Born to be a mystery shopper

Steve Schirra

Recently, I’ve been seeing ads requesting “mystery shoppers” that feature a young, attractive redhead with a shopping bag, walking into her bright future of getting paid to discreetly shop.

If you’ve never heard of mystery shoppers, they’re the people that are paid to enter stores and do various “undercover” tasks for the corporate office. This is mostly to make sure that employees are doing their jobs the way they are supposed to.

This made me reflect on my own covert shopping experiences.

I began my stint as a mystery shopper at 19 by testing tobacco compliance for a national gas station chain. Basically, I had to walk in and ask for cigarettes and see if they IDed me. If they demanded identification, I had to tell them I “left it at home” and see if they would still make the sale. It was the mystery shopping equivalent to “the dog ate my homework,” and I felt almost guilty for what I was about to do. I had to keep reminding myself that I wasn’t breaking any laws and that I was doing this for cold, hard cash.

I signed up for three different locations with the promise of the mystery shopping pot o’ gold – $24 – waiting for me at the other side of my deceit.

Two of the employees did what they were supposed to, telling me they weren’t allowed to make the sale without an ID. The third guy, however, sold me the cigarettes.

As he slowly slid the wrapped box of Marlboros at me, I felt like running in the opposite direction. Surely he wanted to ask me if I was, say, a 15-year-old boy who just looked old for his age. Or perhaps a 15-year-old girl with an estrogen deficiency – anything. But he didn’t ask. And I didn’t tell.

I felt bad for the guy, since I had to identify the employee in my report to get my moolah. I kept wondering if he would get fired because I just had to go out and make a quick and easy $24. I imagined him living in a cardboard box, with hundreds – if not tens – of starving children, crying out for the food that could only come from his paltry gas-station paycheck.

And on the wall of his box would be a photograph of me, and he would tell his children, “See that guy? He ruined us. All for $8.”

My friend suggested I lie and say he didn’t sell me cigarettes, and I could still get paid.

“Nah,” I said. “I have integrity as a mystery shopper.”

I’ve made it a personal rule of mine to try my hardest at whatever I do – be it working for this newspaper or contributing to the downfall of a teenage gas station attendant. One has to have a good work ethic to succeed in this dog-eat-dog world.

As we drove off down the street to the next gas station, my friend said, “You know, your paycheck from this is dirty money.”

At least I got a free pack of cigarettes.

Steve Schirra is a soon-to-be senior English major and the Forum editor for the Daily Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected].