Mystery shopping generates a lot of paper. Most of us print out shop guidelines and forms, and perhaps even copies of the reports we submit. Then there are the receipts, notes and other bits and pieces that accumulate.
What do you need to keep, and for how long? When is it safe to dispose of your mystery shop paperwork?
Most mystery shopping companies recommend that you keep all documentation from your shops for at least 90 days. Some suggest six months or longer. Some shoppers maintain files for one year or more.
Here are my recommendations to make sure you have what you need, without drowning in paper.
Do not print out things you do not need to print. For example, I do not print copies of my submitted reports. You may be able to save the screen as an HTML or PDF file, and keep the file on your computer.
It is a good idea to keep copies of emails regarding shop assignments, especially any conversations with schedulers. However, you do not need to keep hard copies of these emails. Set up a folder in your email program and archive the emails
Make sure you back up all of your computer files regularly. You can do so locally to an external hard drive or DVD, or use an online service such as Carbonite. You can keep these electronic files indefinitely, as they take up litte space.
Paper from a shop should be kept three to six months. Clients may come up with questions long after the shop was submitted, so hold on your notes and other documentation. Organize the paper so you can find what you need. Set up a filing system by date, mystery shopping company or client so you can quickly locate anything you need.
If your filing system is by date, you can easily toss papers more than six months old (or whatever period of time you choose to keep them).
You may wish to keep receipts longer, perhaps three years or more for tax purposes. Many CPAs and tax preparers advise keeping tax records for at least the last three tax years, and some suggest keeping up to seven years’ of records. (Keep all of your tax returns forever, but you do not need to save every bit of documentation that you have for more than three to seven years.)
Receipts and other documentation you plan to keep for a long time may be digitized. There are scanners that allow you to feed documents automatically, so it is faster and easier to scan a large volume of paper. If you decide to do this, you might want to get your kids to help. (Tax tip: Paying your kids to work in your business is tax deductible for you, and because they probably do not have enough income to pay taxes can save on the family’s tax bill. Consult your tax professional for more details.)
It is important to keep proper records, in case of a question from the mystery shopping company, their client or the IRS. However, you do not need to keep everything forever. Come up with a system that works for you to reduce the amount of paper you use, and purge documents you no longer need.