Susie Q. (not her real name) has been reviewing hotels, restaurants, and retailers anonymously for about six years. She works for several market research companies, such as Sinclair Customer Metrics, to whom she reports her findings after posing as an everyday customer and testing out products and services. She has lived in San Antonio for more than 25 years.
It’s mystery shopper lingo to call your visit a “shop,” whether it’s retail or dinner or a hotel. So it’s a “dinner shop” or a “hotel shop.” I started out doing small and simple shops, like with video rental stores, rental storage units, and shipping outlet stores. Then it was fast food and family dining, and nowadays I get assigned hotels and upscale restaurants—there are certain ones in town I’m always excited about. I’ve also done specialty shoe stores and tanning salons.
I have a pet store shop coming up, where I’ll be rating my interaction with someone on the floor as well as with somebody in the grooming salon. It’s not like I have to buy a hamster, but I do have to know what scenario I’m creating. In this case my scenario is that I have a poodle, which, of course, I don’t. I have no dog at all, but I’m getting pretty good at faking this stuff. I need to know what a poodle weighs, for example, or at least know how to play the dumb blonde: “Gosh, I don’t know. She’s about this big.”
I enjoy the role-playing. I grew up being honest and not telling lies, so in the beginning there were times when I remember thinking, “I don’t know if I can do this. This is just not me to say this.” But then I realized that it is not about lying. This is about playing a role. If I go to a retail store, for example, I may be looking to buy something for a grandchild, maybe an outfit. You give the salesperson a little bit to work with and hope they run with it, like, “So is this for a boy or a girl?” I think my age is an advantage, because people don’t seem to suspect that I’m a mystery shopper.
It is important to read and study the report you’re expected to complete afterward, so you know exactly what to look for. I work for about twenty different companies throughout the year, and each time I’ll study their online forms beforehand to know what kind of cheat notes to make for myself. I write on Post-its and sneak them in and out of my purse so I know what I’m doing. At restaurants, I’ll also take notes under the table: what time we arrived, a description of the server. I have a little pad and pen, and I’d bet you a million bucks that no one has ever seen them. If I feel that I need to be writing more and don’t want to be discovered, I’ll excuse myself and go to the ladies’ room. It’s easy to spend time in there scribbling things down. Of course, the worst is if you’re in the stall and there are women waiting and you’re in there for a while. I always think to myself, “I can’t help it. I’m sorry. I have to do this.”
Most of the time, my husband comes with me. It helps to have a second pair of eyes, like to get the host’s name or to notice whether she’s greeted us in thirty seconds. Did our server suggest a specific appetizer or did he just say, “Do you want an appetizer?” And the timing of things. There’s nothing worse than when you’re not done with your salad and here comes the entrée. Most companies naturally want you both to order something different, so sometimes we fight over that. I’ll say, “Look, I’m the shopper. I will get the filet, and you get the chicken.”
With a hotel shop, it all starts with the phone reservation. You judge the timing—do they answer on the first, second, third ring?—and how courteous they are: Do they call you by name? Do they ask about your preferences? Once you arrive, there are at least ten interactions you rate: with the valet, the bellhop, the receptionist, the maintenance crew, room service, the spa visit, and dinner, breakfast, and lunch. I’ll check the towels, the washcloths, the toilet paper, note whether the bed is turned down. You hear stories nowadays about people using black lights to check the bedspreads and that sort of thing, but I don’t go into that kind of detail. I pay more attention to the service. You’re looking for the staff to personalize the experience.
One time I had to report on a maintenance problem, so we unscrewed a lightbulb and then called down to say, “The light is just not coming on.” Another time we hid the TV remote and called to say our room didn’t have one. Of course, they brought up another one. You’re watching for their expediency and their courtesy in doing it without making you feel stupid. There was also a security issue I had to do. I had to leave my key in my room, lock myself out, and not have any picture ID with me. So I went to the front desk, and when they asked for my ID, I said, “That’s in my room too, sorry.” They had a female security guard walk me to my room so I could show her my ID. I thought that was very good, given the things you hear about hotel security these days.
There’s been maybe one time that my cover was blown. It was at a restaurant, and my husband and I both said, “I think they might have pegged us.” It was because I had to order not just regular water but something like San Pellegrino, and they didn’t have any. Well, the manager himself came to the table and apologized. I don’t know, I may be wrong. I just had the feeling. I try so hard to be anonymous: Make small talk, but not too much; don’t ask too many questions; don’t be so friendly that you’re obvious.
I’m glad to set people straight on how glamorous this job sounds, because the truth is, it’s a lot of work. You’re always on, always noting every detail. Some nights we’ll get back home at eight o’clock and I don’t get to bed till midnight, because I want to submit my report while the memory is fresh. So I’ll be online for at least an hour or two. And if I figured out hourly what I was paid, it would be pennies. A recent dinner shop was covered up to a certain amount of the meal plus an $8 fee for me. On a resort shop I just did, I got $25 plus expenses. But it’s not about the money. It’s about doing what I enjoy.