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Treat mystery shopping like spy work

While looking for mystery shopping assignments, you'll often come across some that require you to maintain a high level of discretion to get the best results. Tipping off the employee or owners could completely change your shopping experience, thus affecting the results of your visit. 

Given the high level of secrecy that may be involved in these kinds of assignments, they can provide opportunities to live out certain childhood fantasies. Imagine treating your assignment like a mission delivered to a secret agent or undercover police officer. Working to obtain as much key information as possible, while going relatively unnoticed, is the main objective of the most popular spy movies. Your job will be to do the same, just on a smaller, less life-threatening scale. If you're lucky, you'll even get assigned to go to a restaurant where you can ask for "a dry martini. Shaken, not stirred." 

Now, you're not going to be expected to jump out of a burning building or rewire any explosive devices. But using strong observational skills is just one of the many skill sets both mystery shoppers and "double-0" agents share.

Tools of the trade
One of the most entertaining scenes of any spy film is when the agent is introduced to his or her new, highly-advanced tool set. Working as an experienced mystery shopper, you should also have your own bag of tools. But instead of a grappling hook, a sports car with hovering capabilities or a watch with a fully-operable laser beam, you'll be working with things a little more realistic.

  • Planning ahead: As the old saying goes, "prior preparation prevents poor performance." Before stepping foot into a shop, you should already have a clear understanding of what your end goals are. Make a purchase. Interact with the employees. Make a mark of the details for later. 
  • Ability to stick to the plan or improvise: While it's best to have a plan already set, it's an added benefit to know when to stick to the plan and when to think on your feet. Do you think that the employee or owner may have gotten wind of your motives? If so, then it's time to think of a way to get them off of your trail. Consider telling them a story about why you're visiting the city on vacation or why you're in the store in the first place. 
  • Key to detail: Knowing what is important for your assignment allows you to focus on the necessary aspects of your interaction. Remembering the names of employees, the location of items in the store and the order in which things were done are examples of the kinds of things you'll have to keep in mind.
  • Objectivity: Being able to only look at the facts doesn't always come easily. Breaking down your experience into a list of details is an important part of the job that will come in handy later on. Working as a mystery shopper often requires you to take photos while on assignment. Given that basically all modern-day cellphones come with high-quality cameras, this has gotten a lot easier. It's up to you to be as discrete as possible while taking pictures without giving anyone a hint as to why. Using your cell phone as if you were texting is also a good way to take notes of employee's names, item prices and other important details. 
  • Have a safety net (letter): A smart agent always has a contingency plan. In the case of mystery shoppers, this contingency plan often comes in the form of a letter or proof provided by their employer. This letter comes in handy whether you're working a job that asks for you to reveal your identity to the shop or one that doesn't. It's probably in your best interest to wait to reveal yourself until after the transaction has taken place if you have the option. If an employee or owner discerns your motives, you may need to show them this letter, which lists your name, employer and proof of assignment, to ensure them that you're there for legitimate reasons. 

Filling out a report
One part of spy films that's usually left to be done off-screen is the filling out of reports after a mission is completed. The same applies for mystery shopping. After you've gone out on assignment, taken note of all of the key details and taken any necessary footage, it's time to put everything in one place. 

Writing your report is one of the most important parts of completing your mystery shopping assignment. It's what you give your employer, which is then given to the client to summarize your findings. You can even consider this to be your debriefing, in keeping with the spy work metaphor.

Unsatisfactory reports can lead to lower scores for your mystery shopping work, which can lead to lower scores or even, in extreme cases, a refusal of payment by the client.