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?