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!