Useful FREE Software for Mystery Shopping

For mystery shopping you will need to view and download materials from the mystery shopping companies’ websites. If you don’t have Adobe Acrobat Reader, you can easily download it the first time you need it and most of the company websites provide a link to it.

Many shoppers do not have the Microsoft Office Suite with Word, Excel and Power Point. All of these programs will be useful to you, but you can get a free download of Open Office at openoffice.org that can open, create and save the same type of documents that Microsoft Office does and the software is totally free. The Open Office equivalent of Word allows you to save in pdf format or doc formats. This is an excellent alternative to laying out the big bucks for a Microsoft product or using the very truncated versions of Works that frequently come with computers. Open Office and Microsoft Office can be installed on the same computer without conflicts in case you want the Power Point or other parts of Open Office.

Most mystery shopping companies indicate that their website can be accessed using Internet Explorer or Firefox as browsers. I noted the other day the first one that indicated they were best accessed with Firefox. Your computer can easily accommodate different internet browsers without conflict. I personally run Internet Explorer for some things and Firefox for most things. A free download of Firefox is available from Firefox.com. It does a good job of installing itself on your system. My personal preference is to use Firefox as it changes its overall functionality less between versions than Internet Explorer.

Remember that any time you are installing new software it is advisable to close all open applications except the download window unless instructed otherwise. This makes for a smoother installation that is more likely to be error free.

Roboform is available for free download from oldversion.com. This is a little software utility that makes filling in all those applications when you register with all those new shopping companies a piece of cake. It will also remember passwords for you, but don’t get lazy, keep a list of your companies, user name and password elsewhere as well.

As a shopper you will be extensively using the web, so if you do not have anti-virus software on your machine already, you need some. A free version is called AVG Anti-Virus and is available at [free.grisoft.com].
While you are at it, you may want to download Spybot from www.safer-networking.org and Ad-aware from [lavasoft.com]. As you browse the internet, some websites put will put spyware and other uglies on your computer. These pieces of software will clear off that junk.

You will need some software to work with digital photos and scanned images. This will generally come with your digital camera or with your scanner. A computer running a Windows operating system will have come with Paint. This can be used to resize pictures, though it is somewhat clumsy. Sneakers suggests using Irfanview which is free and available at www.irfanview.com. I have never used this software, but she has had great success with it.

With any and all of these pieces of software it will work to your advantage to take some time and experiment with them so that you are comfortable with their use when it comes time to use them.

A final note, a number of shoppers have used the Google equivalents of Word and Excel only to realize that their data seems to be saved out on the web rather than on their hard drive. You need to think long and hard about what of your information you want saved on the web. I have heard reasonable arguments that it makes the information available from any computer linked to the web, but my personal reaction is that my data is safer and more secure when it is stored on my computer, especially since I do frequent backups--but that is another conversation.

After a recent little disaster with my wireless internet I remembered a service that it is useful to download to your computer for future reference. Juno is a dial up internet service provider. They will give you up to 10 hours of free internet use per month via dialup. Here is the link: [account.juno.com]

I would NOT recommend trying to use this connection to upload data and probably not even try to do reports with it because it is slow. But it will allow you to get to the web so you can check web based email. Download the software NOW and save it to your computer and install it when you have a disaster and you need it. In the sign up process you will be prompted to create an email account. Do so, but don't use it because I don't think it is accessible except by using a connection through them. They will stop functioning when you have reached your 10 free hours per month, but most internet problems get fixed within a few days.

If you lose your internet connection, be aware that most public libraries have computers with internet connections. Usually you just need to have a library card. Many also offer wireless connections if you have a laptop machine.

In my area, there is free wifi at a lot of dining places; for example, Starbucks, Panera Bread, IHOP, McDonalds, and others. As you shop, keep your eyes open for places where you can hook to the internet with a laptop if you own one.

