The Secret Shopper

[r]Image by Imp Kerr,
original photo by John Dominis[/r]


When we talk about surveillance, we make a connection, almost automatically, between surveillance and crime, and another between surveillance and technology: The CCTV camera capturing the masked robber, the bank manager monitoring every inch of his vault for signs of intrusion, the giant NSA black site in Utah, designed to store indefinitely all the data that travels across American wires and through American airspace.  Whether James Bond–glamorous or 1984-terrifying, surveillance is high-tech and polices the illicit.

These intuitive connections are reflected in the fact that, when someone refers to Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, they are almost always talking about the prisons he designed. And while Foucault wouldn’t have us forget that Bentham also designed panoptic factories, hospitals, schools, and mental institutions, these all still follow after the form of the prison, which is where the power differential is the starkest. Wardens, however, need to watch prisoners much less closely than the capitalists looking to squeeze out every dollar need to watch those at work in their stores. As long as workers are forced to smile, politely greet customers, and point them toward a special deal, capital will need to send out mystery shoppers to keep them in line.

Mystery shoppers spy in retail stores, restaurants, movie theaters, banks, hospitals, bars, supermarkets, churches, doctors’ offices, public transit systems, gas stations, mechanics shops, gyms, funeral homes, universities — in short, anywhere the public is treated as a “customer.” Marketing firms hire “mystery worshippers” who pose as first-time congregants to evaluate church cleanliness, friendliness, and godliness. Mentally healthy people complain to psychiatrists of fake symptoms while carefully comparing the doctor’s behavior against a checklist. Last summer, a congressional scuffle over the federal government’s plan to send out elderly mystery patients made headlines, and while the measure ultimately failed, the U.S. has helped Pakistan deploy mystery shoppers in order to combat tax evasion.

In a neoliberal society where service is a commodity, consumer choice is hailed as civil liberty, and every social relationship is understood as a transaction between provider and customer, mystery shoppers are deployed basically everywhere. These are not well-paid agents stalking casino floors for criminal masterminds. Mystery shoppers are workaday spies, moms cruising the mall with an eye to shelf organization and timely welcome greetings.  They are the front-line grunts in corporate espionage, the preferred “objective parties” for internal corporate-performance evaluation and data gatherers for marketing firms. All in all, mystery shopping is a $1.5 billion industry employing 1.5 million people worldwide.

And yet, there is almost no public knowledge of the mystery-shopping trade. If you’re not one of the millions of retail employees regularly surveilled by contractors hired to catch you out, or one of the million and a half doing the spying, you could be forgiven for not knowing just how serious a business mystery shopping is. What academic work has been done on mystery shopping tends to be industry specific, evaluating its efficacy rather than its sociological impact. Mystery shoppers pop up from time to time in the news, but usually in relation to a bank-account-phishing scam connected to fake mystery shopping jobs only a little more sophisticated than the Nigerian-prince email. And the books about mystery shopping are almost exclusively aspirational: The Mystery Shopper’s Manual: How to Get Paid to Shop in Your Favorite Stores, Eat in Your Favorite Restaurants, and More!

The hard work of making sure every chain store in the country is more or less the same follows a fairly simple process: Mystery shoppers sign up for each job separately through a mystery-shopping company (MSC), staffing agencies that corporations hire to provide retail spies. The MSCs’ names go from totally banal (Service Excellence Group Inc.; Customer 1st) to the more insidiously corporate (Statopex; Confero) to the accidentally Maoist (Shoppers Critique International). Each job, called a “shop,” is a onetime, one-task contract between the mystery shopper and the MSC. Once mystery shoppers agree to do a shop, they enter the store and follow the instructions they are given (to make a purchase, or return an item, or ask a series of questions, etc.), all the while carefully monitoring and remembering conditions (not writing them down; writing things down is a dead giveaway) and pretending to be a normal customer. This last bit is important — if any employees at the retail site figure out they’re being mystery-shopped, the MSC can and will deny the mystery shopper payment for that shop.

