Selected Article
Title People get paid to travel, eat and more
Date Published 09/26/2004
Author Felix Sanchez
Publication Long Beach Press Telegram

There sure are a lot of people out there who love to be told what to do, where to eat and what size bras to wear.

Take Jeri Moore, who lives in south Los Angeles County. Just last Wednesday she was ordered to drink a tall white chocolate mocha at Starbucks, then go to McDonald's and buy two sandwiches one chicken, one beef with fries and two drinks.

On Sunday, Moore left on a trip to Las Vegas with her husband for some fun, relaxation, a little dice throwing. But, oh, Jeri, on your way over to Sin City, we're gonna need you to stop by the Starbucks and California Pizza Kitchen in Terminal One at LAX. And for brunch, forget the buffets, go to the Cheesecake Factory.

It's no better for Steve Griffen of Santa Monica. Griffen's marching orders include stays in high-end hotels and resorts and dining at fine restaurants. Griffen has been to New York and London and soon will be ordered off to Seattle and Santa Fe so he can lounge on a masseuse's table and scavenge the mini-bars.

This past weekend, Griffen was shipped to San Diego. Guess you can't have everything.

So who are these people who gladly will drop what they're doing and, on command, go buy nearly $100 worth of Coca Cola at four different stores, get their hair done at SuperCuts, eat at L'Opera on Pine Ave. or spend a few hours at Ross Dress For Less trying on dresses or bras to make sure the sizes are what they say they are?

They're mystery shoppers, and their numbers are on the rise.

Mystery shoppers are consumers who are recruited to visit a business in secret to eat, drink, buy or request a service so they can make note and file a report on how things went have been around for decades.

The origins are sketchy. Some believe a chain of national gasoline stations first thought of the idea in the 1950s to send workers secretly to other locations to test service performance.

But the real heyday of secret, or mystery, shoppers took off in the 1980s and has continued to grow. Now, with Amazon.com, eBay, BestBuy.com and virtually thousands of Internet Web sites where consumers can buy products, mystery shopping is evolving.

They're watching you

Technology now allows mystery shoppers to wield hidden cameras, microphones or electronic devices to evaluate and record experiences when visiting a store or restaurant. And public agencies are joining a growing number of private businesses and chains who use mystery shoppers.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has decided to use the secret shoppers to pose as travelers to check out how well they are treated, how clean the facilities are, employee attitude, appearance and knowledge at regional airports.

To test housing and discrimination practices, secret shoppers are used to apply for or express interest in an apartment, condominium or home. Shoppers have been used to find out whether video stores are selling R-rated DVDs to underage youth and to evaluate workers on the Professional Golfers Association (PGA) tour.

In the United Kingdom, secret shoppers went to stores for bra fittings and learned that women were getting bad advice about the size they should be wearing.

The heart and soul of mystery shopping remains simple.

How do Starbucks, L'Opera, Coca-Cola, Marie Callender's, Petco, Lucille's BBQ, Office Max, Hof's Hut and thousands of other businesses treat their customers or perform their services? These companies use firms specializing in mystery shoppers to do the evaluations.

Moore, who declined use of her real name for fear of losing work or being identified, has been mystery shopping for three years. She has hit businesses from Long Beach, Seal Beach and other parts of Orange County and Los Angeles counties.

Griffen, who allowed use of his real name but declined to specifically identify locations he's shopped, has secret shopped the same amount of time.

Moore's day of shopping included the stops at Starbucks and McDonald's where she noted how employees interacted with her, whether they offered "up sales" of other products and the quickness in which she was served once she got in line. Moore uses a hidden stopwatch and checks small things like eye contact, greeting and attentiveness.

At the Starbucks in Commerce, Moore quickly took her tall mocha to the car where she used a weight scale and thermometer to measure the coffee's characteristics.

At the McDonald's, her orders were divided between a drive-through and, 15 minutes later, a walk-in visit at the same store. Moore evaluated the cleanliness and whether the correct condiments were put into the bag and how the food tasted.

For the Starbucks and McDonald's assignment, Moore will be reimbursed for the drinks and food, and paid $10 each.

"You don't get rich on this," she said. "What I like about it is the diversity."

Moore said that as she boxed up nearly $100 worth of Coca-Cola she was assigned to buy from Vons, Albertsons and 7-Eleven. Her assignment was to buy liter bottles of caffeine-free Diet Coke, 12-ounce cans of classic Coke and soft drinks made by Coca-Cola. She sent the Coke stash by Fed-Ex to Coca Cola's headquarters in Atlanta.

"I haven't paid for a haircut, a lube and oil change," Moore said of her mystery shopping income. "I prefer doing the fine dining. I'm at an age (64) where I'm not a fast-food diner any more.

