Thursday, August 13, 2009


July 19-23, 2009

Camping $16 per night, dump station $5 if you are not a registered camper, electric hook-ups only.

The various Corps of Engineer campgrounds across the US can provide a way to cut your camping costs IF you are willing to give up certain luxuries. Most do not have sewer or water hook ups at the sites. You'll have access to drinking water, but you cannot hook your camper to it. Some will limit you to how many gallons of that potable water you can use a day as well. At many the bathrooms are outhouses. With generally one or two shower houses elsewhere in the camping area.

Such a location is this campground. We thought we were being oh so smart camping near the bathroom and were completely settled in when we discovered it was a really fragrant outhouse we were near. Not nice at all, P.U.!

While our camper has a very well working bathroom in it if you can't dump you have to be careful how much you put into the holding tanks. This meant we did most of our "business" not at the camper or the restroom we'd camped so close to, but at the one that was a pretty good little walk from us. Oh well, we needed the exercise and we were just there for a little over 3 days. The holding tanks on the trailer will generally make it three days, but we weren't taking any chances.

Shops in the Ft. Smith area went well, and we had a reasonable internet connection most of the time thanks to my air card also known as broad brand mobile connection.

We were there for a very short time, relatively speaking, and other than purchasing some really good melons from the local Wal-mart there was not anything spectacular to post about this clean little campground (if you don't count the outhouse air pollution).

They have a nice boat ramp area, with a swimming area marked off, I'm posting photos so you can see the prettiness of the place.

So I guess I'll take up most of this post talking about the things you truly need to mystery shop on the road the way we are. It's basically the same things you'd need doing it from home, you just need to keep it compact.

First you need an internet connection. For us it's via a USB port broadband mobile device. All the major cell phone companies sell them, they average about $60 per month and are all either 4 or 5 gig in capacity. Ours is a 4 gig and we have NEVER exceeded it. They will work better than your cell phone in any given area because they are set up just slightly different. I don't know what the difference is and I certainly don't pretend to be knowledgeable about them. I just know that I can get signal on it when I can't on my cell phone with the same company.

Anyway, most mystery shopping companies require you to check your email twice a day if you accept an assignment. Most, all that I work with, use the internet to give you your assignments. So have that HIGH SPEED connection is a necessity. You can possibly get by with dial up, but you could go bald tearing your hair out waiting for some pages to load. I would not recommend trying it with dial up. I know how bad it can get when I have a low connection on the mobile broadband and it's still faster than dial up.

Second, if more than one person, or piece of equipment–see next section, is going to use this wireless service you will need a router. Ours was purchased through our cell phone provider for a one time cost of about $149. It will handle up to five pieces of wireless equipment at a time.

Third, you need a computer, of course. I use a laptop because carrying a desktop is simply not a good option in a camper for me. Plus, because we often do 8 or more shops a day I will file shops while flying down the highway from one shop to another. Gary is doing the driving of course.

Third you need a printer. Many merchandising shops require signatures on the paperwork. Therefore you MUST be able to print out the form for them to sign.

I'll explain the difference between merchandising and mystery shopping shortly. I do both.

Of course to go along with that printer you need ink and paper, LOTS of both if you do the volume of jobs I do. There are ways to cut this expense and there is a lot to consider where printing is concerned as well. You are absolutely going to have to print, so you really need to look at this cost SERIOUSLY, next to fuel and camping this is our biggest expense.

It's easy to think any printer will do, but when you consider several factors you will see the right printer can save you a ton of money and time.

First there is the cost of the printer itself. The cheapest one is not necessarily the best one. We have one that was given to us that is a nice simple little printer that we used continuously for a while, we still use it as a back up.

The ink for that machine looks to be cheap at first. That is until you realize you only get 350 pages per black cartridge and less per color cartridge–and yes you will be doing some color printing.