Who hires mystery shopper services? Evidence provided by mystery shoppers has been upheld as impartial by judges, so they are sometimes used by corporate-law firms to prove contentious points in large cases. Marketing firms also use mystery shoppers. “Eric,” an account associate that I interviewed, currently manages a marketing campaign for a major beer distributor  — we’ll call it Buzz Beer. His company sends mystery shoppers into bars where Buzz Beer sells at high volume to take notes on how prominently displayed Buzz advertising is, how well the bartender pours, and whether the Buzz beer was served in a Buzz-branded glass. They measure the temperature of the beer and then fill all of this information in on a smartphone app (owning a smartphone is a prerequisite for this particular shop,) which automatically processes the data and turns it into a “Buzz Score” for Eric. After a round of shops is compiled in a market he’s working in, Eric then tells the owners their Buzz Scores and promises that the bars with the highest score improvement in subsequent mystery-drinker evaluations will get invited to Buzz parties and get lots of branded swag. It’s a win-win, although of course the bar never agreed to play this game.

Mystery shoppers are paid a flat fee, on a shop-by-shop basis,  frequently $10 to $20. Usually, but not always, they are reimbursed for the products or meals purchased. It helps for aspiring mystery shoppers to have an eye for detail: the questionnaires they must submit are often pages long and can involve dozens of highly specific questions. Sometimes mystery shoppers are asked to do something like check that all the clothes in a store are the size it says on their hangers without buying anything, or videotape an entire dental exam without getting noticed. More often they are tasked with making sure certain brand names are visible in enough places or monitoring if the cashier is pushing the right promotions, often checking what clerks say against the exact language they are expected to have memorized that week. Mystery shoppers at restaurants often need a thermometer to test food temperatures, while other companies require shoppers to carry a stopwatch so they can measure the time (to the second!) it takes them to be greeted.

As it works out, almost no one can make a living mystery shopping. For one thing, it’s on the mystery shopper to sign up for each job: the MSCs guarantee no steady work to any shoppers; instead they give would-be shoppers access to what is basically an online bulletin board (often after a brief training and vetting period). Jobs are posted and claimed constantly, meaning the shopper has to spend a good deal of time online, especially at the beginning of each month, to stay shopping consistently. Each shop usually has a specific day or week when it needs to be completed to be valid, and reports almost always need to be turned in within 24 hours of completion. Since each shop applies only to a specific store, you’d have to be remarkably organized or live in a very dense urban area to do more than four or five shops in a day. Mystery shoppers are not paid hourly and are rarely reimbursed for travel expenditures. And, of course, if their report is deemed inadequate — they bought the wrong shirt, say, or didn’t fill out the form correctly or got made by an employee — no pay.

Mystery shopping is precarious, casualized contract labor taken to an extreme. As a result, mystery shoppers tend to have another form of income. Predominantly middle (or lower-middle) class people, mystery shoppers are frequently stay-at-home moms looking to supplement their spouses’ income, or part-time workers hoping to enjoy some of the smaller luxuries, like eating out, without worrying about expense. Many retirees do it to earn extra cash while staying busy and mentally sharp, and, less frequently, so do young people for whom a little money goes a long way. Shoppers on message boards and in interviews I conducted describe mystery shopping as something between a part-time job and a hobby. In short, mystery shoppers are mostly people traditionally considered to be outside the workforce.

Most often, mystery shoppers are hired by companies to do internal audits: to monitor the affective labor of employees in a way that managers, whose presence over the workers’ shoulders changes their behavior, cannot. While the existence of the MSC produces the appearance of an ethical double-blind situation — the mystery shopper doesn’t technically know who she’s doing surveillance for and the corporation that hired her doesn’t know her identity — in practice it’s usually pretty obvious who a shopper is really working for. Does your questionnaire ask mostly about Levis branding in the clothing section, or how many times the greeter smiles at you before coming over to help?

You also end up with some pretty nasty class dynamics: upper-middle-class execs hire middle-class retirees and moms to do intricate surveillance on minimum-wage-or-near employees for pennies on the dollar. But just like people doing viral marketing in their social networks for minimal pay because it’s “fun,” this jailer-like spying on behalf of management is described through the narratives of choice, pleasure, and freedom that are always used to justify precarious labor. “You are free to turn down any job that doesn’t interest you,” promises “You are always free to take off as much time as you want — whenever you want”.


