or a shopper suddenly cancels an important job: the phone call. I have a cell phone I use only for my business calls. Because it isn’t used for personal use I can claim the minutes as a business expense for tax purposes. My children don’t answer this phone and when I do, it is with my best business manners. This is the phone number I have listed with shopping companies. I know when that phone rings that it is opportunity knocking and I’d better have my calendar in hand. A very small percentage of companies I work for will use this method exclusively. For the most part, those that do also require the results of shops to be phoned-in.

Now that you've chosen a job, let's prepare to go. No, we can't go yet, remember, there's still before-the-job paperwork to be done?

Friday, July 11, 2008

Time to Apply Yourself

Ready to dip your toe into the mystery shopping pool? Let’s fill out an application!

The worst way to find mystery shopping companies is to run an internet search. You’ll come up with more scams than bona fide companies that way. And because entering your Social Security Number is a required part of most forms, filling out applications at just any old shopping company is painting a target on your back and carrying a sign, “Steal my identity, please!”

The best way to find mystery shopping companies is to talk to other shoppers. That can be tricky, as most of us don’t like having our faces identified with our occupation. There are some good websites, though, where shoppers can anonymously post our favorite companies, complaints and scam discoveries on public forums. The two best sources for this information are:



There are many smaller forums. I find it to be very helpful to be part of a community. At first I joined several of these smaller forums and one by one dropped those that didn’t meet my needs.

When you go to browse the MSPA site,you’ll see something called certification. There are classes a shopper can take, then a test for a certificate which might (or not) give them access to better jobs. But that’s a step that can wait a bit until you’re sure this is something you wish to pursue.

Okay, so I found a site for which I haven’t applied before. I click on “Apply to be a Shopper” where I am taken to an application page. In addition to the normal name, address, phone number and SSN stuff, they ask about my available hours, if I have special military or airline privileges, and if I would submit to a background check. There is a short essay question: What qualities do you possess that would make you a good mystery shopper? I have applied at over 100 companies, and most of them ask some kind of essay question, more to get a feel for the applicant’s language skills than the answer itself. I have a document on my computer that has essay answers for several of these questions. It’s easier for me to edit, copy and paste than to write fresh essays for each company.

At the end of the application is a Shopper Agreement. I print and file a hard copy of these alphabetically by company name. I also read it very carefully to make sure I am able to abide by each and every point before I check the box that I agree. You should read these agreements carefully. You will discover that companies outline very clearly the requirements of the shopper and shopping company. You’ll save yourself headaches, time and embarrassment to know precisely what is in your contract with each company.

A few hours later, I get an email that my application has been accepted. I am issued a username and password for the company website which I note on a master list I keep. I also note the date I applied, for future reference. I make a file folder with the company name to hold my shopper agreement hard copy and file it away. If I was not accepted, I’d shred the agreement and make a note on my master list that I was declined for that agency so I don’t inadvertently apply again.

That’s the whole process. Next time, choosing jobs at the company website.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Considerations Part Two: Betcha didn't think about that!

As you progress through your mystery shopping life, gathering experience and learning, you will come upon some surprising "aha!" moments. (We old-folks call them "epiphanies." It's a $10 word—look it up!)

Here are some of mine:

Internet maps are not infallible. I mapped an address for a shop, but it didn't look right to me. I called the establishment and sure enough, both Mapquest and Google Maps had me more than 20 miles off the mark. If you are going somewhere and you aren't 100% sure of where it is, don't just search an internet map, call and get a cross-street!

Dining out carries risks. In addition the the larger-pant-size risk that frequent dining shops carry, there is another danger: food-borne disease. After approximately 20% (that's one in five) of food shops I perform, I am stricken with a case of food poisoning that lasts about three days. And don't assume you can feel safe by avoiding fast food shops: my worst case so far was after an upscale dining assignment. If your immune system or digestive tracts are weak, you might need to steer clear of jobs requiring prepared food consumption.

Complacency is income-threatening. I have one batch of shops I perform very frequently. After filling out the form two dozen times, I figured I knew the requirements like the back of my hand. I didn't review my shop form beforehand, did the shop and didn't discover until I was at home filing my report that I had completely missed a newly-added shop point. Lucky for me, it was a point I could drive past the location and answer, because the shop had been closed for several hours by the time I discovered my error, and the shop was due NOW, not tomorrow. The scheduler cut me slack and allowed the correction even though it was performed separately from the shop, but that's the kind of dumb mistake that often results in not getting paid. I learned my lesson: read every shop form every time.

