USPS Mystery Shops
Mystery shops are performed to ensure USPS workers follow proper shipping protocols. These shops are not only to evaluate customer service levels, they are to ensure postal workers are following legally mandated guidelines. For example, a postal worker may be required to ask questions like ‘Are you shipping explosives or live animals?’ The average Joe or Josephine can fill out a comment card or do an online survey commenting on how professional and cheery the postal employee was – this is usually done when a customer is really happy (or really upset) with the customer service. But the USPS requires an unbiased and objective evaluation to ensure postal employees are following both company and legally mandated guidelines.
Read more about how the USPS uses mystery shoppers.
How Do I Become a Mystery Shopper for the USPS?
A common question asked by prospective mystery shoppers is ‘how do I become a mystery shopper for XYZ company?’ Really, it’s no secret, Shopper! (Get it? Secret Shopper? Ugh…maybe I should have said “it’s no mystery, Shopper.”). Usually, you do not sign up directly with the company itself. In reality, companies contract out to mystery shopping companies who then contract with mystery shoppers to perform a shop. A part of the contractual agreement between a shopping company and an individual shopper is that a shopper will not reveal which company evaluates which customer. You may be able to say a particular company has evaluations performed so a Shopper can say ‘I did an evaluation for Burger Chain X’ (though not a good idea since you might be outed as a mystery shopper and will no longer be able to do shops for Burger Chain X). A Shopper can also say they do evaluations for a particular mystery shopping company so can say ‘I do restaurant evaluations for Mystery Shop Company Y at a famous burger chain’. But a shopper can never say ‘I was contracted by Mystery Shop Company Y to do an evaluation of Burger Chain X.’
So now that we know the USPS has mystery shops performed, we cannot say who the USPS contracts with to perform mystery shops. And we cannot say ‘I do post office evaluations for Mystery Shopping Company Y which has been contracted by a major semi-governmental federal agency’ since there is only one semi-governmental agency in the US who handles mail.
Companies also change which mystery shop company they contract with. Another common question you may see is ‘I used to do postal evaluations but the USPS switched companies – anyone know who the new company is?’ I may know who the new company is and already be signed up with them but it would be a violation of my contract to say who it is.
So I (or any other shopper) cannot tell you which mystery shopping company to sign up with as it would be a contractual violation to do so. I may be willing to break a contract if it is really important to help out a close friend or relative but it’s a hard sell to violate a contract for a perfect stranger and get nothing in return.
So I give the same advice others gave me when I was trying to sign up for USPS mystery shops. Sign up with a variety of mystery shopping companies – be sure to sign up with legitimate companies and avoid scams – and eventually, you might run across the one you are looking for. That’s how I did it.
So, in retrospect, maybe I should have said: “Really, it’s
no a secret, Shopper!”
So How Does a USPS Mystery Shop Work?
The USPS decides that certain post offices need to be evaluated. This is usually based on how big or busy the office is – smaller offices are evaluated less frequently. And don’t even think that if you want to ship your little brother with a handful of fireworks as a way to celebrate July 4th with Grandma that you should go to a smaller office is a good idea. Grandma has a weak heart and doesn’t need loud bangs going off around her.
These shops pay a fixed fee and also reimburse you a fixed amount for shipping a package. If you spend over that amount to ship a package, you will not be compensated for the difference. Shipping rates are driven by package weight, size and distance traveled. Packages have to be a minimum weight and size. For some shops, the only requirement is that you do not ship within your local Postal Zone while others require you ship to a particular Postal Zone (usually Zones 5 through 8). Postal Zones are relative – see the next section for more on how postal zones work.
The trick is to ensure you are shipping a package that is small enough and does not have to go farther than necessary to not blow the reimbursement. At the same time, you do not want to draw the attention of the postal worker as they might get suspicious that you always ship a small package a short distance.
Assuming you are already signed up with the mystery shopping company that performs mystery shops for the USPS, you will go to their website and see if there are any evaluations that need to be performed and request any you want to be assigned to. There are different kinds of shops but all generally require you to ship a package to someone outside of your current postal zone. Below is a screenshot of a typical set of shops being advertised.
