The Secret Shopper Affair
Before I became a full-time writer, I worked as a reporter and investigative journalist for the BBC. My work took me from the zoos of South East Asia, to the bus services of East Sussex. Glamorous it was not, but it did involve wearing a secret camera and pretending to be someone I wasn’t…
I’d always wanted to use my experiences in a novel, but there’s a strong feeling in publishing that books about journalists are hard to sell, because the public are so distrustful of reporters. So when I heard about secret shopping – acting as an ordinary shopper, but then reporting back to head office on queues, loos and service – I decided to give it a try…
I went undercover in ladies’ underwear and spied on the checkout girls – and realised it was a perfect backdrop for a book – or three. The Secret Shopper’s Revenge, The Secret Shopper Unwrapped and The Secret Shopper Affair all feature my experiences of free lunches in pizza joints, crazy customer service in phone shops, and pampering in the best boutiques.
It’s weird because, actually, I’m not very good at shopping. I hate trying on clothes – all those mirrors – and I get very cross in queues. But somehow mystery shopping adds spice to shopping, because there’s always the risk of being unmasked! Here are few other things you might not know about shopping undercover:
• Retail spying is more M&S than MI5, but at least you can complete most missions in your lunch hour. Becoming a mystery shopper won’t make you rich – most assignments pay under £15 – but you ‘re earning for something you’d do anyway, and you feel like a consumer champion.
• There’s a science to pizza crusts. And if you want to get paid, you’ll need to judge not just the toastiness of the crust (golden or beige?), the cheese to topping ratio and the cleanliness of the cutlery. And heaven help the restaurant serving wilted lettuce.
• It helps to have been on the other side of the till… as a former Saturday girl in a hardware store, I know all about nightmare customers, sore feet and shopfloor politics. So I do have an in built tolerance if I think a member of staff is just having an off day.
• Secret Shopper Guilt kicks in when you have to rate your assistant on the sincerity of her smile – some shops insist that if her eyes don’t crinkle at the edges, she’s not trying hard enough. Spying on people can feel underhand, and does paying the minimum wage really entitle a firm to expect round-the-clock million-dollar smiles?
• Today the freezer aisle, tomorrow the world. If your mystery shopping career takes off, you could bag free international flights or five-star hotel stays. Gaining extra skills, like covert video recording, will help get you noticed by the more exclusive retail consultancies, who handle the most desirable clients. But even inexperienced mystery shoppers can strike it lucky with betting shop assignments – the cost of your stake is paid by the firm, and if you win, you get to keep the spoils!
To read more, there’s an interview about the books on my publisher’s website.