Why have mystery shoppers become so necessary to corporations? The trend seems, on its face, a reaction to cashier intransigence: subterfuge designed to counter the frowns of the surly stock boy. Witness claims made by mystery-shopper providers, such as this one from Customer Feedback LLC: “96% of dissatisfied customers do not complain directly and 91% will NEVER come back! 68% of the customers who quit your business do so simply because of an attitude of indifference by your staff!” The numbers are questionable, but the idea that competition between retailers selling the same products at basically the same prices hinges on the friendliness of the staff seems commonplace, almost obvious. So what to do about that grumpy minimum wager?

First, it will help to understand what makes her so grumpy in the first place. She certainly knows what affective labor is expected of her. Is it possible that her profit-eating grumpiness is intentional, a form of sabotage? As Mario Tronti and other “autonomist” Marxists have argued, entrepreneurs and capitalists don’t drive innovation and technological change top-down but instead react to workers’ ever-shifting modes of resistance to exploitation. Tronti argues that working-class demands draw their power in being expressed as “refusal,” acts through which employees damage their bosses’ profit margins and stifle their production process. Most obviously, refusal manifests as a strike — total work refusal — but it also appears as sabotage, slow-downs, workplace theft, taking extra breaks, making breaks take longer, etc., etc.

Short of a general strike and total revolution, worker refusal is always in the process of being recuperated by capital, necessitating new forms of resistance. In “The Strategy of Refusal” Tronti writes, “The platforms of demands which workers have for decades presented to the capitalists have had — and could only have had — one result: the improvement of exploitation. Better conditions of life for the workers were not separable from greater economic development of capitalism.” Capitalism assimilates worker demands and attempts to transform them into new bases for further exploitation. Workers in turn develop new demands, new modes of refusal.

In this light, much of the neoliberal turn following the upheavals of the 1960s and ’70s can be understood as a way of rehabilitating and co-opting worker demands. Women are brought into the workforce but only to keep real wages stagnant and normalize two-income households. De jure segregation against African Americans is ended, while de facto segregation emerges in the “war on drugs” and its horrifying levels of incarceration and police violence. More “creative work” is offered by the rise of knowledge labor, but at the expense of generalized precarity and the transformation of all creativity into work, via social networking, cultural signifying, and/or constant self-marketing. Industrial wages in the Global North are kept at middle class levels, but most industrial jobs are globalized and shifted to developing economies, replaced by nonunion wage labor in service and distribution. College education is made available to all — and becomes a form of debt peonage.

But these transformations also change the shape of refusal. If much of the working class in the West is now positioned at the points of consumption and distribution as waiters, gas-station attendants, or cashiers, then it is there that demands-as-refusals reappear. Rudeness to customers; smile and small-talk boycotts; operating cash registers, scanners, and credit-card machines inefficiently; talking incessantly to coworkers; feigning ignorance of the store layout; staging lethargic price checks or cleanup and restocking go-slows; training new hires poorly; and, of course, stealing goods and money from the store are all forms of refusal and class struggle.

Because these forms of refusal are performed in public rather than on the shopfloor and are often targeted at consumers (themselves often working class) rather than against machines or managers, they can be antisocial and alienating in their own right. But while victimized customers might think certain employees are unusually rude, ignorant, or lazy, these behaviors are too widespread to be explained as a matter of bad apples. Anyone who has worked retail can tell you about the despair and hatred of the customer that develops over time. I worked for many years in movie theaters, and the amount of garbage people leave strewn in the narrow rows between seats (where you inevitably bang your knees and occasionally your forehead as you clean) is so mind-boggling, it seems malicious. I began to preemptively loathe customers just for buying popcorn, knowing that after making, packaging, and selling it to them, I would, in two hours, have to pick the remainder of it up off the floor — a filthy and humiliating task reserved for society’s most poorly paid workers (and, in the patriarchal home, women).

