Undercover Customer

The Peterborough Examiner, Friday, July 23, 2004. Gary Ball

“Shopping?”

Monique shakes with laughter. “I am the queen of all shoppers,” she says. “I can shop ‘til I drop at any given time. I don’t have to stop. Oh, maybe a bite to eat now and again, but after that, I’m back on the mall”

But she doesn’t suffer from an untreated shopping addiction. Monique is a professional, secret shopper or mystery shopper.
Her name and home community (in the Peterborough area) have been changed to shield her identity, those agencies who hire her and of their clients… the businesses which use secret shoppers in efforts to maintain their standards.

What mystery shopping means is that she is paid (in cash, or in goods and services, or a combination) to go shopping.

She’s been at it for better than two years and isn’t quite certain that she hasn’t died and gone to heaven.

“I love it,” she says. “I never thought I’d ever find a job that I love as much as I do this one.”

It was actually a call from her sister that got Monique started exploring the little-known world of mystery shopping.

“My sister called me and said “Oh my gosh. You aren’t going to believe this. There’s an ad in the paper and they want to pay someone to go shopping. Check it out.”

Monique did.

An internet search engine turned up all kinds of hits. A Better Business Bureau assured her that mystery shopping was a legitimate industry.

She filed an application over the Internet, did a little bit of online testing and started taking shopping assignments.

Although she does shopping work for a number of agencies, Shoppers Quality Management (SQM), of Toronto, is at the top of her list and a key player in the Canadian mystery shopping industry. SQM was founded 11 years ago by David Lipton and Craig Henry. Henry attended high school in Peterborough.
The two attended Ryerson in Toronto and graduated together from the tourism program and went their separate ways.

In a telephone interview, Henry says circumstances combined just over 11 years ago to leave both men unemployed.

“We both had been exposed over the years to having these mystery guests come into the hotel to see what was going on.”

Both agreed that the mystery shopping companies really shouldn’t (as was the practice) be trying to determine corporate strategy for the clients.

Instead they should, Henry says, be working with the client companies to design shopping programs that actually measure how company plans were being carried out by front-line employees at individual outlets.

“We don’t care whether you figure your phone should be answered in two, five, or ten rings. We’ll just tell you whether or not it’s being answered the way you (the corporate client) think it should be done.

“Lets create a mystery shopping company that lets clients choose what their standards are. They’ve been around for X number of years and know their business.

“The thing they want to know (from mystery shoppers) is whether or not staff are able to maintain the specific standards they have set. That’s where SQM really began.”

Lipton and Henry did much of the mystery shopping and all kinds of other things, too, in the early days.
“Right now,” he says “our roster of active mystery shoppers in North America is pushing 8000,” Henry says.

“The preference is for local shoppers. If the assignment is in Peterborough, I’m not going to have somebody from Toronto to do it. I’m going to find somebody local. That keeps are travel and overnight costs down.”

Local shoppers are also more in tune, he says, with local conditions and practices.

Monique says her husband now calls her “secret agent 007” In reality, she is now what SQM call a “level-eight shopper” one rung down from top of the ladder (level nine) shopper, a category that would allow her to sign on for travel and resort secret shopping… taking trips to resorts, carry out specific and filling out reports as required by the client.

“Everything is online,” she says.

“I trained online and I report online. In two-and-a-half years of shopping I have never met (face to face) one single person in the industry. I know them by their voices, talk to them on the phone and online.”
Although precise procedures vary from shopping company to shopping company, and from assignment to assignment, mystery shoppers typically qualify to “shop” the premises of a specific client by achieving a certain level of experience and skill level (online tests and experience) or by climbing a tested shopper skills level as she does for SQM.

Initial steps, she says, would deal with fast-food and retail clients, with each succeeding step, passed in online tests, allowing a shopper to handle increasingly complex assignments.
“Big corporations can’t have their eyes on all of their stores at all times, so they hire people like myself to go and check things out,” Monique explains.

Her previous work experience includes factory work, secretarial work, bookkeeping and (experience which she used shopping) waiting on tables in bars, restaurants, and dance clubs.

That table experience, she says, really helps when she’s shopping fast food or restaurant chains.
“Sometimes people are just having a bad day. But in the (food) business you never know who’s at the counter. Anyone, at any time of the day, could be a secret shopper. The time is set by the client… in the middle of the day to two in the morning.”

Following instructions to the letter is key to survival as a mystery shopper. Grocery store shopping, for example, is done in a pattern set by the client, she says.

“You have to go to every department. You might be asked to pick out a product and ask for more information, but you can buy whatever you want. Takes about a half hour to do a grocery shop.”
Grocery lists in hand are okay, because virtually all shoppers, real or not, carry grocery lists. A clipboard, on the other hand, might lead her to being spotted as a mystery shopper.

“The amount of money you spend on a grocery shop is up to you. The customer will set a limit. For XYZ Groceries, it may be $35. You can spend more, but you’ll only be reimbursed for $35.”

So, yes, when she can she does her own shopping, at least part of it, as a secret shopper. In busy times (Christmas, Easter, etc) she may even end up buying groceries for extended family and friends… turning the goods she earns into cash. And that’s on top of the cash payment for the shopping report…. Perhaps $10 or $15 or $20.

