I'm Paid To Get You Fired: Secrets Of Undercover Store Spies
Even the most mundane worlds have their heroes and villains, and in the retail business, "mystery shoppers" are both. Their job is simple: Go in, buy a bunch of cucumbers and lube, and then tell whichever watchdog group hired them whether the cashier remained professional or giggled and winked the whole time. We talked to Betty, Irving, and Amanda, three mystery shoppers who told us that ...
The Things Mystery Shoppers Measure Are Absurdly Specific
When Irving inspected the Taco Bells which so sorely need inspecting, "I had to carry a scale with me to check the weight of the burritos, make sure they weren't putting too little or too much stuff in them," he recalls. "I also carried a thermometer to check if they were the right temp on the inside."
Taco Bell serves more than a billion burritos a year, so an accidental half-ounce of beef in each one would add up to a staggering beef-mountain, and beef mountains cost money. Money that could be better spent funding the think tank that brought us Doritos Locos.
"Wouldn't it have been easier to do Doritos nachos, using Doritos as chips?"
"Wouldn't it have been ... easier to ... shut up?"
But meticulously measuring your Chalupa does make the mystery shopper look like a crazy person, so Irving had to perform his measurements discreetly and immediately, which meant having to "run to the bathroom to weigh it and check its temp." Fortunately, people at Taco Bell are used to the sight of customers merely touching a Gordita and then sprinting to the toilet.
Mystery shoppers also carry stopwatches to time exactly how many seconds it takes to be greeted and served, all while memorizing more words and figures than an astrophysicist. Well, a crappy astrophysicist, anyway.
"No, I'm not timing you with my phone. I'm looking at, uh, p-porn. Yeah."
"I once shopped a tapas-type place, and I needed to order six tapas at two different times," Amanda explains. "I also needed to order a glass of wine, but have them recommend me one. I had to know the exact name of the wine, which was some fancy French name that I could barely remember, and I had to know the exact time I ordered the tapas and the exact time they came out. I also had to know the exact times the waiter/waitress came over, the exact words she said each time, and keep track of any specials she offered us."
"And the exact amount of spit she hacked into my food."
Hey, if getting paid to drink were fun, they wouldn't call it a job. They would call it a university scholarship.
Mystery Shoppers May Actually Risk Death
On the surface, being a mystery shopper shouldn't be any more dangerous than being an obvious shopper. But once the job is done, some mystery shoppers have to reveal their identity to the tested business. That's like if Batman ended every fight by taking off his mask and handing it to the Joker.
"I just finished an assignment that required me to observe if I had been carded for a mixed drink," Betty recalls. "I hadn't been carded. When this happens, it's always a weird moment for me, because deep down, I know that the employee is most likely to be let go ... On this visit, the manager lacked tact and fired the employee on the spot in front of me."
"The customer told me all about it! That one right there. Next to those steak knives."
Imagine that you're a psychotic asshole, and someone snitches to your boss and costs you your job. How likely is it, on a scale from "berating the barista" to "voting for Trump," that you, a psychotic asshole, won't handle it well? In Betty's case, it was very likely: "When I left the restaurant, I had an angry employee who was wielding a baseball bat waiting for me in the parking lot. The employee then started to swing the bat while yelling obscenities. I calmly removed myself from the situation by going back into the restaurant and asking someone to call the police ... This was the last time I did that type of assignment for that company."
"Can I opt out of the 'seafood' and 'possible homicide' categories?"
And that's why you need the secret identity, Tony Stark.
The Job Can Ruin Your Soul, And Also Possibly Your Linens
They're not all assholes, though. Sometimes, mystery shoppers have to report people for being decent. Irving explains: "There was a cashier at the Disney Land ticket office who said, 'I shouldn't tell you, but Park Hopper tickets are really not worth it.' That was good advice, but the 'script' they're supposed to follow explicitly wanted them to try to upsell to that option. I had to report her. I imagine the Disney people were less than happy that a cashier was saving customers money at their expense. I cannot say for certain, but she probably got in trouble because of me."
"The court of Disney sentences you to 15 rides on It's A Small World."
And if that makes you feel gross inside, don't worry. There's more disgusting outside stuff to focus on. "I used to think all I needed in a hotel were clean linens and no bugs," Betty told us. "But I've seen too much ... I now know that bedspreads and duvets are washed and changed three or four times a year, tops. There is a hotel I stayed at recently that advertised cleaning the bedspread after each guest, but when I smelled it, it definitely did not smell fresh. You should also check the crease in the mattress for bugs or signs of bugs. They like to hide in the edge of the mattress border/decoration ... Finally, don't drink from real glasses. A lot of hotels don't wash them out between guests."
Being a mystery shopper is like putting on those glasses from They Live, only instead of seeing subconscious propaganda, you bear witness to a secret world of skid marks and bedbugs.
Mystery Shoppers Are Even Used At Funeral Homes
Mystery shoppers investigate all kinds of businesses. All kinds. When Betty investigates funeral parlors, "I sometimes portray a person with a chronic disease, a family member with a disease, or a person who wants to prepare their end-of-life 'stuff' for a will or the like."
It might seem like a cruel prank, but this is a necessary service. For example, on one assignment, "I said I was interested in learning more about cremation. After receiving the information, I waited for a followup call. My job was to measure the usefulness of the followup information, the presentation/consultation itself, etc." If you get a bad taco, you're probably going to forget about it in 24-78 hours, but bad service at a funeral parlor is a lot more damaging.
"Eh, these all rot in the ground the same way."
The precise demands of clients go from extremely silly to downright poignant. "During another assignment," Betty says, "I was to go to a grave site and take a picture to make sure flower delivery had been placed." Checking up to make sure the dead are properly honored is a pretty heavy responsibility. We'd probably ask to be reassigned to Chalupa duty.
Cezary Jan Strusiewicz is a Cracked columnist, interviewer, and editor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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