Procrastination is bad juju. In another "stupid" moment, I accepted an assignment that was a week away. I was in a hurry and didn't print out and review my shop right away, as is my habit, but jotted down the assigning company and date of the shop on the scratch pad by the phone. When I uncovered the hastily-written note three days later and printed out the required materials from the website, I learned that there was a pre-shop phone call which had to be made five days in advance. I had missed the deadline by hours. Very few things are more embarrassing than calling a scheduler and 'fessing up to bonehead moves like that. I hope I never, ever have to do that again, but I learned: do the whole prep immediately, don't put anything off!

Editors are people, too. My husband is also registered shopper, and has performed a handful of shops in his interest areas. But his 9-5 involves editing written work for a publishing company. He is degreed in journalism and, um, shall we say, knows English rather well? He is also a perfectionist, and a 10-question survey with a 200-word narration can take him an hour to complete because he edits himself so completely. When he received an 8/10 grade based on "poor word choices and inconsistent grammar," he nearly hit the roof. But hey, that editor probably has a background in shopping, not editing, so he cut her a huge chunk of grace and didn't fire off a nasty email to her boss. Wise move. Angering editors and schedulers at shopping companies will put a very quick end to your shopping career. Word gets around if you're a "flake" (a shopper who cancels assignments) a "texter" (using internet-speak, chat-speak or text-speak on survey forms) or a "nag" (writing schedulers repeatedly asking, "Did I get the job? Why didn't I get the job? and other annoying issues) and your job market will shrink.

I hope you'll join me next Friday as I take you with me to apply at a mystery shopping company.

Friday, June 27, 2008


Okay, so you've read all that came before and you're ready for a nutshell to decide: is this something you want to look more into? Here's a checklist I send to my friends, it's by no means complete, but is a pretty good "jumping off point" for further discussion and thought. The points are in no particular order.

What are your goals? Getting free merchandise? Having an occasional free meal out? Making enough for pocket change? Saving up for a vacation? Keep these goals in mind when choosing jobs.

Can you make enough and be diligent enough to set money aside to pay your tax liability? No kidding. You gotta do your homework on this one, the IRS doesn't accept "ignorance of tax law" or "I needed the money for gasoline" as good reasons for not getting their chunk.

Do you have money set aside for initial outlay? If not, you'll want to steer clear of shops that require purchases. Can you afford the required purchases and wait for reimbursement without breaking the bank?

What is your time availability, energy level and memory capacity? Are you better suited to one shop per day with two days off a week, or is it more your speed to do four shops in one day and only work one day a week? When calculating this, remember that you'll spend almost as much time online answering the after-shop survey as you do on the shop itself.

How much is your time worth? Calculate the cost of printing one page of a document, traveling one mile, spending five minutes in-store and one hour online. Use those figures to calculate each shop. If a shop pays $7, there is a 5 page form you need to print, the shop is 20 miles away, you have to spend 30 minutes in the store, interact with three employees, and has a long online report, are you sure you're making enough to make it worth your while? Are you going to have to stop and pick up dinner more often if you work in the afternoons? Will you have to pay a babysitter for times you aren't there to take care of the kids?

What do you LOVE and what do you not like? For example, some companies specialize in shopping apartment complexes. Do you just adore being in empty apartments, rearranging your furniture in your mind to fit the space, the smell of fresh paint and the look of newly cleaned carpet, or does the smell of fresh paint make you dizzy?

Are you reliable? Life sometimes happens, but the reputation you earn yourself will become known industry-wide. If you "flake" (accept assignments and not complete them) more than once or twice, you can be banned from doing business with certain companies.

Are you organized? There are records that must be kept daily, weekly and monthly. You will appreciate your efforts at tax-time, but are you willing and able to commit to it?

Can you follow instructions thoroughly without improvising, if needed? There are many shops that require you to follow a precise script. Others encourage improvising on a scenario, but you need to know the difference and be able to follow the instructions. If you do not follow the exact instructions on a shop, there is a great likelihood you will not be paid or reimbursed for purchases made. These instructions can include what to wear, what to say, when to go, who to talk to, what to purchase, what to look for, a veritable myriad of details. Consider yourself warned.

Can you set up a separate bank account, credit card and email address to be used strictly for mystery shopping? Although not a hard and fast rule, this will be very helpful, especially at tax-time, by keeping business and personal expenses separate.

How attentive are you to detail? Some shops I have performed required twenty yes or no questions, three stopwatch timings and a 300 word narrative (a paragraph telling the story of the interaction) on a thirty-second drive-through experience!

