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Taking the Mystery Out of Mystery Shopping

Taking the Mystery Out of Mystery Shopping

During college, my mother accurately described me as someone who has “champagne taste on a beer budget.” For me, stumbling on mystery shopping was a happy accident. I had previously heard of mystery shopping (or secret shopping) in the past, but I dismissed it as a scam to get my credit card information and social security number. When I decided that it could potentially be something I pursued, I proceeded to scour the internet for reputable companies and tips for being a better shopper. Three years later, I am one of the many top secret shoppers in the Atlanta area. Though I have since graduated college, I continue to act as a mystery shopper.

Mystery shopping is a method of quality control for businesses. Any business involving customer service can benefit from secret shoppers. A secret shopping company is recruited by a business to monitor customer service through anonymous visits and evaluations. These secret shopper companies hire independent contractors to perform these evaluations. I have personally performed shops at hotels, bars, restaurants, concerts, movie theaters, gyms, and more.

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Almost anyone can become a secret shopper, but before beginning the application and shopping process, it is important to understand the following:

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  1. Most applications will require a brief logic test (basic math questions, spelling, etc.) as well as a short piece of narrative regarding a recent customer service experience.
  2. No matter what your age is, there is a secret shopper job for you. Certain shops cater to different age groups. For example, age compliance shops (I.D. verification) typically require shoppers between the ages of 21 and 29. Most shops require the shopper to be at least 18 years old. For those requiring the consumption of alcohol, shoppers must be 21 or older.
  3. You are not obligated to perform a minimum number of shops per month, although you can be capped at how many shops you can be signed up for at one time. As an independent contractor for the secret shopper company, you create your own schedule.
  4. You are not obligated to only shop in one area. I have frequently created entire vacations out of mystery shopping jobs. I will stay at a secret shopper hotel, eat at secret shopper restaurants, grab snacks at secret shopper grocery stores, etc. If you are traveling through an airport, there are often special shops that can only be completed by shoppers that are traveling.
  5. Mystery shopping is not a means to “get rich quick.” While you can make money performing shops, the majority of shops only include reimbursement. There have been times where I have gotten paid $25 just to visit a jewelry shop, where I was not required to purchase anything. Likewise, there have been times where I have not gotten paid to visit upscale restaurants. However, I am often fully reimbursed for meals that cost over $100 for two people. While you might not make money, you will have memorable experiences that would have otherwise been out of your budget.
  6. A reputable secret shopping company will NOT ask you to pay to register as a shopper. You should be able to sign up for shops without paying for access to the database. However, many secret shopper companies will require you to front the money for your expenditures. You will then be reimbursed in the form of a check at a later time.
  7. A list of reputable companies (as voted by registered independent contractors) can be found through the MSPA-NA (Mystery Shopping Providers Association of North America). Of the companies listed, A Closer Look is by far the best. The wide variety of shops and flexibility in scheduling make it a perfect choice for most people, from young professionals to retired folks and all of those in between. You can apply to be a shopper for their site here.

Like all things in life, becoming a successful secret shopper will take time. Read over the guidelines carefully. If you are uncertain about any aspect of the instructions, get in touch with the secret shopper scheduler for clarification.

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Failure to follow instructions can result in non-payment (though I have personally never had that happen). In the event an editor has a question, be sure to reply as soon as possible. Follow these tips and you will be well on your way to becoming a successful shopper in your area in no time!

Happy Shopping!

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Melissa Manson

Media Planner and Buyer

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Last Updated on March 4, 2019

How to Use Credit Cards While Staying Out of Debt

How to Use Credit Cards While Staying Out of Debt

Many people will suggest that the best thing to do with your credit cards during these tough economic times is to cut them up with a pair of scissors. Indeed, if you are already in huge debt, you probably should stop using them and begin a payback strategy immediately. However, if you are not currently in trouble with your credit cards, there are wise ways to use them.

I happen to really love my credit cards so I will share with you my approach to how I use mine without getting into deep financial trouble.

Ever since about 1983 when I got my first Visa card, I continue to charge as many of my purchases as possible on credit. Everything from gas, groceries and monthly payments for services like my cable and home security monitoring are charged on credit. Despite my heavy usage, I have maintained the joy of never paying any interest fees at all on any of my credit cards.

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Here are some tips on how best to use your credit cards without falling into the trap of paying those nasty double-digit interest fees.

Do Not Treat Credit Cards as Your Funding Sources

Too many people treat their credit cards as funding sources for major purchases. Do not do this if you want to stay out of trouble. I use my credit cards as convenient financial instruments so I do not have to carry around much cash. In fact, I hate carrying cash, especially coins. When you buy things on credit, the purchases are clean and you will not get annoying coins back as change.

I do not rely on my Visa, MasterCard or American Express to fund any of my purchases, large or small. This brings me to my golden rule when it comes to whether I will pull out any of my credit cards either at a retail or online store.

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I never purchase anything with my credit cards if I do not have the actual cash on hand in my bank account.

If I really cannot pay for the item or service with cash that I already have at the bank, then I simply will not make the purchase. Remember, my credit cards are not used as funding sources. They are just convenient alternatives to actual cash in my pocket.

Make Sure to Always Pay Off Balances in Full Each Month

The next very important part of my overall strategy is to make absolutely sure that I pay the balances in full each and every month no matter how large they are. This should never be a problem if the cash has been budgeted for my purchases and secured in the bank. I have always paid my full balances each month ever since my very first credit card and this is why I never pay interest charges.

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Using Credit Cards with Rewards

Most of my credit cards are of the “no annual fees” type, including one MasterCard on a separate account I keep at home as a spare in case I lose my wallet or incur any fraudulent charges. However, I do use a main Visa card which does have an annual fee because all purchases on that card reward me with airline frequent flyer points. For me, the annual fee is worth it since I do travel and I get enough points to redeem many free flights.

You have to decide for yourself if you will charge enough purchases on credit each year without paying interest charges to warrant a credit card that rewards you with airline points (or other rewards). In my case, the answer is “yes” but that might not be the case for you.

I occasionally use a MasterCard or American Express card on small purchases just to keep those accounts active. Also, I have been to the odd retailer that accepted only a certain type of credit card, so I find that having one from each major company is quite handy. Aside from my main Visa card which earns the airline points, the rest of my cards are of the “no annual fees” variety.

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So this is how I use my credit cards without getting into any financial trouble with them. This strategy is recommended only if you are not in debt, of course. In fact, it is worth keeping in mind once you’re out of debt so that you can keep your credit cards active and treat them responsibly.

What are your credit card usage strategies? Let me know in the comments — I’d love to hear what methods you use.

Featured photo credit: Artem Bali via unsplash.com

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