Written By JonChance
Remember those cute little comment cards that restaurants used to stick between the salt and pepper shakers for you to tell them how you liked your visit? I was addicted to filling those out. Not at first maybe, but the third or fourth one I did as a kid earned me a free meal when the manager called to apologize that the $1.35 an hour cook (does this give away how old I am?) forgot to put the extra pickles and onions on my cheeseburger. It was then that I realized that all I had to do to get free food was to find something negative, no matter how miniscule, and write about it. I wished then that I could make a career out of it, but hey, free food for a high school student was awesome, so I kept filling them out. I often wondered if it wouldn’t be easier just to have on online survey, but then I realized that Al Gore hadn’t invented the Internet yet. I wondered what would come first: the Internet or digital cameras.
Fast forward five or six years to me sitting in the drive-thru of a closed Wendy’s at 2am writing down menu item prices wondering why the heck Burger King didn’t just hire someone to go out and do this crap rather then send their cooks to do it because it happened to be a slow night. I was in college, I had been cooking for BK for about 6 months, and I regularly got the dumb jobs like changing light bulbs in the dining room (there’s a joke in there somewhere), and having to refill the ice bin on the top of the Coke dispenser because they were too cheap to buy a dispenser fountain with an ice maker built in. This was a new one. They wanted me to go around to all of the fast food burger places in town, park in the drive thru and write down their prices. They even had a very professionally looking pre-printed form for me to fill in for each restaurant. I figured that meant that I was not the first person they had sent out to do this. I thought about just snapping a couple pictures of the menu board, but it would have taken three days to get the film back, and I wished that I didn’t have to wait another six years for digital cameras to be invented, and then realized that even after they were, the image quality would suck for at least another ten.
I graduated from college, went on to work for IBM, and then got hurt very badly to the point that it ended my career rather abruptly. I actually had enough money saved that I could retire on, but not very comfortably. I had kids headed to college, others in middle and high school, and was racking my brain trying to find a new stream of supplemental income. I actually tried a couple of the work from home scams that seemed like they might be legitimate, but it never seemed to work out the way the ads promised. I was on a retiree forum (I’m really not THAT old, but I was desperate) and came across a thread about people getting free meals at different places and even making a couple of dollars in the process, so I figured it wouldn’t hurt to check it out. I signed up with Market Force, but then figured that they just HAD to be one giant scam. After all, big companies would never waste their monies hiring people to shop their own stores as long as there were still comment cards and receipt surveys, right?
I had forgotten about the company, and would just send all email from them straight to my spam folder, and then one afternoon I got a call asking me to do a burger place that was less than a mile from my house, and offering me thirty dollars plus a free meal to do it. I was about to hang up on her, but then realized that I had been thinking about having dinner there anyways, so I started asking questions, and an hour later I was taking the tests and printing out paperwork. My wife said I was crazy, and when I told her I had to do direct deposit, she said that I needed to give them the bank account number of a savings account that we didn’t really use any more, and that we only kept open to keep our membership with a credit union. She was certain I wasn’t going to get paid.
My wife got really pissed when she found out that I had to go buy a stopwatch for the shop that I would probably never use again, and kept telling me how much of a wasted of money it would be, but at five o’clock that evening, I was heading to Target because they were the only place in Eastern South Carolina that I could find with one in stock. (A couple years later, my bank had to freeze and replace the credit card that I used to pay for it with that night because Targets computers got hacked and my info got compromised. Unfortunately I was right in the middle of a gas station route when they froze it.) Then, after doing all of that, she was upset that I couldn’t take her with me, and said that I had better bring her some food. I never heard the end of it until a month later when I actually got a deposit in the savings account that I never used, and my wife finally ended her tirade with, “They are just trying to lure you in.”
I shopped for Market Force for over a year before I ever even considered the fact that there might be other legitimate companies out there that do the same basic thing. Then one day I was doing a photo audit at a tax preparer, and when I introduced myself, the guy jumped up and smiled and said, “Hey, I work for them too!” We talked for a few minutes, and he asked me if I also worked for CoRI. When I told him I had never heard of them, he gave me the web address, and told me I had to check them out.
After spending the next few months doing gas station and hardware store shops with a bunch of other stuff mixed in for good measure, I had a couple of problems with one of the reports I had filed being rejected and me not getting paid, and I wanted to see if this was common with them before I told my wife about it. Doing a google search on reviews for this company lead me to the MS Forum, and I was suddenly opened up to dozens and then hundreds of other companies. Now I go to the drive thru to take pictures of menu signs. I’m not allowed to fill out the comment cards in fast food joints, or the online surveys that I invented in my mind 25 years ago. I can’t even complain to a manager if I get rude service unless it’s specifically allowed in my shop guidelines. And worst of all, I can’t walk into a store or a restaurant without having the names of every employee I come in contact with at least until I get back to my car and realize I’m not actually on a shop.
Pet Peeves: Explaining every single little stupid ‘no’ answer on shop reports (see my forum post about the back door being open), having to stand around the DIY stores looking stupid in the wrong department until someone helps me, and having to ask for ketchup at the counter when I know damn well there are two giant ketchup pumps sitting next to the drink station (is there a stamp on my forehead that says ‘Mystery Shopper’?). Also, Maritz Research will not let me get through a week of shops without throwing some kind of monkey wrench into my routine, and it drives me insane!
Favorite MSC’s: Quest 4 Best, Intelli-shop, Bestmark (most days), and Sinclair.
Worst shopping experience: I got so sick from the smell in the restroom on one shop that I had to run to the restroom in the middle of the next to puke. On a happy note, I noticed that the toilets and floors were exceptionally clean and well maintained as I knelt in front of the porcelain goddess.
Shops that I won’t do anymore (and definitely don’t miss): Any gas shop where I have to photograph every pump.
First thing I do when I get out of bed in the morning: Check the forum to see what crazy adventures Cettie has been on recently.