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.