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Indeed the critical information to track is:

what shops you have and when they are due--some folks just put this on a wall or desk calendar

what the agreed on price and reimbursement are--however you keep this, it is good to mark when it is paid in the same place

some sort of method for preserving the instructions for that specific shop--useful if they reject a shop for something that you were not required to do (this happens when shop instructions were or were not updated at the time you accepted the shop and the editor thinks you were instructed to do something you were not)--I keep these as saved pdf files though many folks print out everything and save it.

some sort of method for preserving receipts and collateral and notes from the shop for a year or more--monthly files for hard copy stuff work for me because if I know the month of the shop the information is relatively easy to retrieve the hard copies as I only do around 40 shops per month

some sort of listing of what companies you are signed up with, what their website is, your login and your password

some method for keeping track of your mileage and other "business expenses" for your taxes.

We all differ in how we keep track. I do it all on Excel spreadsheets except for a milk crate size box of hanging files to keep my latest 6 months of notes/receipts/collateral at hand and computer folders to save shop information, copies of questionnaires (raw and finished), and photos and scanned receipts uploaded. I use my Excel shop sheet as a calendar of jobs to be done as well as personal appointments so that I don't get overlap and can get routes and days organized.
I keep it all on the thumb drive that I can move easily between my laptop and the desktop machine. (The desktop is hooked up to the printer but most of my data input and such I do on the laptop.)

The thumb drive is used for some several projects I am involved in, so there is a folder on it for "Mystery Shopping". At the 'root' of that folder are my shop sheet spreadsheets for each year I have shopped. There is also a 'list of companies' I am signed up with.

There are folders for each company I am currently working with that contain the downloaded instructions and questionnaires for upcoming shops as well as after the shop the receipts and materials I need to upload and usually a copy of the questionnaire before I submit it. I am also likely to save the narratives written in WORD, all raw photographs if it was a photo job and a copy of the DVR file (as well as any transcriptions or notes thereof).

At the end of each month I backup the contents of my thumb drive to my desktop computer and then go through and delete the folders or files on the thumb as necessary to have it have only current information for the new month. My desktop therefore has a section called "Thumb backup" which includes a file for each month's backups. During the course of any month I will have backed up my thumb drive to the laptop several times and once the information has gone to the desktop, I usually delete old backups on the laptop to conserve space.

On the thumb, in the Mystery Shopping folder is a 'Misc Stuff' folder which includes things like my current resume (which a few companies ask for), a copy of my driver's license, a W-9, the current narratives I am using for writing samples on company registrations. There is also a list of companies I have heard of but have not yet researched to decide whether to sign up or not.

I am signed up with several hundred companies. They get listed on a spreadsheet when I sign up along with a date of sign up. The spreadsheet gets updated when I am approved with login and password. Later I may revisit the entry to make notes about pay cycle, schedulers, etc.

When I am looking for jobs, I use bookmarks in Firefox. My "Useful MSPs" bookmark has the companies with whom I am finding jobs these days. It gets checked daily. My "New MSPs" is companies with whom I have signed up in the past few months that I watch weekly to see if they have something in my area and to determine who they shop and whether the shops look interesting. Then there is my alphabetical list of all companies, divided up into bookmarks of 30-50 companies each. These I check every month or two and are generally not productive to my area.

As for hard copies of paperwork, there are some instructions (or parts of instructions) I print and there are the receipts and collateral I collect. These get stapled together and shoved into the front of a file folder for the month with a new folder each month. The materials thus are in date order from the back of the folder to the front of it. As checks come in with stubs, the stub is thrown in the folder of the month received and so is in date order with the rest of the stuff. Every 3 months I shove the oldest 3 months' folders in my hanging file bin into a FedEx or UPS envelope and put it away, leaving me with about 6 months of monthly information in my file bin and the other stuff accessible if I need it. My old ICA agreements are likely filed in FedEx envelopes from way back, but I have never found I needed them.
Re: Security breaches in IE/ some MSP sites work only in IE

Some companies say their sites work only with Internet Explorer (IE) or work best with IE.

What I do is to use Firefox for everything, unless and until it doesn't work. Only then do I load IE, update it and go. I do this for security reasons. So far, only second-to-none has not let firefox work.

In general, we should demand the sites we visit work with a variety of browsers including Opera and Chrome. Contact those MSP's to let them know you prefer to use their site with your choice or browser.

This is one of the things we can do to be safer on the internet.