Can you write correctly? Correct spelling, grammar and punctuation are essential on shop forms. Spell check, while helpful, will not be sufficient for meeting the requirements of the industry.

Do you have the necessary equipment? Mystery shopping companies will usually provide specialized equipment like scales, thermometers or calipers if they are needed. But you need a digital camera, scanner and fax machine. Not all of these will be required for every job. A computer, cell phone, home phone and reliable email program are essential.

Next time, some surprising considerations.

Friday, June 13, 2008

The Basics of Mystery Shopping: Big Bucks?

I've touched on this in previous installments of this series, but it bears repeating: Unless you are prepared to spend five solid 8-hour days a week and have a good sized nest egg with which to begin, you will most likely not be able to start off making a solid second income with mystery shopping. I'm sure someone out there supports themselves with a mystery shopping income, but most of the shoppers I have contacted say it's just not enough to live on.

There are dovetailing occupations which can net a part or full time income. For instance, if Mystery Shopping Company is impressed with your reporting and writing skills, they might offer you a job as an editor, compiling and correcting the reports sent in by other shoppers. Some shoppers have created lines of supplementary income by inventing reporting databases (like the one I use) and selling them to other shoppers. Some are on the "lecture circuit" and hold seminars to teach mystery shopping skills. A very few open their own mystery shopping companies, and a good percentage of those charge a fee to the shopper.

Never, ever pay a fee to become a shopper. Ever. Did I stress that enough? There are hundreds of mystery shopping companies with open opportunities. There are even websites that have links where you can just click to check job listings easily. Paying to become a mystery shopper does not get you better or more job listings, it just lines the pockets of disreputable companies.

Shopper fees and reimbursable expenses are arranged between (going back to my part one labels) Superstore, Inc and Mystery Shopping Company long before the assignment is available for Sally Shopper to choose. Some companies are willing to consider negotiating shopper fees, but for the most part they are pretty solidly set. Don't even ask about reimbursement for mileage because even in these $4 a gallon days, it is one more level of work for Mystery Shopping Company, and one more chunk of billable hours that cut down on overall shopper pay. The minority of companies that offer travel expenses will request proof of auto insurance during your application process.

There are occasional bonuses available for shops that are nearing their deadline. These occur most frequently near the end of the month and are well worth keeping an eye open for.

Just how much can be made? Think of a pyramid. At the bottom are lots and lots of $5 jobs and at the very top are a few $200 jobs. Of course, Mystery Shopping Company has a large chunk of trust built up with Superstore, Inc if they are offering $200, and will want their most experienced, trustworthy shoppers taking those jobs. They most likely won't even be offered to newer shoppers. Build your reputation and skills by performing lots of $5 and $10 jobs, reporting accurately, meeting your deadlines and not "flaking," and higher paying opportunities will be offered to you.

Friday, June 6, 2008

The Basics of Mystery Shopping: It's just shopping, right?

The more I perform mystery shops, learn about them, talk to others and compare the business model of the shopper against other industries, the more I discover it is a lot like being a private investigator. There is a lot of legwork, a lot of waiting, an intense but brief episode of investigating, then a whole lot of paperwork. As a matter of fact, mystery shoppers in some states are required to hold private investigator's licenses!

From the ground up, here's what the process looks like to a shopper.

Legwork Mystery shopping companies don't know who I am until I apply with them, so I get a list (many listings are available for free, do not pay for one!) of companies and begin the application process. Most are done online, a handful require applications and copies of certain documents to be mailed or faxed to their office. Each application takes about a half hour,
but I only need to apply with each company once.

About 30% of the companies with which I am on file send me emails when an assignment in my area becomes available. But, it is a very competitive field, and the early shopper gets the shop, so I rarely wait to be contacted. Every morning, I browse the job boards of my top 25 companies—the ones I work for most often. That takes at least an hour each morning, sometimes more, depending on the speed of my internet connection and number of job listings that day. I will apply for assignments that meet my available times, and wait to hear back from the schedulers.

Waiting It can take a scheduler a week to get back to me about shops for which I've applied, but within my "top 25," I have chosen to work with schedulers who are prompt in answering their emails. When I receive confirmation of an assignment, I enter the information into a database I
keep of all my assignments. It holds information on all my assignments upcoming and completed for a variety of uses. I also enter the assignment details into my cell phone (and set a reminder) and write it on my family's calendar.

Investigating Time to do the shop itself!

