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  Newspaper Articles: Secret Agent: They're paid to visit restaurants and markets, then evaluate service

Secret Agent: They're paid to visit restaurants and markets, then evaluate service

Saturday, January 14, 2006

They eat at restaurants and fast-food chains. They get oil changes, go bowling, sign up for cell phone service and apply for home loans.

Some talk about their experiences, but won't give their names. None will show their face to the camera.

They say they look like you and me, but they get paid to shop.

Mystery or "secret" shoppers visit these businesses just like any ordinary customer. But they evaluate every detail of their shopping experience without revealing their identity.

And many say the good ones take their job as seriously as any CIA operative.

Sure, it's rare to earn a decent living at it, but you can get a free meal or a few bucks to objectively recount the shopping experience.

"We cover just about any industry. You name it, we do it," said Tony Yorba, vice president of National Shopping Service, which has been in business since 1972 and has more than 200,000 shoppers registered.

With its fast-growing communities, the Inland region is one of the company's "hot spots," he said.

Between 600 and 1,000 companies worldwide provide mystery shoppers to thousands of businesses. The Mystery Shopping Providers Association -- the trade organization established in 1998 that has 200 member companies worldwide -- conducted studies in 2004 that say the industry generated about $600 million in revenues, an 11 percent increase from 2003.

"We believe it's even bigger now, but won't know until we do more research," said John Swinburn, the group's executive director. "The Internet has certainly helped make it easier for people to become mystery shoppers and file their reports."

Some companies, such as Jack in the Box, have discontinued mystery shopping programs in favor of asking customers to fill out satisfaction questionnaires.

Swinburn says both are necessary, as customers who are either extremely happy or angry about the service are most likely to take the time to respond to them.

Linda Barron, a secret shopper who lives in Riverside, said it's crucial to give an unbiased report of the shopping experience.

"You wouldn't say 'They were nice,' but you would say, 'They smiled and repeated your order back to you.' "

It's important for these shoppers to blend in. "Anyone who was found out would get fired," former mystery shopper Claire Johnson said.

Before moving to Glen Ivy, she worked for Safeway supermarkets for five years as a mystery shopper, earning $10.25 an hour plus mileage reimbursement for the part-time job, sometimes billing up to $160 per day.

The shopper must remember every detail of the shop without conspicuously taking notes. A questionnaire with multiple choice and narrative is created to fit the specifications of the company requesting the shop.

"Shoppers should expect that there are deadlines, and time constraints," said Michele Jowdy, an account supervisor with DSG, a Santa Ana-based company that's placed mystery shoppers for 25 years. "And follow instructions to a T."

It can be a bit tricky.

"On occasion, we'll have mystery shoppers who get found because store security is watching them and may find their observation to be a bit suspicious, especially on an assignment where the shopper is expected to take a picture of a display," Yorba said.

Pay to Play

Shop till you drop, but don't expect to get rich.

"Oh, it's really just a hobby for me," said Dawn Saenz of Riverside, who started mystery shopping after many customer service experiences that made her feel "bummed out."

Payment for mystery shops range from a reimbursement of a meal or purchase to a small stipend, usually between $5 and $25, sometimes more.

It typically takes 40 to 60 days to get reimbursed and or paid, so shoppers initially must be willing to spend their own money for assignments.

"I got to go to a fancy restaurant and spend $160 on the meal plus a $20 payment," said Mallory Truman, of Palm Desert. "But it took 110 days to get paid, so by the time I paid the finance charges on my credit card, it wasn't worth it."

Because most shoppers are independent contractors, they register with as many Web sites as they can. All of them warn that no legitimate site will charge people to register.

Shoppers can also get gold certified through the MSPA, which provides one-day, $99 training seminars. They can get a lesser, silver certification online for $15.
For $45, Riverside Community College offers a one-day course "How To Be a Mystery Shopper," which mystery shopper Sandra Garner will teach on April 1.

"When they go online, they don't have any concept of what's involved," Garner said. "I give them tools to make their job easier."

While learning as much as you can about the industry can be beneficial, Swinburn stresses you don't have to pay to become a mystery shopper.

"There are far more mystery shops being done than there are certified mystery shoppers to do them," he said.

None of the shoppers interviewed is certified, and they say they still get plenty of assignments.

Fries With That?

Bob Bococq, 61, of Murrieta, was a quality-assurance engineer for 35 years and has been mystery shopping for 20 years, primarily evaluating fast food.

"I have to make sure they try to up-sell me to a bigger size or combo meal," he said.
All 13,700 McDonald's in the United States get shopped several times by several different shoppers, both in-store and the drive-through window.

"Our mystery shop program is managed by two outside companies. All are unannounced and very thorough," spokesman Bill Whitman said.

Not all companies think mystery shoppers are the most effective way to maximize customer service.

Inland Empire-based Stater Bros. supermarkets conducts an "Excellence in Service" program. It hires an outside firm to find and reward Stater employees who go out of their way to give great service, giving them gifts and prizes.

"We do not have a mystery shopper program," Stater Bros. chairman Jack Brown said. "No one is hiding behind the watermelons, spying on employees."

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