Happily shopping Rhode Island and nearby Massachusetts and Connecticut
I feel that shoppers helping shoppers get organized and get started is a primary goal of a forum. It is also a really good chance for you read what companies shoppers are having problems with--about slow pay, about contract changes after accepting a job, about unreasonable pickiness and demands, and of just plain old disrespect of shoppers as a disposable commodity. In this economy, there is almost cut-throat competition for jobs, so you won't see a lot of information about truly fantastic companies to sign up with on an open forum because nobody wants to increase the competition in their back yard. Yet we would rather volunteer time to put out there what information we have than have new shoppers get nickled and dimed to death with expenses they do not need and which experience shows do not do enough good to justify the expense. Certainly if you feel you need to spend money you are free to do so, but it is NEVER a necessary expense to get good and decent work.
I just find that a spreadsheet is the most convenient way for me. A spreadsheet is basically a computerized list. I can use a column for mileage, columns for the possible start and end date of the job, client name, client address, company name, any pre-visit notes (such as specific times during which the shop can be performed), the job number, the fee agreed to, the bonus (if any), the reimbursement expected, any unreimbursed portion, the date I did the job, the date I reported the job and the total amount due. When the payment comes in I add the date payment was received and the amount.

Each job has a separate line across the spreadsheet. I generally assign a job my own job number when I am reporting it, which is the next number in the sequence so that as I reorganize the spreadsheet I can always resort it back to its original sequence by simply sorting on my job number. But I do sort it by company at the end of the month because that makes it easier to match up payments received because rarely is there just one job from a company on a check and often the checks do not itemize what they are paying me for.

I make an Excel 'workbook' out of the spreadsheets with a separate spreadsheet for each month and one 'workbook' per year. Entries come in stages, with dates, client, location, company and fees/bonuses/potential reimbursement entered when I accept the job. When I have performed and am reporting the job the mileage, perform and report dates and any adjustments to reimbursement are made. When I receive payment I make the final entries and if the payment was in full, I highlight the line in blue, which helps me more quickly find those jobs that are still unpaid. With a spreadsheet you can change the highlighting easily, so a job I have requested has basic information an is highlighted in yellow until it is assigned. If I receive only partial payment it is highlighted in green when I send an inquiry and when it is resolved, it goes to blue with whatever adjustments need to be made to 'zero out' the shop as fully paid.
I recently noted that for simple resizing one can use 'Paint' which comes with most computers with Microsoft. If you simply locate the photo and click to open it, it will show up in Photo Viewer. Then click on 'Open' in the menu bar at the top. Choose the option to open with 'Paint'. Paint has a resize option. Make sure that "Maintain aspect ratio" is checked and then you can reduce the number in either the horizonal or the vertical dimension box and it will automatically reduce the other dimension appropriately for you. The starting size of the image is noted in the bar at the bottom of the screen so you can tell if you have reduced it small enough. Then save it and you are ready to go. My preference is to reduce by pixels rather than percentage, though either will work.

If you are going by pixels, a 2500 x 1875 pixel image = 1MB
If I can interject here. I just started shopping for money a month or so ago. I have been using Chrome since it came out. I have a job as a Merchandiser for the last three years. The software that I have found most useful is Foxit PDF reader it allows you to insert notes into PDF files with having to subscribe to adobe online. What's nice about Chrome is that you can right click on the form that you are viewing and select print then for destination choose save as PDF. Then open them in Foxit and put your notes in. Been using it for 3 years and it has been a life saver. Have been using the spreed sheet part of Open Office to print out my week assignments. Requires a lot of copying and the editing to get it into a single page that has all of the info on it. Now that I have started shopping it just requires a little change. Mileage is entered the same, but my drive time isn't paid for shopping. Only enter it for the time at the shop when it is needed. I back most of the stuff onto the cloud somewhere.
Maybe it is time to update Flash's original post since it is dated May 3, 2008. That was well over 6 years ago!

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“I'm the one that's got to die when it's time for me to die, so let me live my life the way I want to.”
~ Jimi Hendrix

“The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.” ~ Mark Twain

“To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.” ~ J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
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