Filing an online report typically takes something like a half-hour to 45 minutes.

“Some of the reports are almost multiple choice, check off yes or no. Some, they ask you to expand on your answers. Some reports may be two pages (online) long. Depends on the client. Others are four or five. It all depends on what the client is asking the shopper to do.

“You can be almost as busy as you want to be. I pick up a lot of shops outside of town, in communities of Oshawa, Ajax, or Pickering. I’ll make a loop and try to get all my shops grouped together. I might work two or three days a week.

On a precisely planned day that goes according to plan and schedule, Monique says, she can sometimes carry out 15 assignments. The cost of operating a vehicle is her own responsibility.

“I can make up to $300 in a good day… $20 or $30 at a time. On a day like that I leave home at 7:30 in the morning and I get home at 9:30 at night, when I really cram it. I’ve done hundreds and hundreds of shops in two-and-a-half years, probably over 1000.”

She can pick and choose assignments that let her purchase clothing or hardware items, things her family needs. Or she can plan outings, family excursions or holidays around shopping.

“If I am going to be in Toronto on a luxury hotel shop, I ask for these shops two or three weeks in advance and then I’ll make plans with my husband to be in Toronto, pick up a show or something then get to stay in a nice hotel. Along the way, Toronto being a big city, there are more assignments available, so I’ll pick up other shops at the same time… groceries for the hotel room, maybe a restaurant for a meal or a beer.

Monique describes this sort of trip as a barter outing, paid for in part by goods and services (hotel room, meals, etc.) and partially in cash…$10 or $20 fees. Sometimes even basic auto maintenance costs…oil changes etc., can be covered by mystery shopping. Garden centers, hardware and home-building supply stores also use shoppers.

Some shopping assignments take precise timing, she says. Shopping the drive-throughs at a fast-food chain involves keeping track of time right down to the second.

All the outlets in a district, region, or even the province might be sampled by different shoppers at precisely the same time.

Reports may include reporting on employee uniforms, caps, name tags, and even the precise wording of a greeting and order request or suggestion.

“Would you like a doughnut or a muffin with that? Can I get you anything else today?”

The best assignments to date, she figures, have been the luxury Toronto hotels.

“First of all, you get to drive up and the valet takes you car. He is evaluated. The bellhop takes your bags and he is evaluated. The check-in is evaluated. The concierge service, too.

“All this time, you have to remember the people, their names and what they say to you. Were you shown all the features of your room service, where your robes are and where the pool is and the restaurants and bars?”

Some shops involve ordering from room service and keeping track of everything from the moment you arrive until the moment you leave, Monique says.

Sometimes a hotel shop means checking out its dining rooms, restaurants, and lounges.

“A lunch visit could be anywhere from $50 to $75 and on a dinner visit you could be reimbursed from $100 to $150, for two people. Hotel shops almost always involve male/female customers.
Sometimes, Monique says, the goods and services or the perks that go with being on assignment are the real profit for her.

“Sometimes you might be paid $20 to go and stay at a hotel. But you’re also getting a hotel stay for two for nothing. You’re eating in their restaurant or bar and they’re paying for it. Yes, there’s your time, but you could be at home in your own bed, or you could be in a luxury hotel, getting room service, meals, a spa treatment, or a massage.”

“I’ll be doing this forever. But don’t expect to quit your day job unless you don’t want to be home very much. You’d have to be on the road all the time. I work it into a couple of days a week. I have a family. I have a husband who is away all day. I want to spend by evenings with him. And I have children. I want to spend time with them.”

For someone who is single and willing to work with 10 or 20 different shopping services, she says, there is money to be made, but that level of mystery shopping will keep away from home for long periods of time.

“They’ll call. We need someone to do this assignment. We know you’re not in the area, but we’ll give you another $15 for gas. Your portfolio gets around, I guess. A (shopping service) phoned me out of the blue and asked if I’d do a job in Hamilton. They said “We’ll pay your mileage, 50 cents a kilometer and a $100 bonus. Count me in.”

“You don’t know anything. The client hires SQM and SQM hires us. You don’t know who you’re working for except that you’re working for SQM.”

Convenience stores, because of their sheer numbers, can be very profitable for mystery shoppers. Monique says since there’s almost one on every corner, shoppers might be limited to doing only six, or perhaps nine, on a given assignment to spread the word around.

“But if you can do six of them in 20 minutes each and they’re close together and pay $10 each, that’s the gravy in this business. But it doesn’t come up all the time”

Next up for Monique, she hopes, is to move to the top of the later to Step Nine.

“That’s air fare and resorts.”

Has her cover ever been blown?

“One day in a department store a clerk asked me if I was a mystery shopper. I said ‘What the hell’s that?’ She told me it was a shopper that came in to see how she did her job, how she took care of customers. We had quite a chat about it. I was shopping her that day, but I didn’t let on. That’s the only time.”

Business staff and regular shoppers alike can all play the game of trying to spot the “secret shopper.” Monique could be any shopper standing beside you in almost any business you patronize in the Peterborough area at virtually any time of the day or night.

Is that Monique two customers ahead of you at the checkout? Chances are you’ll never know for sure.

Print Email