Paperwork I go back to my database and enter the specifics about each shop I've completed, then file my paperwork with the mystery shopping company who assigned me while the details are fresh in my mind. More and more companies are requiring completed surveys within 12 hours of an assignment's completion, and I've seen a couple companies requiring a two-hour turnaround! I am very wary of choosing those faster turnaround jobs. One ill-timed traffic jam and I have sullied my reputation. Receipts get scanned and faxed or emailed, the completed surveys are filed and kept (some companies request completed surveys and receipts be kept for up to six months) and equipment recalibrated. I like to calibrate my scales and thermometers and replace batteries after a job rather than waiting until just before a job to discover a problem.

When my paychecks roll in, I celebrate each with a tiny "YAY!" then do the necessary paperwork to meet the IRS' rigorous standards for self-employment. All mystery shopping income is taxable, whether you receive a statement of earnings from a mystery shopping company or keep your own records. Don't fall into the trap of thinking that only income above a certain level is taxable. That's one expensive audit!

So you see, being a mystery shopper is much more than just shopping. The assignment itself is just one small but important part of the process.

Friday, May 30, 2008

The Basics of Mystery Shopping: Fast cash?

I have several friends who have turned to mystery shopping as a way to bridge the gap between expenses and the next regularly scheduled paycheck. Most have learned through research rather than experience, thankfully, that mystery shopping can worsen your short-term financial situation. In my case, it was a solid four months before my books showed my business in the black.

Most often, a mystery shopping company will require a purchase to be made, either as part of the shopping scenario or just as a method to obtain a receipt as proof of your shop. The purchases made are money out of the shopper's pocket until they receive their paycheck and reimbursement.

How much out of pocket? My most common out-of-pocket reimbursable is $7.50 per shop. I've had lows of $1.39 and a high of $53, but the largest majority of my shops fall into that $7-8 range. (Friends of Math, you'll understand when I say $7.50 is the mode of my shops: the out-of-pocket amount that occurs most frequently.) If I do ten shops a month with that $7.50 out of pocket each—it adds up quickly, doesn't it?

How long out of pocket? Of the 22 mystery shopping companies I work for most frequently, one pays every two weeks; one pays 60 days after the last day of the month in which the shop was performed (you shop June 4th, you get paid August 30.) The majority of the companies for which I work process payments somewhere between those two extremes. The average time it takes for me to receive payment and reimbursement for shops I've performed is 47 days.

So, plug all that into your calculator, hit the total button and you get: negative numbers for several consecutive weeks! When I began shopping in earnest, my business showed up to a $200 negative balance for the first six weeks. The second six weeks was not much better, although I did manage to hit a zero balance on the books for several days. It was difficult to see income during that time and to reinvest it into more shops rather than spend it. It wasn't until the third six weeks that I was in the black consistently.

The shopper's pay I have seen ranges from $5 to $200. I know there are shops that pay more, usually from companies that require a great deal more time and expertise than I have to offer. Evaluating a timeshare or resort would pay more, for example, but would also require a multiple-day commitment and very extensive reporting.

In all, I'd say there is some money to be made in mystery shopping. But if you are looking to pay yourself out of debt, buy a new car or finance a college education, mystery shopping will meet only a fraction of your needs.

Friday, May 23, 2008

The Basics of Mystery Shopping: FREE stuff!

If you've ever seen an ad for mystery shopping, it probably reads something like this:

Love to shop? Shop at your favorite stores and keep what you buy for FREE!

The reality is slightly different.

Being a mystery shopper is only one-third shopping. In my shopping business, I spend about three hours a day researching assignments, filling out applications with new companies, completing online survey forms for shops I've done and managing the recordkeeping associated with my business. So, love to shop? Good! Love paperwork? Better!

At my current count, there are just over 400 mystery shopping companies. Each company has their own corral of clients and the client list is just as proprietary and closely guarded as any private detective or law firm. (In some states, a private investigator's license is a legal requirement for mystery shoppers.) A reputable company (and a trustworthy shopper) will never, ever reveal what company provides shops for which retailer. As a matter of fact, part of the contract we sign with mystery shopping companies is that we will not divulge where we shop for whom. So, if you want to "shop at your favorite stores," your best bet is to sign up with all 400+ companies, check their websites daily for new job listings and be the first to sign up for them! In reality, however, you will probably end up shopping locations you don't mind shopping more often than at your favorite stores.

