Sun, Mar 13, 2005 - Page 12 News List

'Mystery shoppers' act as shoppers' secret agents

These strange but dedicated people can arrive at any shop or department store in the US at any time -- usually armed with nothing more than a thermometer and a portable scale -- to evaluate the businesses anonymously, gauging how well they serve their customers

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , New York

Mystery shopper Chip Cronham has spent the past 10 years traveling the US to ``shop'' for anything that is sold -- from stores and restaurants to million-dollar homes.

PHOTO: NY TIMES

Lillian had already put in a full day's work at a cable company when she hit the streets of Manhattan on a cold January night, heading out on her second job.

Armed with a thermometer and a portable scale, she went to a branch of a well-known coffee chain, not for a caffeine jolt, but for a shopping version of a sneak attack.

Lillian, 29, is a "mystery shopper," hired to evaluate businesses anonymously, gauging how well they serve customers. So seriously does she take her job that she would comment only if her surname and the name of the business she was scrutinizing were not used.

Although mystery shoppers -- also called secret shoppers -- have been around for decades, the business has grown rapidly in recent years. According to the Mystery Shopping Providers Association, a trade group, nearly 700 companies now provide the service.

While mystery shopping is usually a part-time job or hobby, most participants take it very seriously.

"You really have to invest a little bit of time," said Cliff Fill, a headhunter who lives in Marietta, Georgia, and has been a secret shopper for seven years. Fill, 54, said he got into the business because he thought it would make a difference in the way consumers are treated, and he could also take advantage of free meals or entertainment.

"I get to go to some restaurants I wouldn't get to go to, see some movies I don't have to pay for, and it gives me a little extra pocket change," he said.

Shoppers who approach the work as a full-time job say they can make US$2,000 to US$3,000 a month, usually earning US$7 to US$30 a visit, in addition to a stipend to cover purchases.

"You don't get rich as a mystery shopper," said Cathy Stucker, who has written a book on mystery shopping and has a free e-mail course at www.idealady.com.

In recent months, some online marketers have preyed on people interested in secret shopping, appearing to offer money to shop when they are really just trying to sell them goods and services. Stucker and others in the field say there is no reason to pay to become a mystery shopper or to get lists of companies seeking shoppers because the names of many reputable businesses are available on the Internet. One place to find legitimate opportunities is the Web site of the Mystery Shopping Providers Association at www.mysteryshop.org.

Most "shops," as assignments are called, involve rather routine excursions to fast-food restaurants, gas stations, banks or department stores. But in recent years, they have grown to include renting apartments, going to home sales and visiting health care clinics. Stucker said that on one assignment, she was sent to evaluate a hypnotist.

Shoppers are given a list of criteria to check and may even be directed to seek out certain employees or ask specific questions. Once the assignment is completed, they must fill out a form -- from two to more than 20 pages long -- detailing the experience.

It's not uncommon for the shoppers to carry stopwatches so they can be specific about, say, how long it takes to be waited on. Some shoppers use hidden tape recorders to help them remember specific points.

Fill remembered visiting a fast-food restaurant where the two young women working at the counter ignored him while they discussed their weekend dating plans. After a minute and a half, they finally took note of him. "They said, `We'll be done with our conversation in a minute and be with you,'" he said.

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