Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Mystery Shopping 102: What You Need to Get Started

This is going to take several posts to cover, but I'm doing an in-depth study of what it takes to be a good, consistent mystery shopper earning several thousand dollars a year plus reimbursements. If you're interested in getting started with mystery shopping, this may seem like a lot of information, but mystery shopping is not worth it unless you plan to stick with it. It takes too long to be reimbursed and the fees are not high, but if you live in a large metro area and do shops that are only convenient to you (ie, places you would be shopping or eating anyway, or which are only a block or two out of your way), it can be a rewarding and fun way to bring in some extra cash. All it takes is some organization, dedication and consistency.

A Caveat:
If this is too much information or you're not sure if you'd like mystery shopping, sign up with one company that's active in your area and do a few shops to see if it's something you'd like to stick with. Also, check out my post Mystery Shopping: A Field Guide. If you want to make it a real part-time side gig, follow the advice below.

What you need
You do need some equipment. A time piece is important--a watch or a cell phone--because timing is one of the most important aspects of mystery shopping. Many shops require digital timing (hour:minute:second) so I just use that feature on my cell phone.

You should also have regular access to email and internet since shops need to be uploaded the same day they are completed. A digital camera or scanner (I just use my camera) is helpful for capturing a digital image of a receipt for uploading with your report--some companies only accept digital receipt images. Access to a fax machine is helpful but not required if you can digitally upload images. I also buy a box of envelopes and a roll of stamps two or three times a year only for mystery shopping (tax deduction!), since I work with a few companies that require I mail the physical receipt in.

Most shops that require additional equipment--a thermometer, a scale, video equipment--will provide it for you (you will need to post a deposit, or have it taken out of one of your checks--this is not paying for a shop, it's a deposit that you will get back when you return the equipment). Some shops do require photos of the location be taken, so this is another benefit of having a digital camera (unfortunately, you cannot write the camera off on your taxes unless you use it solely for shopping).

Financial and Digital
You need a dedicated checking account and a Paypal account. I recommend opening a separate bank account for mystery shopping--get a free one with a debit card and use this card for mystery shop expenses to make it easier to keep track of things. I also use it to pay off mystery shops that go on my credit card, since sometimes a credit rather than debit purchase is required. A few companies offer payment via direct deposit, and that money goes into this account.

However, the majority of companies pay by Paypal, and I already had an account so I did not open up a separate one. Likewise, I use my personal gmail account for all mystery shopping offers, but I have my emails heavily filtered--I get hundreds of offers a day (no exaggeration!). All these emails skip the inbox and go straight into company-specific folders, which I check at my leisure. This way I don't miss more important emails from friends and family. Be aware that most companies have different email addresses for different offers, so I usually make a filter "@companyname.com" to catch all of them.

You need to keep good records for tax purposes. I'll get to taxes in a later post, but for now, any spreadsheet software and a file folder will get you started. I will also detail a mystery shopping calendar/payment/tax spreadsheet in a later post, but for now, make sure to keep track of the company name, shop numbers, payment/reimbursement agreed to, anything spent above that amount, and the payment date and check number, if applicable. Keep receipts and any printed paperwork in the folder.

What you don't need: MSPA certification. Yes, some companies might offer better shops or higher pay or other perks to certified shoppers. Yes, it's a legitimate certification in the industry. No, it's not required. I have been mystery shopping for over five years and I am not certified. The Silver Certification is a $15 online test, and the Gold Certification is either a conference (omg, so expensive) or a $106 DVD course. The costs are tax-deductible, but it's probably not something I would ever look into. I get plenty of shops (and plenty of "good" shops) without it. I don't know of a single situation in which I was turned down for a shop because of a lack of certification.

You also should not ever have to pay for shops. There are a lot of ways to find shop offers, which I'll detail in my next post, and there a lot of scams out there. Be smart and do research on the companies you're signing up with--don't give your SS# to a company that looks shady. Don't agree to do any kind of money-wiring shop (there is no such thing! No. Such. Thing!) ever under any circumstances. Stay away from shop fees and reimbursements that seem too good to be true.

In the next post, I'll detail how to determine which companies are legitimate, how to register with them, and how to start getting assigned to shops.

Part 2: How to Find Shops

1 comment:

  1. I've just signed up for this, so a timely post - thank you!


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