Secret Shopper

Each June, high school and university students across America pack away their books for three months and go to work. For some of these students, summer jobs are a way to soak up the sun while earning pocket money as a lifeguard at the beach or a caddy in a posh golf club. For others, they're the first rung on the professional ladder, padding a résumé and imparting essential business skills. But as Steve DeBretto from Chicago explains, some summer jobs can be just plain weird.

I'm a pretty good liar. I don't avoid eye contact, fidget in my seat or let my voice tremble when I'm not telling the truth. But I never thought I could make money, legally, by pretending to be someone I'm not. I was wrong. After my second year at university, a friend who owned a security firm asked me if I knew what a "secret shopper" was. I told him that my mother often shopped in secret, hiding new clothes and credit card bills from my father. This was different, he explained. "Imagine you're a shopkeeper. You sell shoes, books, whatever. You can't be at the shop 24/7, so how do you know what your staff are doing?" Before I could tell him that I didn't know, he answered his own question. "You spy on them!" More precisely, you hire someone to spy on them, and that's where I came in. You've seen "secret shoppers", been in stores with them and waited in line with them at the register; you just didn't know it. They pretend to be normal customers, browsing through merchandise and making purchases, just like you. But the whole time they're really watching the store's employees — how they behave, whether they do their jobs properly and, most importantly, whether they are stealing money. And secret shoppers are spending money given to them by the store's manager, to whom they later return their purchases.

Dead-end job

The previous summer I'd been a gravedigger. The work wasn't so difficult, but the pay was low and I still hadn't figured out where the job should go on my résumé. Client Placement Services? So I told Jim, my old boss at the cemetery, that I wouldn't be back that summer. I was going to try something new and more appropriate for a bright young man beginning to make his way in the world.

The next day I reported to the security firm and received an envelope with a couple hundred dollars and a list of sex shops to visit. So much for my résumé. A more experienced colleague in the "secret shopping" business went with me, pointing out good service, explaining who wasn't doing their job and teaching me to spot employee theft. It takes two secret shoppers. The first one buys a five-dollar magazine, hands the clerk a five-dollar bill and quickly leaves with the magazine. The cashier should then ring up the sale, but some simply pocket the money, figuring no one will be the wiser. That's exactly what the second shopper watches for. Outside, the two shoppers write a report for the store manager before going to their next assignment.

Unfortunately for me, the staff at most of these places was excellent. I say unfortunately because good salespeople are trained to recognize regular customers. So after a few weeks, when I entered a sex shop the clerk would rush over with a stack of girlie magazines and say, "Ah, it's good to see you again! I've kept these aside just for you." Embarrassed, I'd thank him and shuffle away among the cramped aisles.

Some of our firm's clients were bars and restaurants, the most coveted work for secret shoppers. Each morning at the security office we'd scramble for these assignments, the lucky ones spending the day eating and drinking for free. The orders given to me for my first assignment at a bar told me what to order and what to watch for:

Shopper is to purchase:
One bottle of beer (bartender should remove bottle cap at bar in plain view),
One draft beer (glass should be clean and cold),
One cocktail (liquor should be poured using measuring device),
One shot of whiskey (should be exactly twenty-five grams).

The bartender did everything just fine, but with the tray of drinks in front of me I was faced with a decision: the orders didn't say I had to drink what I had bought, but it seemed wasteful to order drinks and then leave them to be thrown away. I remembered that when I was little and didn't want to finish my meal my mother would scold me. "There are hungry people in China," she'd say. "Finish your dinner." I never understood how eating until I felt sick would help anyone in China, but I did what she said. So at the bar, I told myself that there were probably sober people in China too, and downed the drinks one after the other so I could get to my next assignment. Consequently, I don't remember what I wrote in the report.

At supermarkets, we had to shoplift. Not the way Winona Ryder did, stuffing things under our coats and sneaking past the security guards on the way out, but stealing so that it looked like an accident. I'd leave heavy items like sacks of potatoes or cases of beer in the shopping cart when I was at the register. Everything else I'd place on the conveyor belt that scoots merchandise up to the waiting clerk. If anyone asked, I'd say I just didn't want to lift the heavy things and thought the clerk must have seen them and charged me. Usually, though, no one said a word and I wheeled the cart out the door without paying for half the things in it.

I hated these assignments because when I was successful it usually meant that the clerk lost her job. So, while I couldn't actually tell them I was stealing, I'd try to help them catch me. It didn't always work.

"Your total is $24.82," one of them told me, ignoring the $40 worth of beer still in my cart.

"My goodness," I said, "I thought it would be much more expensive!"

"Well, there's a special offer on ice cream today, so you got a 20-cent discount on that."

"Still, it seems like all of this should cost more." I looked directly at the beer that she still hadn't seen and frowned.

"No, sir. $24.82, please."

"O.K., if you're sure you've charged me for everything."

"Absolutely sure, sir. Please, there are customers waiting behind you."

I paid and left.

Soon, my boss had worked out a new scheduling system. The sex shops were open non-stop, so he asked us to work an occasional night shift. "You can shop nine or ten of them in one night when there's no other work to do." He was right. We finished all the sex shops for the week in one overnight shift. It was eight o'clock in the morning when, unshaven and red-eyed, I walked out of the last sex shop into the dazzling morning sunlight. I paused to look into the bright red "Adult Fantasy" shopping bag, checking that everything I'd bought was there. The street was abuzz with people on their way to work, and I looked up to see that one of them had stopped in front of me. It was Jim, my old boss from the cemetery, shaking his head and looking at me sadly.

"You're never going to find a job if you spend all night hanging around sex shops."

"It's not what you think..."

"And I can't give you back your old job at the cemetery," Jim went on. "I gave it to some girl who just lost her job at the supermarket. Says some jerk told her manager she was letting customers steal beer."