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I was that secret shopper quietly judging everyone in the store

A few months before I graduated from college, I needed to bring in some extra cash. My financial aid had long run out, and a full-time course load at the local university made holding even a part-time job (while also raising a family) a herculean task. So when I saw an advertisement in the military base newspaper for secret shoppers, I thought I’d struck gold.

What could be easier than going to restaurants and stores, getting my purchases reimbursed, filling out a simple survey AND getting paid for it? It seemed too good to be true, but because it was in the military paper, I figured it had to be real and decided to call.

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The answering machine directed me to a website where I had to fill out a lengthy application. I remember thinking that it was easier to get into college than it was to sign up to be a secret shopper, but I was broke and willing to do what I needed to do to make money.

Once my application was submitted, I received an email back a week later letting me know I was officially a secret shopper. The best news? There were several locations on base that participated in the program, and I was the only registered military person in the area, meaning I got to take all the on-base jobs as they became available.

My first assignment was to evaluate the local mini market on base. I was to make a specific purchase of a small cup of coffee and pay cash for it while also taking discreet notes about the coffee bar, the hot snack bar, the soda machine counter, the displays in the aisles, the medication section and the overall cleanliness of the store and attitude of the employees (who I had to describe and name in my survey).

I brought my sons and told them to keep their cool. The tiny bit of training offered on the website made it clear that under no circumstances are you to reveal to anyone in the store that you are a secret shopper, and doing so would invalidate the shop assignment, meaning no pay. At 12 and 14, my kids were awesome covert accomplices. We walked around the mini mart and gave each other sly looks as we quickly typed notes into our cell phones about each area while trying to act like normal customers.

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When we got back home, I was shocked to see how long and drawn out the after-shop survey was. It took me, a rather fast typist, almost an hour to complete. When I finally submitted the survey and uploaded a copy of my receipt, I learned that my payment — a measly $11.35, which included the $1.35 for my cup of coffee — wouldn’t be released until the last business day of the following month. It was March 2, meaning that money wouldn’t be in my account until April 30.

Since there was nothing I could do but wait, I decided to work as many secret shopper jobs as possible so that my April 30th paycheck would be a doozy. The first month I shopped all across Northern Virginia, on base and off and managed to pull in $217, which now sounds a bit embarrassing. In return for that small deposit in my bank account, I shopped nearly 20 different stores and restaurants and spent an easy 45 minutes to an hour filling out each survey required. That doesn’t begin to cover the drive time and gas money I used, either.

The only real benefit I saw, at the time, was my own sense of personal power. As limited as that perceived power was, I couldn’t help but rub my hands together in wicked delight whenever I wrote a review after being treated like crap during a shopping assignment. I liked to call it “retail revenge therapy.”

When, that following July, my family moved from Virginia to California, fear of not finding work motivated me to continue secret shopping. I had six months before my student loan payments were due and was terrified I wouldn’t land a job.

In Orange County, I discovered there were new shop opportunities that paid slightly better and allowed me to do fun things (like go to the Louis Vuitton counter, engage a sales associate and hold a $10,000 purse), but those same lame payouts the following month made it an unrealistic career. One month I clocked more than 500 miles full-time secret shopping. I made about $298 that month, but spent approximately half that on gas.

In the end, the only thing secret shopping was really good for was reimbursed meals. I was able to treat my sons to plenty of junk food (when you work five to six fast food shops in a day, you need an accomplice to eat the required purchases) and, consequently, spend loads of time with them.

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Thankfully, a few months after landing in California, I found work as a writer and was able to shed the invisibility cloak of secret shopping for good. Now I use it as material for my writing, but wouldn’t encourage any sane, healthy and able-to-work person to invest in secret shopping as a legitimate career. (Unless you want to pretend to buy a Louis Vuitton bag, which, in all honesty, was totally worth it.)

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Image: Keith Ewing/Flickr

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