"Keep what you buy for free" is misleading as well. Remember my part one example? Superstore, Inc. has already set their prices and shop requirements with Mystery Shopping Company long before the job is available to accept by Sally Shopper. Superstore, Inc. is paying for the services of Mystery Shopping Company and might want to limit their additional expenses, so they might say a purchase is required but only $5 of whatever you choose to buy will be reimbursed. So, they might have you shop for an iPod, but all they will reimburse is a can of soda or pack of gum. Sure, you can buy the iPod, but you'll be paying for all but $5 of it yourself. Never once have I been sent to a dress shop that sells $300 dresses and been reimbursed for the cost of such a delectable frock. In this case, they would reimburse me for a pair of socks, say $10 or so. Often, Superstore will dictate what must be purchased: a cherry vanilla yogurt freeze at their snack bar, for example. Wow, I'd rather have chocolate, but cherry vanilla is the assignment. Yes, I got to keep what I bought for FREE!

So, if you have dreams of buying multiple pairs of Manolos until your closet resembles Imelda Marcos', play the lottery. If you don't mind taking what is offered or getting a discount on pricier merchandise, read on!

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Basics of Mystery Shopping: The best of shops, the worst of shops

What are my shops like? I'll take you with me on a shop in a future entry, but here's a snapshot of my favorite and least favorite assignments.

My favorite shop is a fast food shop. I may only choose from a limited menu of items, and only the least expensive options will be covered 100% by the reimbursement. Ah, but I get to eat in my car! The survey is five pages printed out, and has three "narratives." Narratives are written stories of what happened. So, for example, on the survey you check off no, the employee wasn't in uniform and in the narrative you tell exactly what the employee was wearing—or wasn't wearing—that constitutes being out of uniform. Industry-wide expectations for narratives include complete sentences, correct grammar and perfect spelling. Back to the shop. There are only two "timings," but because I'm in my car the stopwatch is easy to conceal. The shop fee is relatively low at $5-7, but there are a lot of these shops available. I accept three or four of these 30 minute assignments a week. They might require a 7AM breakfast or a 10PM dinner, but I have turned them into "kid dates." Once I examine and taste the food, my date for the shop gets to eat it (saving me the calories, thank you.) It's a one-on-one time with Mom that is hard to come by in my large family.

My least favorite shop takes place in an electronics retailer. I must provide four timings, visit two departments, ask three specific questions and quote the exact responses, plus provide exact quotes and names of three other employees I encounter and evaluate the restroom. I can't take kids with me, and although the pay is slightly higher at $10, it can take an hour to perform the shop. The survey form is a grueling six pages, with at least two 200-word narratives on each page. I can't take the form with me into the shop because the shop uses electronic surveillance (cameras on the ceiling) and I might be spotted as the shopper.

Some would say a photographic and audiographic memory is a plus in mystery shopping. I'd say it's a requirement.

Next week, things that might surprise you about mystery shopping.

The Basics of Mystery Shopping: What is it?

I'll tell you a secret. I'm a mystery shopper. I've been working at it off and on for four years, more on since January than off, and have had a lot of questions from friends about how the process works.

For those who don't know, mystery shoppers are hired to shop in a certain way to gather certain information and report it to the hiring entity.

Superstore President Paul wants to know if his checkout clerks across the country are encouraging customers to sign up for their shiny, new Supercard like they have been trained to do. Superstore, Inc. calls Mystery Shopping Company and they arrange the details: which stores to shop, what hours of the day, what dollar amount must be spent, what items may and may not be purchased, what criteria for speediness and friendliness must be met by Superstore employees, the deadline for reports to be filed, how much they are willing to pay for this service to be executed, etc.

Mystery Shopping Company posts the job opening on their website and waits for their shoppers to email in and request the job. Sally Shopper reads the requirements, takes a qualifying test if it's required, downloads the questionnaire to fill out and reserves the date on her calendar. Sally goes to the assigned Superstore, makes the required purchase, observes carefully and completes the form. Sally takes the form home, enters the data on Mystery Shopping Company's website, files away her notes and waits for payment.

Mystery Shopping Company's Ellie Editor reads Sally's report and makes sure it contains the correct information in the correct form, adds it to the wealth of information gathered from all the other shoppers performing the same assignment at other Superstores and provides it to the client. Mystery Shopping Company may or may not be asked by Superstore to provide suggestions as to how to improve service or compliance with any number of issues. Superstore pays Mystery Shopping Company, Mystery Shopping Company pays Ellie and Sally, and a good time is had by all.

That's it in very broad strokes. in upcoming posts, I'll deal with the finer points.