How can you make sure an employee doesn’t express that loathing and scare off a customer? One good way is making her expect that every next customer could be a mystery shopper and that a bad shop could get her fired. MSCs insist that their services should be used only for incentive programs and that punishment is an inappropriate use of mystery-shopper data. In a blog post titled “Misuse of Mystery Shopping Scores” on the Mystery Shopping Providers Association website, Christopher Warzynski argues that firing an employee for a low shopping score is inappropriate. It’s worth quoting at length:

In some cases, poor performance indicates a need to correct the training regimen that failed to effectively convey management’s expectations to staff. But it is NOt appropriate for a company to terminate the employment of a staff member solely on the basis of a low score on a mystery shopping report. The underlying premise of mystery shopping is measurement: measurement to ensure consistency in achieving a specific level of performance, consistency in delivering a specific experience to the customer, consistency in compliance with company policies and procedural expectations. Consistency.

I mostly take Warzynski at his word here, and I love that fetishistic repetition of consistency. He seems genuinely appalled that people use his fine consistency metrics for something as unpleasant as firing workers. However, his claim earlier in the blog post that he’s heard of only a few such cases rings false when you look at the website of one of the MSPA’s member organizations, Northwest Loss Prevention Consultants (NLPC). In bright neon-green text their site declares, “What You Don’t Know CAN Hurt You! Companies lose billions of dollars every year simply because of: employee behavior, lousy customer service, employee theft.” The internet is full of stories about retail and restaurant chains with a policy like Applebee’s, where two bad mystery shops will get you fired. And when NLPC offers to “run background checks to ensure you’re hiring the right employees,” they’re probably not checking to see if your electronics salesman was an eagle scout in high school so you can incentivize him accordingly.

This ambivalence runs through mystery-shopper message boards as well. A comment from “Wendy M” to a worker complaining about being fired after a bad shop report typifies the sort of response mystery shoppers give:

Mystery shoppers are trained to believe that they’re doing the store owner a service by providing an evaluation of the store, so that the store can provide the best service possible. They are hired by the stores themselves.

You lost your job because you probably provided bad service. So, the person most responsible is you — not the mystery shopper. However, it does suck to lose your job and i can relate that working retail sucks. Sorry.

Mystery shoppers know they are getting people fired, and while one shopper I interviewed refused to give bad scores to workers as a form of solidarity, he had worked as one for only a brief time. More regular shoppers were much less reticent. Although the idea of getting workers in trouble upset them, they tended to join Warzynski in blaming store managers for misusing their work. Most mystery shoppers tend to be honest, even earnest, in their reports, which, for a job partially taken up for the “fun” of stealth and duplicity, points to the real perversity of the job.

What this devotion to the task reveals is their collusion with the bosses. Mystery shoppers are miniature thought police, affective pinkertons, mercenary management to whom real management outsources the legwork of everyday psychic control. They are sent in to break the avenues of refusal available to workers, to enforce the arbitrary standards dreamed up by marketers, bureaucrats, and MBAs that so deaden the experience of everyday life under late capitalism. And to top it all off, they’re class traitors, identifying with and working for management against their class cohort. All just for a little extra cash for the weekend.

Producing identification with the bosses; smashing labor; and making solidarity difficult through contract labor, precarity, and remote working are key features of neoliberal workplace organization. But central to this vision, too, is workplace surveillance. Jay Gould, ninth richest man in American history, railroad speculator, and widely despised robber baron, famously remarked upon the hiring of strikebreakers, “I can hire one-half of the working class to kill the other half.” Neoliberalism allows for the return of the robber barons by producing the technologies and techniques to replace Gould’s “kill” with “watch.” Heightened workplace surveillance helps build a workplace where no time is wasted, where all effort is put directly into the production of the bosses’ product. But it transforms more than just the bottom line.

The threat of the ever-present spy, the fear that the woman who forgot her ID in the car but swears she’s 18 is actually a scab employed by your boss, means you trust no one, expecting them all to be against you, out to catch you breaking management’s rules, which you now enforce with paranoiac efficiency. Surveillance, ultimately, isn’t about stopping crime. It’s about making police.