If you are printing 100s of pages a month that can add up really quickly. We were, in the beginning, going through three of those $16.99 cartridges a WEEK. It was a very basic machine, which meant if we wanted to print on both front and back of the paper we had to physically turn the paper ourselves–read time wasted.

Plus draft mode on it, for some unknown reason, was illegible. It also jammed easily.

During one mystery shop for an office supply company I was to evaluate the salesmanship of an employee on printers. The printer demonstrated to me, at first glance, seemed awful expensive. However as I read the brochures and did the math I discovered it would pay for itself in less than one month and would also have scanning, photo quality, make copies and a fax machine All features that are missing on the cheap machine. All features you will eventually need while doing this type of job.

It used a double cartridge, which was just slightly more expensive than two of the single cartridges for the other machine, but would print FOUR times the copies. So right there I was basically getting two cartridges of ink free every four cartridges in comparison.

It's colors were all sold separately, a huge advantage over any printer that has an all in one cartridge. It would also do double sided printing AUTOMATICALLY. Copies could be done in bulk with a self feeding feature. But that was not the biggest feature we fell in love with.

It is wireless! Even better it uses the same router my broadband mobile does. So we no longer had to jump up and down every time we printed something, or have too many things plugged into one outlet at a time in the camper.

Add to all of this well thought out information the fact I was required to make a $5 or more purchase, that I would be reimbursed for that shop, I had a discount card that would take another 15% off the purchase price, points on the rewards card for that company and a cash back bonus from my credit card–which I paid off immediately-- it took LESS than a month to come out ahead. I love my new printer. The hours it saves me monthly is well worth it.

Over the months I have taken on more and more shops, but I have also learned how to cut paper and ink expenses in other ways. It now costs me less than half of what it did to print, for twice as many jobs.

In the beginning I printed the entire instructions for every single job, even identical jobs. Now I print one master copy of the instructions and compare them to each new job to make sure nothing has changed. That step alone has saved tons of time and lowered printing costs considerably, plus it's printed in draft mode now that I can and still read it.

Also, some companies–who shall remain nameless, will actually have you print out the same form twice in two different versions–pick the version that works best for you and only print those pages. Another huge savings. One form that comes to mind I actually only need 3 pages of the 25 the company has setup for you to print out each and every time you do that shop. I recently did 28 IDENTICAL shops for that company. It doesn't take a math genius to see that saving 22 pages x 28 jobs is a big savings. Just make sure you print EVERYTHING YOU need to do the job properly. What works well for me may not work well for you.

Next you need to consider storage of your completed reports. All companies require you to keep copies of your receipts and your report for 1-18 months. I recommend you keep each company separate. I file separately, by date AND assignment number. I also keep everything on pdf. There are several good free pdf programs you can download and electronic files are soooo easy to search. They take up far less space too. So I keep the hard files for x amount of time–depending on the company and the electronic files longer–for tax purposes.

Oh dear I used the dreaded T word. Yep, you make over $650 you are going to have to pay taxes. The better records you keep, the better off you are.

That means keeping good records of all your expenses too. I'm still working on the best way to do this, but I definitely am keeping everything. This next April I will do a mystery shop for a tax service and hire my taxes done. If it's like last year it won't cost me anything to do it that way and I will feel better knowing they were done properly.

Anyway, back to mystery shopping.

You will also need a digital camera that you know how to put the photos of 1 mb or less on your computer and then upload.

A cell phone is a major plus. Because dh and I work as a team it is very, very handy to also have a blue tooth. Here's why.

One fast food company I work for requires both walk in and drive in strict timings. You must be accurate to the split second. Sometimes this is hard to do without being caught because there are three separate timings to do for each section. Ideally you can do it with a lapse timer on a good stop watch–another MANDATORY item, but it's a LOT easier if you are on a blue tooth, with a code worked out and a person with the stop watch on their phone on the other end to get the EXACT times.

