This Piece was originally published on October 9, 2013 at my own blog The Wilson Report.
A while back I responded to an ad for a Mystery Shopper. I had met people before who have made money doing this type of work, and it sounded like an easy way to earn some fast cash. I was given some information on a the location of a big box retailer and asked to go and check out it’s multiple departments.
I was expected to see how long it took for my presence to be acknowledged in each department, and to record how many employees and customers were present at the time. If I was not approached by an employee offering assistance, after a specified and rather short time period, I was supposed to ask them for help (while noting how long it took to be responded to). I was given a scenario for each department, with a few questions to ask. Many of these scenarios sounded absolutely ridiculous, and I had to take a little creative liberty with them to avoid outing myself as the secret shopper. I also had to find ways to discreetly record the names, and appearances of everyone I interacted with, as well as all details of the interaction. I think I did this successfully and few if any of the employees were on to my purpose. It may have helped that I actually bought a couple products, which I needed anyway.
I can also say, most of the employees did quite well, by any conventional standards and answered any questions I asked. Sometimes they did not address me in the specified, short period of time, but perhaps there was something off putting about my appearance or behavior. After all, I could clearly tell where they were, and it was obvious, that I could ask them anything, if I wanted to. In reality most shoppers do not want to be questioned by employees, within a few seconds of entering their section of the store. I have heard some complain that this puts pressure on them to buy things, or that they simply prefer to initiate contact with the employee rather than the other way around. Usually, when I go to a store and employee asks if they can help me, I say “I’m just looking” and they leave me alone. I usually only want their assistance, when the store is so oddly organized that I cannot, for the life of me, find the product I came to buy. I know that the quick acknowledgement of my presence by the employees was something their boss wanted, but it was hardly something I would hold against them, accept in the rare situation where I clearly need help but they simply cannot be bothered to look up at me (which did not happen during this visit).
Among other things, they usually answered the questions I asked, appropriately considering the way I asked them, but they did not always use the precise words that were requested, or fell short of the boss’ seemingly arbitrary criteria in some other way. Fortunately everyone showed professionalism, and many were quite helpful and knowledgeable, so I was able to give mostly favorable marks, but it occurred to me that this was not the type of work I enjoyed doing.
I really tend to dislike, spies, rats, snitches and tattle-tales of all kinds, and that is essentially what I was asked to be. I was asked to judge people, I did not know, on arbitrary criteria that had little relevance to the customer’s experience. It was like being asked to join the thought police in a George Orwell novel. These employees could simply have been having a bad day, or been caught off-guard or distracted by some experience with angry customer that occurred a few minutes before I showed up. Whatever the reason, the last thing I wanted to do is contribute these people getting reprimanded or losing their jobs over something as stupid as not talking to me, a few seconds after I show up.
I believe, that the American economy has been so heavily tilted in the favor of bosses and middle managers, that I really do not want to further contribute to this by acting as a spy for them. That is just not how I want to live. The average retail employee has enough bullshit to deal with in one day without me actively contributing to it. I honestly would not consider complaining to a manager about an employee, except in maybe some very rare and extreme cases. For example if a nursing home employee is abusing a patient, a restaurant worker is intentionally contaminating food, or if factory worker is doing something that clearly endangers other people, I may be left with no other choice, but to complain, but these are rare cases, and very different from the things I was asked to evaluate.
So long, as I can get the product I came for, there is nothing more I need from customer service. I hate the McDonald’s mentality of imposing compulsory happiness (service with a smile) on their employees. It just always seems to me that demanding that people who are clearly doing something that they would rather not be doing, pretend to be happy about it. It is both cruel and completely phony. If you really want your employees to act happy, maybe you should actively try to make them happy, by paying them more, giving them free food, ect. Just a thought. That said, I don’t want employees of businesses to be rude or obstructionist towards me, I just want them to be human. Our work lives uniform, regulate, dumb down, and robotize us are more than even our government does. As such, I prefer not to be a spy in the dehumanizing, regulatory process, that is employment in big retail, and I hope you will do the same.
Editor’s note: It was also brought to my attention that at least one friend of mine who worked as a mystery shopper, was not even paid for it.