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Saturday, September 29, 2007

'Secret shopping' pits workers against each other

'Secret shopping' pits workers against each other

If your idea of satisfying work is to get paid in products, services or a small amount of money on a piecework basis for tattling on low-waged service industry workers, secret shopping just might be your dream job.

Many retail and hospitality sector corporations now turn to secret shoppers, also known as mystery shoppers, to spy on their service employees and report every detail of the transaction back to management. They rate the entire shopping experience, from store presentation of products to employee compliance on the use of scripts and upselling techniques.

Employees don't find out that they have been “secret-shopped” until days, weeks, or even months have passed. There is no opportunity for input from the employee into the secret shopping report.

Finding service workers who are willing to discuss this practice on the record is difficult. I struck up a casual conversation with a cashier at a well-known electronics retailer one morning as my purchases were being tallied up. The store was empty, and no manager was within earshot.

The cashier told me that they get secret shoppers “all the time.” They do not reveal themselves at any point during or after the transaction, nor do they give their report to the manager. Instead, they send their report to Head Office, which sends the report to the store manager, who then has a meeting with the employee to go over it.

At this point in the conversation, I told the employee that I was writing an article about secret shopping, and asked if we could do an interview at some point. The response was immediate and polite: “Sorry, I'd rather not.” Then, his demeanor changed from informal and chatty to polite and professional. Although the transaction was already done, he asked me whether I would like to buy an extended warrantee for $5 on the $15 item I had just bought.

“No, that's okay. Don't worry,” I joked, “I'm not a secret shopper.”

The cashier smiled politely and said with a wary laugh, “Well, you just told me.” In his eyes, I changed from friendly customer to possible spy in a split second—and he had almost forgotten to do the upsell.

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