Another type of shop, like one I recently did, requires you to do price comparisons, without being caught. One person goes in the store and the other person tells them the items to get prices on, the first person then tells the second the price and it is wrote down away from the store at their location. It is so much easier than concealing a list you have to write on.

A notebook, page dividers, a GOOD multipage three hole punch, reliable ink pens, post-it note flags, and a clipboard.

I put all printouts for the day in a notebook with two weeks' worth of daily dividers for each day. A good multi-page three hole punch makes life easier. You can get by with a cheaper one, but it's going to be harder to line up pages and it will only do a few pages at a time. Invest the $12 you will be glad you did. Do a mystery shop for an office supply store and get paid for buying the three hole punch.  That's what I did.

The ink pens go without saying. I use the post-it note flags to tag each different job and make it easy to find the correct one quickly. My flags/tags have the shop type and the address on them and are color coded with the over all address sheet I have in the front of the notebook. It saves time searching for the right shop address at the last minute.

Speaking of which, traveling the way we do a GPS is a lifesaver. We call ours Fiona, she gives turn by turn instructions and as long as we truly listen to her she gets us to the exact location 99.9999% of the time easily and quickly.

The clipboard is handy when doing merchandising and revealed mystery shops to have a good firm surface to write on.

You also need to have at least two business casual outfits to wear for each season. One to wash, one to wear. Comfortable shoes are a must too, some shops, especially merchandising ones can have you on your feet for a long time.

So that's it, that's what you need to be a mystery shopper.

Now you will notice I mentioned, mystery shopping, revealed mystery shopping, and merchandising. All mystery shopping companies will sooner or later have all these types of shops offered.

Mystery shopping is just that, they NEVER know you are there checking on them, you are covert.

Revealed mystery shopping is you shop, and then you let them know you were a mystery shopper. Sometimes this is to give a reward, rarely it's to give a critique, most times it's to then do an inspection of the facilities.

Merchandising is all revealed. It is to do a job for the store, it might be re-boxing a piece of merchandise, doing an inventory, putting up signage, restocking or similar jobs. Some companies do nothing but merchandising. A few of those actually hire you as an employee, complete with a benefit package to do it.

I do very little merchandising because it means you MUST be at a certain place in a certain town, on a certain day at a certain time, every month for the length of the contract. That doesn't go with our lifestyle. However, if Gary should go back to work I'd merchandise every day of the week I could because it is generally a fair wage for the job you do and you have some flexibility with your hours.

So that's the basics, more on actual mystery shops another time. That's all you need to do a mystery shop.

What you DON'T need is to pay to mystery shop. NEVER pay to mystery shop.

Jan who hopes this helps someone in OK


  1. Hello. I am in the Budget group with ya. I wanted to check out your blog. I clicked on follow..Love you chevy truck at the bottom of the page...i am a Chevy 2500 HD gal too! Love my Silverado!
    Shannon from PA aka Margarita Stewart lol.

  2. Whisper, her name, is a 3500 and she's our girl. No matter how tight the budget we make sure the truck gets whatever it needs in the way of maintenance. She's got 108,446 miles on her so far and hasn't slowed down a bit. When not pulling Junior, our fifth wheel, she gets 19.4 mpg and with Jr. about 14. Not bad for such a big machine. She's got the full towing package on her and handled the Rocky Mountains with Jr. behind her with no problem last year. Got to love a dependable truck!

  3. Did you ever compare cell phone companies before you purchased a new cell phone for yourself? If no, then do it now. When you compare cell companies you come to know about their products and services more evidently.This definitely helps in making the right is vital to compare cell phone companies before you go for their product and also the level of customer service is most important.

  4. Yes, I mystery shop a LOT of cell phone companies, all brands. For the type of travel and calling we do Sprint has worked out the best for us. They've changed some rules on us recently though that made us just do a recheck. Still the cheapest for the wide areas we travel with the air card, but the changes do NOT make me happy. I will be monitoring them closely.