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License to Shill
Richard Swerdlow describes his past as a "secret shopper."

By Richard Swerdlow

It was a top secret mission.
 
Disguised as a normal person, I took a minute to compose myself before entering the store. I wandered in casually, and the clerk greeted me cheerfully, not noticing anything unusual. Good thing, since I was there to get him fired.
 
Well, not fired exactly, but anything's possible when you're a corporate spy. I'd been sent into this store as a secret shopper. The "secret shopper" is retail urban legend - a seemingly regular customer who is actually working undercover for the store.
 
I didn't think I'd get the job when I filled out the form, but to my surprise, a cryptic email arrived from the chain's headquarters informing me they'd pay me to shop at one of their stores, and report my observations. Instructions to follow. I half expected the email to
end, "Good luck, 007."
 
My first espionage assignment was uneventful. I didn't pack a knife in my shoe, like Lotte Lenya in "From Russia with Love." No karate chops, not a single hot girl in a bikini. After a chat and a purchase, I went to report to headquarters. I'd expected to find the experience kind of a hoot. But instead it left me depressed about corporate America.
 
My most surprising observation? It's hard to be a retail worker. Most are barely scraping by. Half hour for lunch, on their feet all day, snotty demanding customers...they have it tough enough without secret shoppers busting them for not smiling. I felt slightly guilty helping this giant corporation by ratting out the low-paid help. Was I simply a pawn in their diabolical plot for world domination?
 
Stores say secret shoppers ensure quality customer service, a necessity in today's retail environment. As for me, I'm turning in my license to shop. Cool as it was being the man with the golden credit card, my secret agent job left me shaken, not stirred. And my next trip to the mall will be to just buy stuff, not on her majesty's secret service.
 
But then, never say never again.
 
With a Perspective, the name's Swerdlow, Richard Swerdlow.

Richard Swerdlow teaches at Sunset School in San Francisco.

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