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Tales of the Secret Shopper

Updated on January 2, 2021
Liz Woodward profile image

Liz has been a secret shopper for the last year and has a decade of retail work experience.

How I got started

My New Year's resolution for 2020 was to make a little extra money and to have some fun. Since I work in a salaried position, I knew the money part wasn't as simple as putting in some extra hours at the office, so I started looking around online. I looked at Craig's List and and other places where people would find gigs. I didn't want to drive Uber, and I don't have an extra room to rent out with Airbnb. What could I do that would fit my schedule and talents? Then, I started seeing listings for secret shoppers.

I'd considered secret shopping in the past, and I've heard that many programs are scams. I took some simple steps like setting up an email address specifically for the secret shopping programs, did some research for some good apps and websites, and then I jumped in.

The Mattress Shop or The Tale of Two Salesmen

Some shop tasks require shoppers to interact with salespeople to see if they are doing everything their company requires. This could include introducing themselves to customers with a proper greeting, advising of current promotions, asking customers to upgrade beyond their original requests, and closing the sale.

In January, I signed up for some shops at some different locations for a local mattress store. This was early in my secret shopping career, so although I had worked in retail for years and figured I would know what to expect out of a sales spiel, I had no idea what I was getting into.

I had picked a couple of locations that were relatively close to my route home so that I wasn't wasting my time running all over the place. Being January in Chicago, it was cold, and piles of snow were everywhere. I had printed out my instructions of what to look for, and I had my phone ready with my camera to take the requested pictures and an audio recorder because I was going to be extra prepared with a recording of my shop so that I wouldn't miss any details.

I walked into the first mattress store, and the salesperson jumped up from behind his desk and ran to greet me. There were no other customers, so we were alone in the store. I gave him my story about looking for a new mattress, and he proceeded to guide me around the store, asking me to try out the different mattresses. A Goldilocks-style setup was used to determine whether customers would like soft, firm, or somewhere in the middle. I hemmed and hawed about soft versus firm and quilted top versus foam mattresses, and when I got the info I thought I required to submit my report, I said I needed to check with my husband for his opinion. At this point, the salesman latched on like a tick. He pushed about the current sale that was ending tomorrow. He pulled up competitor websites on his computer to show me how his store really was cheaper. He told me about their return policy in case I wanted to buy without my husband and deal with the consequences later. He finally broke out a binder and jewelry box with all of his awards and medals and took me on a walk down memory lane of all of his sales accomplishments from the last twenty years. By the time I left, what probably should have taken fifteen or twenty minutes had taken forty-five.

The next store was the complete opposite. When I walked in, the salesman was sitting behind his desk. I started walking around aimlessly, and he said hello from the desk without getting up. He asked what I was looking for, and the only thing I could think to answer was, "Umm... A mattress."

He finally stood and pointed to the Goldilocks setup and told me to try out the beds to figure out how firm I like my mattress. I proceeded to sit and lie down as I envisioned someone looking to purchase a mattress might, and he walked away to wander the sales floor.

When I proclaimed that I had figured out my firmness, he pointed to a region of the store and explained the color-coded signs so that I knew which mattresses I should be looking at. At this point, he returned to his desk and sat back down while I wove my way through the displays. I sat; I bounced; I laid prone; I coughed or cleared my throat to remind him that I was still there. He did not come back or ask if I needed anything. After giving him fifteen minutes to even attempt some sort of sales pitch, I headed for the exit. I was probably five steps away from the door when he finally asked if I had questions.

These salesmen, much like mattresses and Goldilocks' experience, were different ends of a spectrum. One was too soft and one was too firm. Unlike Goldilocks, I hadn't found one that was just right.

The Restaurant Shop or How I Lost My Lunch

Restaurant shops are some of my favorite because eating is something I would be doing anyway, and who wouldn't like a free meal and maybe even to be paid on top of the free food?

One afternoon, I had a mission to visit a burger place. While there, I was to evaluate the order taking process, watch the food preparation, and check the cleanliness. The dining room looked fine. I didn't see garbage around or bugs anywhere. The food was prepared quickly, so I got to enjoy my yummy burger and fries without a problem. When I was done gorging myself on high-calorie food, I went to the washroom to wash my hands and check the facilities. I turned on the light and was greeted by the stomach-churning sight of what looked like a loogie in the sink. Part of any survey is that if there is a complaint, it must be documented with picture proof. I had to lean into the sink with my phone to capture the less than appetizing image of someone's mucus caught in the sink's mesh filter.

After that experience, I always try to visit the bathroom at the beginning of any secret shop.

Still shopping

Despite these less than stellar experiences, I am still secret shopping, although I have learned to be a little more selective about accepting some of the assignments I take. Most are just run-of-the-mill store or restaurant visits, but occasionally I get a gem like one of these. Maybe I'll tell you about it again sometime.

Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to go put on my disguise so that I can pretend to shop for a car.

What are some of your shopping horror stories?

Leave a comment below!

© 2021 Liz Woodward


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    • Happymommy2520 profile image


      3 weeks ago from East Coast

      Great article. I always heard of secret shopping and was offered a few gigs. Now I have more info on it!


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