The Mystery Shopping Providers Association estimates about 1 million mystery shoppers in the United States, with some companies listing 200,000 to 300,000 in their stable of secret shoppers.

Who uses them?

Retailers retain the services of independent companies to provide mystery shoppers to evaluate their business, said Jeff Hall, president of the North American chapter of the association, and who for the last 15 years has operated his own company, Second To None.

Starbucks, Home Depot, Safeway, Albertsons, many Fortune 500 brand labels and Coca-Cola are big users of mystery shoppers, Hall said.

Each store provides a checklist of exactly what it wants evaluated.

"The primary use of mystery shopping is in brick-and-mortar stores, like restaurants and stores, but a good amount of mystery shopping is now done over the phone and through the Web," Hall said.

Mystery shoppers are mostly female and range in age from 25 to 55. Many of them are college students and retirees looking for supplemental income.

While there are wild stories of the riches, free food and lodging a mystery shopper can rack up, Hall said the expectations of how much money can be made as a secret shopper should be tempered.

"It depends on where you reside and work. In major metropolitan areas, there is a lot more shopping available than you would find in a rural area," Hall said.

Most assignments include going to a nice restaurant for a dinner for two that the shopper is reimbursed for, including expenses for tax and gratuity, as well as a modest stipend.

It is work

But there's a lot of time-consuming work involved, Hall and mystery shoppers interviewed said. To keep their mission secret, shoppers can't be overt in writing down notes at the store. Also, businesses that are specific in what they want observed, which can turn what looks like a relaxing three-day weekend at a luxury spa into hard work.

"I'll check into a hotel, and I'm working," Griffen said . "The hardest part is checking in. I'll have to memorize the entire interaction, with the valet and desk staff, the worker bringing in my luggage. "I have to ask specific questions: 'Where's the nearest coffee shop, restaurant?" And I'll inspect the room for defects, take digital pictures, check out the mini-bar and make sure nothing is expired."

During the stay, Griffen usually has to create a problem with service to check response times and performance. It could involve having a remote control's batteries being dead to being locked out of the room safe or complaining about too much noise.

Secret shoppers either log their observations on paper reports, via computer, or use a telephone system. Those reports will be transcribed.

The reports and accompanying receipts, or proof of payment, are required before any payment or reimbursement is made, which can make the first few times out on an assignment nerve-wracking for some.

"It's very scary the first time I went in on one," Griffen said. "I know that the company I worked for was highly recommended, but the first time you fly to New York and drop $3,000 on a hotel and airfare and put it on a credit card and you're hoping someone is going to take care of it you think, 'Oh God!'"

What about the pay?

Griffen said because he's been self-employed he is used to the wait for reimbursement or pay. But there have been times when companies have disappeared and he wasn't paid.

"In three years, it's happened maybe 13 times," he said. "There's very little monitoring of the industry that's my problem. Really, the only solution we have as shoppers, is if you have a problem with the company, go after them publicly.

The Mystery Shopping association works with mystery-shopping providers, retailers who use secret shoppers and shoppers to help avoid those types of situations, Hall said. The association verifies and authenticates that providers are legitimate businesses, listing about 150 on its Web site that contract mystery shoppers and offers tips to people who want to become secret shoppers.

Consumers should be wary of any company that charges a fee to sign up to become a mystery shopper. Some companies charge $19.95 to $49.95 for a book and promises of a guaranteed job as a mystery shopper, and those should be avoided, Hall said.

"Our position is that the shopper should never have to pay anything up front," Hall said.

In November 2002, the association started a certification program at the request of its members to provide industry-standard education, practices and qualifications. It recently certified its 20,000th mystery shopper.

Moore and Griffen found out about mystery shopping through friends.

"I went to a grand opening of a restaurant in Long Beach (Lucille's), and I ran into some people I knew who lived in south Orange County. I said, 'My God, what are you doing here? She whispered 'I can't tell you,'" Moore recalled.

Later, the friend said she was a mystery shopper evaluating Lucille's.

Cathy Stucker, who started mystery shopping in 1995 and is based in Texas, said technology has made her job more interesting and sped up the demands.

"Shoppers now need to get reports submitted online within 24 hours of the shop, or a lot less," Stucker said. "The faster they get the info, the fresher it is, and the better they can act on it.

She figures a mystery shopper can make about $300 to $500 a month working part-time. With more effort, that figure can approach $1,000.

"There's opportunity but it depends on how far you're willing to drive and shop. It isn't rocket science. It isn't particularly hard work. But it's something you have to take seriously and pay attention to."

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