Recording your mystery shopping visits: convenient or illegal?

It's not surprising that some mystery shoppers look to covert audio or video recording as a means to better handle the experience.

Mystery shopping requires a high level of multitasking. In one assignment, the typical mystery shopper needs to interact with employees, observe the conditions of the location and remember to meet all of the assignment's requirements. Keep in mine that you may also  have to maintain a cover, which makes this juggling act a commendable feat, to say the least.

It's not surprising that some mystery shoppers look to covert audio or video recording as a means to better handle the experience. Recording mystery shopping interactions comes with an overwhelming list of advantages. But what many may not know is that there's a complicated web of red tape concerning the legality of recording conversations, as well as other drawbacks like  overdependence. 

Advantages of recordings
Recording your mystery shopping experiences makes the management of your assignment much easier when you consider all of the benefits. Instead of having to worry about things from five or so different angles, you'll only have to concern yourself with about half. 

The primary benefit of recording is that you'll be able to take your focus off of minor details like employee names. By just having the employee say his or her name within close proximity of the recording device,  you'll have a record of it to come back to later. If they don't say their name out loud, you'll also be able to conveniently say it yourself and serve the same purpose. For example, if you read the employee's name tag and say "Hi [insert employee's name], I'm looking for some help today," you'll be able to go back and hear it when it comes time to write your report.

Another benefit to recording these interactions is that you'll be able to protect yourself from any accusations on the part of the employees of the shop you visited. Sometimes the end result of your mystery shopping visit isn't the best for those employed there. Having a recording of your conversation serves as evidence that everything you put in your report was accurate. You don't want to be caught in a situation where it's your word against their's because there's no guarantee that it will work in your favor. 

To be honest, recording audio is fairly easy. Technology has advanced far past the days of primitive voice recorders that were the sizes of briefcases and weren't worth the trouble of carrying everywhere. You can easily walk into a local department or technology store and purchase a voice recorder that's not much larger than a pack of bubble gum. Also, a growing number of contemporary cellphones are coming with audio and video recording technology.

While audio recording is easier than video recording, for discretion's purposes, you can take this as a challenge to put your spying talents to the test and see what creative recording techniques you can come up with. Just keep in mind that the objective is to not reveal your identity to the employees unless you were instructed otherwise. 

Disadvantages of recordings
Many people who work with audio recordings on a regular basis will tell you that it isn't a fail-proof system. If your recording is of low quality, or gets misplaced somehow, and you didn't also take extensive notes, you risk having an assignment not being completed. Many argue that audio recordings should mainly be used as a back-up plan and not a primary means of retaining important information.

Legality of recordings
Considering the long list of advantages of recording your mystery shopping transaction, it's hard to imagine any reasons to not take a tape recorder with you on every visit. If only it were that easy. In the U.S. , states are placed into one of two categories when it comes to voice recording practices - those that uphold one-party consent laws versus two-party consent laws.

States that uphold one-party consent laws are the ones that allow you to record any conversation, over the phone or in person, as long as you are a part of it. This essentially means that you don't have to inform someone that you're recording them or ask for their permission as long as you're a consenting party. Technically, 39 of the 50 states currently support one-consent practices. 

Two-party consent laws state that you must get the permission of the other party if you plan to record a conversation. It should be pointed out that no states legally support the recording of conversations that you aren't a part of.

There are currently 11 states that uphold two-party consent laws, according to the Digital Media Law Project: 

  • California
  • Connecticut
  • Florida
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Montana
  • Nevada
  • New Hampshire
  • Pennsylvania
  • Washington
  • Illinois

Many states are in the process of switching from two-party consent laws to one-party consent, which can change at any time. It's best to be aware of which side of this legal line your state  falls on to avoid facing possible legal ramifications for recording conversations without a person's consent.