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It was the appeal of something for nothing that first attracted me to mystery shopping. For me, the idea of getting a free meal, cinema ticket or tank full of petrol simply for giving my opinions was a bit of a winner and I'm surprised it took me as long as it did to start dabbling in the murky mire of mystery shopping. Indeed, I've only really had experience of TNS in the last nine months or so, because they weren't one of the first companies that were recommended to me.
Who are they?
Their website says that they are the largest market information company in the UK and the world's largest custom research group. Their operations literally span the globe and they have a strong presence in every continent. You might recognise the name from some of the Ciao surveys that you have been invited to complete as they regularly back surveys and data gathering exercises with other companies. If you want to read a lot more about them then log on to http://www.tns-global.com/ where you can find out about all the services that they offer.
How do you register to become a mystery shopper?
Originally, I completed a web form but was then told that they had enough people in my area and that they would contact me if they needed me. Six months later, they did contact me and so I was registered for their online database.
A similar process still appears to be in place but finding the form on their web site is rather arduous task. If you copy and paste this link into your browser it will tell you what you need to do. http://www.tns-global.com/corporate/Rooms/DisplayPages/LayoutInitial?Container=com.webridge.entity.Entity%5BOID%5BF381EC52095BE74F8940A122AA3824EC%5D%5D
Once you've filled out the form, they send you a copy of their mystery shopping manual and a subsequent link to a test form to see if you have read the manual properly. If you pass the test and they need people in your area, they will sign you up and you'll be given a user name and password for their online allocation system.
It is more likely that you will be accepted if you are not in one of the major cities such as Manchester, Birmingham or London. Visits are very quickly snapped up in these areas and there is much more demand for new shoppers in the smaller cities or towns. Nonetheless, it is worth signing up and waiting because I am evidence that they do eventually come back to you if their database needs topping up.
What is all this mystery shopping malarkey?
I shan't go into reams of detail here, partly because most readers will be familiar with the concept already but also because there are other reviews on mystery shopping in general that go into much more detail. Essentially, however, TNS offer freelance mystery shopping. That is, there are no guarantees of work commitments and that all assignments are undertaken ona freelance basis. Each assignment will have a different requirement, but normally you will be asked to go undercover in a shop, restaurant or other facility and carry out a transaction to monitor the levels of service and / or security. Sometimes this means buying something, but sometimes you simply have to make a query. The detail and length of the activity varies wildly by assignment, but the pay rates normally reflect the complexity and time taken of each. In order to maintain client confidentiality, you're not supposed to disclose details of the assignments you undertake so I won't be mentioning any of the actual companies on behalf of whom TNS agents conduct assignments.
How do you get work?
Mystery shopping assignments are normally allocated via the TNS web site. Assignments are made available throughout the month and unlike other companies, you won't receive an email confirmation of new visits that have been posted to the site. I've yet to ascertain whether there is a particular date or time in the month when visits become available but as with most of these sites, mystery shoppers are a pretty rabid bunch, so if you want regular work you'll need to check back frequently. There are seldom visits available in my area, but occasionally I seem to stumble across the site at the right time and I think I have undertaken about 5 or 6 visits in the last year.
You can search for work by location - but my location doesn't work, so I search for the whole UK and simply scroll through the entire list. Recently, this has been changed so that the list is all on one sheet, which is a huge improvement, as previously it was limited to about fifteen per page and you'd find 30 pages to scroll through. It still isn't fantastic though. For some clients, only the company and outlet name are shown and sometimes you can't tell where they are. Car dealerships, for example, may be shown as BRAND and then BLOB AND SONS but if you don't know where that is, you have to click the link and open the details to see if they are in your area. Another reason I don't do many visits is that unless I can clearly see that they are in my area, I quickly lose interest in the list.
Anyway, if you find something you like the look of, you click the link and read the assignment details in full to see if it is something that you're prepared / willing to do. The assignment may be quite specific in terms of days / dates / times or what you have to buy / do so. The assignment information is very clearly summarised into available dates / times, fees, what you have to do and the address of the outlet. If you like the look, you then have to apply for the visit.
The application process has recently been greatly improved. Previously, having applied for a visit, you would wait up to 48 hours for someone to come back to you. Apparently they would check the criteria and your eligibility and then work out who was the best applicant. Rejections were common and, frankly, rather irritating. Now, the website works more on a first come first served basis and through automation an email comes back straight away to tell you whether you are successful or not. You still have to be quick - I logged in and found a rather nice hotel visit and applied and someone beat me to it in the space of about three minutes!
One thing to note is that when you apply, you have to submit a particular date when you will complete the visit. You cannot then change this online and you have to speak to somebody via telephone or email to agree this.
If they are having problems allocating visits, you will also start to get emails literally begging people to pick up certain assignments in certain areas. I find this process really irritating and have added the email address to my junk filter. Some days, you get the same email five times. If the company is not sophisticated enough to actually pick up the phone and talk to people in the relevant areas then I can't be bothered to keep reading repetitive emails. So there.
Other projects are run by the company at various intervals and sometimes you will be contacted by project co-ordinators looking for particular types of people who might be interested in particular projects. These are then normally managed separately from the website via email, post or telephone. One particularly easy project I managed to get involved in was to receive literature from hotels, fill out a form and then send it all back to TNS. For what is essentially a 60 second task, they send me £3 WHSmith vouchers. For 7 or 8 hotels a month that up to £24 in vouchers. It keeps me in magazines, anyway!
How do you submit results?
It's all online. The questionnaires are laid out quite logically and it doesn't take that long to fill out. As well as answering Yes / No questions they like lots of comments as well.
What will I earn?
TNS do not pay the best rates on the market. Rates vary considerably from one job to the next but don't always expect to get paid a fee, separate from expenses. Some jobs will have an "all in " fee which is to cover the meal or tickets or purchase and the idea is that the free meal / shopping is recompense for your time. For those visits where a fee is payable, the amount generally ranges from £5 up to £12 for the more complex visits, which is a reflection of the time required. On top of visit or "all in" fees the assignment details will also tell you whether you get a mileage fee (usually a fixed amount) and any other expenses. TNS clearly want to maximise their profit margin on each visit and are far less willing to top up fees at the last minute if you help them out. Payment is made monthly via bank giro credit but taxation is left to the individual so you need to submit your own tax details.
TNS have a fairly good client base, most of whom have many outlets across the country, which means that there are lots of assignments at face value. However, competition with other shoppers and the fact that one client might take up 200 of those visits and only have one in each town per month really means that you are unlikely to earn more than pocket money for the work you complete withTNS.
What support is available?
The web site has some good FAQs and the web site linked above gives an excellent insight into the principles of mystery shopping. On occasion, I've spoken to some of the project managers / co-ordinators and they're all pretty helpful and friendly. If you need to move visits, they will accommodate you where possible and to be fair, they seem pretty grateful for the work that you undertake.
- The visits are easy and fairly straightforward. - There is quite a good variety of assignment - my favourite ones are the restaurants. - The web site is quite easy to use and it is now far easier to get assignments.
- Assignments get snapped up quickly - Some assignments are very dull - Pay rates are lower than many other agencies - You can't change dates for visits on line
My involvement with TNS is very limited - indeed, this month is the first month I've got something to do for ages. They strike me as quite a professional company, but they are rather impersonal and it all feels a bit one-sided to me. For seasoned mystery shoppers, another name on the list to browse but not one that I'd be that bothered about myself.