How To Determine Postal Zones
Note that you have to ship outside of your Postal Zone – not just outside of your Postal Zip Code. Postal Zones are based on the first 3 digits of the zip code you are shipping from and the first 3 digits of the zip code you are shipping to. A lot of people have trouble with the concept – it’s easier to think of it as the number of zones the package has to travel through. The USPS provides a website to help you determine the postal zone of the zip code you are shipping to. Enter the first 3 digits of the zip code you are shipping from and you will see the postal zone for all other areas of the country. The whole concept of postal zones is still kind of tricky for people. The folks over at endica.com have created a Dynamic Postal Zone Map that helps visualize the postal zone of other zip codes relative to your starting zip code (the examples below were generated using this website).
Here are some examples to demonstrate how postal zones are determined.
|Ship From West Coast Postal Zones
Shipping from Los Angeles to Denver is Zone 5 (that is, the package has to pass through 5 zones including passing through the starting zone) while shipping to New York (which is much farther away) is Zone 8 (you have to pass through 8 zones).
Click the image to enlarge it
|Ship From East Coast Postal Zones
Shipping from New York to Denver is Zone 7 (or 7 zones). Since the package has to travel the same distance, shipping from New York to Los Angeles is Zone 8 (or 8 zones), the same as shipping from Los Angeles to New York.
Click the image to enlarge it
|Ship From Rocky Mountain Postal Zones
Shipping from Denver to New York is the same as shipping from New York to Denver so the Postal Zone turns out to be the same value of 7. Similarly, shipping from Denver to Los Angeles is the same as shipping from Los Angeles to Denver and works out to be Zone 5 either way.
Click the image to enlarge it
Finding a Postal Buddy
So you have signed up with the right mystery shopping company. You’re ready to sign up for some evaluations. Now the tricky part comes in – locating another shopper, friend or family member in another zone to ship packages to. The requirement is that the person you are sending packages to must be in another postal zone – you cannot ship to someone in your Postal Zone.
There are lots of people who want to be mystery shoppers but most people don’t have a lot of family or friends spread around the country they can ship small packages to. Doing USPS mystery shops might be a cheap way to ship packages to Grandma for her birthday but the money you can make is through volume, Baby! You can do up to 5 shops a day and up to 24 shops per week. And while I’m sure Grandma would love to keep getting boxes of old socks and magazines from you, eventually you are going to run out of stuff to ship. Ideally, you want to pair up with another mystery shopper who is also doing USPS evaluations so you can keep sending packages back and forth – some even keep shipping the same package back and forth. You want a buddy who you can ship the same box of rice back and forth with until the box falls apart.
The old fashioned way has been to get on a mystery shopping forum and post something like “Hey! I’m in zip code 12345. Looking for someone to ship packages with!” Now the other shoppers have to go to the USPS website, plug in their zip code and your zip code to see if you are in the right postal zone or not. Think of dozens of shoppers over the months and years trying to hook up with other shoppers who happen to be looking for a buddy at the same time and are willing to plug in each zip code until they find a match. Then, when they find a match and reply to the forum post days, weeks or months after posting on the forum, the original poster has already found a buddy. What a pain!
To the Rescue: The Postal Buddy Database!
To ease this process, we here at The Mystery Shoppery have put together a little database to help match up shoppers in different postal zones. Simply register and include your zip code and you will see all other users who are currently looking to be matched up and their Postal Zone relative to you. We do not expose names or emails in this system. You have to find someone to be paired up with, click the ‘contact’ button, they will get a message that includes your email address, they can then respond via email and you two continue from there. Its a free service but you do need to register with a valid email address and provide your zip code.
And thanks for visiting the Mystery Shoppery!
If you have any questions about doing a USPS mystery shop (other than which company is conducting them), head on over to the mysteryshopforum.com website that discusses postal shops where you can post questions and tips with other shoppers.