Basic needs for mystery shoppers

There are some very basic things that you need or should arrange before you get started signing up to do mystery shopping.

First and foremost, if you are in the United States you will need a social security number. While you might choose not to give it when you first register with companies, more and more companies are requiring that you provide a valid social security to do any shops for them and all of them require it if you are going to receive $600 or more in fees from them during the year.

Second, you need an email account. It is strongly recommended that you set up a separate email account for mystery shopping that you check daily. It is also strongly recommended that you use a web based email provider such as gmail or hotmail so that you can check your email from any internet connected computer worldwide. Free internet based email accounts are available at,, etc. If you use the free email that is provided by your ISP, realize that if you change your ISP you lose the privilege of a free email account with them and will need to change your email address with every company you have signed up with. Remember to use a professional sounding name because this is your 'professional' email.

UPDATE FEBRUARY 2009--Do NOT use a email or an AOL email address for shopping. Apparently the 'spam filters' on these sites are eliminating many shop offers from making it through, even if you "entitle" them in your 'safe' lists. As of this time Gmail is probably the most troublefree provider.

Third is not a requirement but will make you eligible for more jobs. This is a Paypal account. Many mystery shopping companies already only pay by Paypal and their numbers are increasing. It costs you nothing for a Paypal basic account. What many of us do is link a Paypal account to a savings or checking account and just transfer the money on from Paypal to our bank. There are also options for a debit card to spend Paypal balances etc. For a Paypal account, go to Easiest is to use the same email address for a Paypal account as you are using for mystery shopping.

Fourth, you need a computer with an internet connection. Most shops are advertised on line, most shop materials you can download on line, most shops are reported on line. The better your internet connection the easier the process will be for you. Some folks use their computer at work, but be cautious about this. I know of two shoppers who got in trouble because they were using the company computers. Both got warnings, one persisted and got fired. Public libraries often have computers with internet connections. If you are going this route be aware that many shops require you report in 6 to 24 hours after a shop and if the library is not open to report, you could have shops rejected because you didn’t get the reports in on time.

Fifth, you need transportation. There are very few mystery shops that are just computer based, there are a few more that are telephone shops, but most shops you need to travel to. In some areas of the country public transportation may be enough to allow you to do some shops, but mostly you will need a vehicle you can independently schedule to get your work done.

Sixth, you need a watch with a sweep second hand or a digital watch. As a shopper you will often be measuring times in seconds, so a digital watch is by far easier. Many digital watches also have a stop watch feature which is indispensable for some shops. Cheap digital watches are available from places like Walmart or Kmart for around $10.

Seventh, you need some way to get digital images of your receipts. Many companies require you to upload a jpg image of the receipt with the shop or to email it separately. Very few companies allow you to mail in receipts any more, though a few will allow you to fax them in. An inexpensive all-in-one printer that can print, scan and fax is a good investment. They show up sometimes at places like Big Lots or the clearance racks of retailers and office supply places. Just make sure that if you are using the Windows Vista operating system on your computer that the equipment is “Vista Ready”. While you can take a picture of your receipt with a digital camera to upload, it has to be legible so requires usually a few photos to find one that can be read.

Eighth, you need to have some available cash and generally a credit card. Some shops are specific that the small purchases to be made must be paid with cash, while others specify that you must use a credit card. Most shops require some small expenditure. There several reasons for required purchases. First, a receipt provides proof that you were at the right place at the right time; second, a small purchase allows you to evaluate the cashier; third, a receipt shows that you purchased what you were instructed to purchase and evaluate.

Finally, it would be extremely difficult to do shops without a printer. There are documents you need to download, print, sign and send back. There are shop instructions and questionnaires that often are easier to keep track of in print form. There are occasionally certificates and such that you also need to print.

While there are many other things that will make being a shopper easier and expand the range of shops you can perform, these are the basics that not having or having available to you would make most mystery shopping difficult or impossible to do.

Once you get rolling there are a lot of things that will make shopping easier and things that will enable you to do more shops. Examples of these are:

Digital voice recorder (DVR)
External lapel microphone for your DVR
Digital camera
Laptop computer (with car recharger if you are going to take it on the road)
Cell phone
Thermos (for too many coffee shops)
Cooler (or thermal bag, for distant or many grocery shops)
Console organizer for your vehicle
Thumb (jump) USB drive
Rechargeable batteries and a charger (for digital camera, DVR)

Whether you keep track of your information on a spreadsheet or some other method, you need to have some systematic, organized way to quickly access the following information:

Date(s) you need to do a job
Who the client is and where
What company you are doing the job for
What fee and/or bonus was agreed to and what reimbursement
When you reported the job
(the job number is often useful)
When you got paid and how much you got paid.

Some folks keep track of it on a calendar, some in a spiral notebook, but many of us use a spreadsheet because it is easy to sort and resort for whatever purposes you may have.

The spreadsheet I use includes the job mileage, includes my own internal job number so I can re-sort my spreadsheet back to its original state easily, includes notes such as time of day or purchase requirements etc., I separate the fee and the bonus so it is real clear what the base is and what bonus I was promised, I also list the amount spent that is to be reimbursed and any overage as "unreimbursed business expense" where it was not possible to complete the job requirements within the reimbursement amount. I keep notes if an invoice is required and when it was sent and the other expenses of the job, for example costs for faxing in materials or postage for mailing in stuff.

If you are comfortable at all with Excel, it is a really handy way to keep track of it all. The spreadsheet is one of the first things I open on the computer in the morning and the last I close. Any time I make changes, I save the file. I have already started my sheet for 2009 because a few days ago I picked up my first job for January.

When I go to the job boards looking for work, I can toggle to my spreadsheet to see what will fit with existing jobs if the jobs I see don't look good enough to stand on their own but might work to help flesh out a route. When I accept a job I immediately COPY and PASTE the relevant information onto the spreadsheet so that I know that the information there is accurate and not the result of a typo. When I REQUEST a job I put a minimum amount of information onto my spreadsheet and highlight it (with green in my case) so I can identify that this is a job I have not confirmed but have requested. If the day of the job arrives and I haven't heard back, it is time to cancel my request because I don't want to come home from the route only to find that a few minutes after I left the house I was given the job and now have to run right out and immediately do the job or be a "flake".

When jobs get paid, I highlight them in blue, so when a month's page is all blue I know I have been paid for everything. When a company refuses to pay (like Datatron which went bankrupt) or does not pay what was agreed and it is obvious they are not going to pay the promised reimbursement or the $2 bridge toll agreed to, they are highlighted in red to act as a reminder that I need to be super careful if/when I deal with them in the future.

The more information I can put on the spreadsheet, the less I have to keep between my ears. This in turn frees me up to do other things.

As for what a spreadsheet looks like, I just use one row per job and enter the relevant information in the appropriate columns. My personal preference is a separate sheet for each month, but always what lands in a particular column is the same type of information month after month so the sheets can be combined or manipulated in any other way needed to pull out the information I want.

Good luck and happy shopping!

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