Feature 2: The spy who shopped me

Closing time—when the secret shoppers swarm in for the kill....

by Stephanie Powell

The countdown always started at 7pm. That was when I had an hour until closing and then T-minus 30 minutes until I locked the doors and went on my way home. The holidays had just ended and the last rays of daylight were fading, leaving my co-worker and me in a darkened ghost town of retail space at the Village for the next 90 minutes.

We spent the remaining time dividing up the tables and eliminating any outliers—making sure to fluff and touch each stack jeans and tops. We saw maybe four people pass by our doors in those 40 minutes, all of whom were mall employees, cherishing each step toward their cars—and freedom. We were in the home stretch, so I decided to shut down one of our registers.

It’s 7:50pm. Who needs pants at 7:50pm? A woman wanders in and my sales associate quickly greets her, but continues folding the zone I assigned her. As I’m counting the nickels in my register my mind starts to stray: Is she seriously getting that sweater from the bottom of that pile? Is she going for a denim wall? Crap. I leave my count behind and make a beeline toward the customer. She now has two styles of jeans in her hand in two different sizes—clearly a newb. I ask to start her a fitting room and she obliges kindly and smiles.

At this point in the evening, I start to become a human again. I can feel the comfort of the leather seat of my car, the warmth of my brand new sherpa-lined blanket and the fruity varietal taste of my cabernet sauvignon eagerly awaiting the arrival of my droughty palate. It’s five till eight and the only way you can convince me to care that you need pants is by running into my store pantless whilst screaming. I combat my selfish compulsion to focus on my wind-down and keep a strong game face.

She’s been in there a while. I’ve already locked the door and hit the music. I see my sales associate check in on her and remove some styles of jeans from her room. I approach her fitting room in hopes to politely usher her out and get what we both need from this experience—her: pants; me: a ticket home. “How are you doing in there? Do you need any other sizes? Is there anything I can clear out of there for you?”

She opens the curtain with an unassuming grin. “I’m doing all right. I don’t think any of the styles worked for me,” she says.

Catch me on my A game and I’m a denim god. I can fit any person, any time—and I will find you pants that you dream about all night and can’t wait to wake up and put on in the morning. Catch me five minutes after closing: “Aw that’s too bad. Did you want help finding a certain style?”

“No, no,” she reassures me.

Thank God, I think.

“It’s just one of those days. What’s your name by the way?” she asks.

The blood rushes to my head and I know what’s happening. All I can think is: Crap. I already took off my name tag. My mind starts going down the list: Did we greet her? Yes. Did we ask her name? No. Did we use open-ended questions? No. Did we give our names? Nope. Did we offer her multiple leg openings? Not a chance. Did we bring at least three items, including accessories to the fitting room? No way.

It’s now or never and I’ve got to salvage what I can.

“My name’s Stephanie, what’s your name?” I ask.

Her name was etched into my mind for the next 30 days, but then was effectively forgotten: She was a secret shopper. We’ll call her Sally.

“My name is Sally,” she says.

I smile and carefully examine her fitting room while she’s speaking. I switch gears, “OH MY GOSH! You tried on the new skinnies and didn’t love them?? How is that even possible, you’ve got to see them with this brand new wedge we just got in—it will change you life.”

Before she can speak, I strut over to the shoe display and demand her size. I send my associate to grab her size and give her the look. She’s confused and wants to go home, but not me, we’ve got T-minus 30 minutes to save our asses.

Sally and I banter back and forth about how to wear different types of denim while I hand her all of my favorite belts from our belt bar. We discuss where she wants to wear her new pair of jeans, her body type, struggles she’s faced in the past when finding a pair of pants and where she works—her day-to-day job.

From what I can tell, Sally is eating it up. While I ushered her back into the fitting room, I whisper Sally’s true identity to my sales associate. We double-team her, shower her in jewels and compliments. We show her five different ways to wear a scarf. Our two favorite tops. She even tries to recruit us as sellers for her employer. By the end of our last-minute uphill battle, Sally is covered in jewelry, holding belts and donning our latest heels. She thanks us for our help and commends us on how helpful we are at styling and on our extensive breadth of product knowledge.

Although Sally decided not to make a purchase (duh, she’s a secret shopper) I felt great about the turn-around and happily went home to my well-deserved glass of wine and fuzzy sherpa blanket.

•••••

It didn’t even take 24 hours before I heard about Sally. I opened the next morning at 9am. Just as I turned off the alarm and set my keys down on the desk, the telephone rings. It’s my district manager.

“Hi Steph, how was last night?” she coyly asks.

I tell her all about our perfect close, that we made our store goal for the day and the sweet tale of Sally, a “customer” who we gave some confidence to after helping her find a fit she was planning on coming back to purchase. I even joke about how she tried to recruit us.

My district manager’s voice doesn’t change, “Yes, I heard.” Pause. In fact, it’s the longest pause in history. “We sent Sally in, she was a secret shopper. You guys got secret shopped last night.”

Um, duh I’m aware—I wasn’t born yesterday. I’d been working at this establishment for over half a decade, but the eerie disdain in her voice left me starting to feel queasy and I started to regret only drinking coffee for breakfast. My nerves started to race as she went on to explain that although Sally raved about us, my associate and I failed to hit the marks at the correct times on the checklist.

Here it comes.

Sally was the worst kind of secret shopper. She wasn’t sent in by a third party and she certainly wasn’t a stranger. Sally was a covert confidant of my boss’ boss’ boss. She had been interviewing with the company and was considering taking a position with corporate. She came into our store to observe our service and familiarize with our product firsthand.

Everyone in the break room heard about Sally—incidents like this led to a new companywide policy: Shortly after World War Sally, the company began regularly utilizing secret shoppers.

I certainly wasn’t the first person to fail a secret shop and I won’t be the last. Sally left smiling (though she never took the job) and I stayed—with my shot at that year’s 10-cent pay raise surely trampled and gone.

Share your secrets with Stephanie at [email protected]

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