Selected Article
Title Shopping Sleuth
Date Published 03/14/2004
Author Melanie Lasoff Levs
Publication Washington Post

FREEBIES: I work full time as a fundraiser for a nonprofit. But three and a half years ago, I was reading a magazine and came across a little blurb on mystery shopping. I saw the word "free," and of course everyone gravitates toward that! So I checked out some Web sites mentioned and applied to the Service Excellence Group ( in Reston. They eventually hired me to shop a few times a month and report back what I found to the company's owners or managers.

SHOP TALK: Mystery shoppers are consumer watchdogs; we go in and make sure things are as they should be. I've done a whole bunch of businesses -- jewelry stores, mall food courts. For each one, I fill out a form about my experience: how the employees treated me, if I had to wait long to be helped or spoken to. With the food court, they asked me to say if I felt I was getting a good value. For dry cleaning, I have to make a phone call pre- or post-visit and write down exactly how the employee answers the phone. I get very detailed.

HOW IT WORKS: Everything is done by e-mail. In a month, they might send six or seven assignments I can take or not, depending on my schedule. I report to SEG, then they read my form and pass it back to the business that hired us. Payment ends up being a wash. With the food court, I'd get $7 and end up paying that for the meal. With dry cleaning, they give you a discount card, so it can be a partial reimbursement or free.

BETTER BUSINESS: I never feel bad about giving people bad reviews. That's what we're supposed to be doing -- looking out for bad service. Besides, it hurts customers overall when people have been treated poorly and don't say anything. If you're not satisfied with a product or service, you have a right to complain.

FROM NAUGHTY TO NICE: I had a huge problem with one of my first dry cleaners. A very expensive raincoat needed special attention -- the arms and cuffs were dingy, and some scuff marks needed to be removed. I pointed out each one and they stuck bright orange stickers on them, but when I went back, everything I'd requested was disregarded. The owner was curt and rude. He said, "I'm sorry, we can't get every stain out." I gave a horrible report. A few times later, I did notice that they were nicer and better with my clothes. As told to Melanie Lasoff Levs