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.