:: Article

Tales from the Mall

By Ewan Morrison.


Incident in a mall # 65: Secret Shopper

Imogen B, 25, is a secret shopper. She doesn’t buy into the bullshit though, in fact, she’s laughing at it all. She does this little bit of freelance work for company X, she likes to keep the name secret, like she’s working for the CIA. She‘s paid by X to shop in twenty of their stores in local malls within region X within a given time frame, X. She is given X amount of money and a shopping list decided by head-office and while she’s shopping it is her task to secretly test the standards in their stores so that they can enforce uniform staff behaviours and brand identity. Imogen jokes about it all with her friends, quoting from the work manual — Corporations that use secret shopping surveys raise their profits by up to 11%. Secret shopping is one of the world’s leading growth industries, blah de blah. On each job, Imogen is given a ‘script’ of dialogue, a character to play, and questions, which she should use, although not verbatim, as there is freedom to improvise within certain parameters. She has to behave like a real shopper from a selected demographic; to buy four specific items and request one that is out of stock to see how the staff deal with her request. It’s easy and a joke. Even getting the job was an act. Part of her interview involved a fun game to test improvisation and social skills and she just kept on playing it till the end and tricked them into thinking she was someone who ‘believed in the company’. Imogen gets paid a pretty packet to go shopping and she hates shopping — how funny is that?

Imogen is different from others but she’s not one of those try-hard hipsters. She has a terrible fear of being what she calls a ‘norm’, and this is something she rarely talks about. Her mother had always wanted to be an artist and put it off till vodka and resentment rotted through her. Maybe in homage to her dead mother she has committed herself to being a success. She is saving up to get some time to herself to complete her first collection of poetry. She’s invented a new kind of experimental verse, which fuses elements of the sonnet with astrophysics. She finds it hard when describing other planets and creatures as all of the metaphors she can think of tend to bring her back down to earth. Imogen also sees a state funded psychologist once a month and a nutritionalist quarterly. She shares her flat with two students who used to study with her before she abandoned her MSc halfway through her paper on anorexia and advertising. Her flatmates make too much noise in bed and she wants to get her own flat when she’s saved enough. She’s currently trying not to have a relationship as she considers this period of life her ‘creative time’.

One of the parts of the job Imogen likes is the dressing up. She tells all of her friends My God, you have no idea who I was today. This time around she has been asked to pretend to be a single, 32 year old secretarial worker (type C16) and head office have bought the H&M outfit for her. ‘Every-one is acting who they really are anyway, she jokes with her flatmates as she lays out her outfit for the next day, and
ruminates on how totally artificial norm-women look.

Other secret shoppers have had more challenging ‘roles’ or so she has heard. Once this woman’s job involved shouting at staff and throwing things on the ground. That was kind of cool. On this job Imogen has to buy a three-pack of T-shirts, jogging bottoms, a three pack of pants and she will ask the staff for a particular kind of sweater that is out of stock. She must take note of specific behaviours by staff during her allotted shopping time. When she has left the store, she must fill in a questionnaire.

How many customers were served within the 30 minutes?

Were the staff attentive/polite or intrusive?

But tonight Imogen has a gig, reading her poetry to a group of hipsters in this old simulation of a hippie place that has incense and Che Guevara posters. It’s crass, but there’s this guy from this really cool indie publishing house called And Co and she’s up there in her coolest T-shirt, which says AND THEN… and her nastiest boots. But then she’s feeling like a fool as this girl just ahead of her reads this poem, just like the one she was about to read, the same stellar metaphors and all, like she is totally ripping off her and Plath and maybe even her own stuff is derivative. So then it’s going to be her turn in five mins, and Imogen is outside panicking and there’s no way she’s going to stand up there and let everyone think she’s copied this other girl. She has to do something totally rad or just just go. Looking through her pockets for her lighter, she touches the folded paper and it comes to her — it’ll scare the hippies and be deeply ironic. She gets up on stage and dead-pan like it’s a poem, she reads out:

Did staff use the branding greeting phrases for hello and goodbye?

Were the displays well maintained?

Did staff seem to be well informed and enthusiastic about the product?

Were there any odours in the store?

Were any of the staff wearing piercings?

There is a pause then hesitant applause. The place sucks anyway, and the publishing guy was all over the phoney chick, so she walks out and heads to the next bar and texts her other mates to come join.

Self expression is overrated anyway, Imogen, tells them over Vodka breezers. She’s not like ‘a real person’, anyway. What a drag. On online dates she has six fantasy personas that she keeps regularly up to date. On the site, she is a lesbian and a gay man among other things, she gets too many hits from straight guys although she is straight or might be. Tony and Simone find her hilarious and are both flirting with her. You are so free, Simone says and holds her hand, Simone is French. Sometimes, she tells them, she’s still halfway through who she was on the net when she gets into work. She has even made up little back-stories for people she’s pretending to be. She’s been a single mother, an office executive and an IT geek shopping for rewritable DVDs. Some days she walks through the mall thinking, what would Debbie do at Starbucks, what would Eve buy in Accessorise. Can you believe this shit?

Were the staff involved in chat, gossip, texting, phone calls or any non-customer centred behaviour?

At what level was the in-house music?

Anyway, it’s all just temporary till she figures out a way to make money from her poetry, or maybe photography, because she’s getting into that too. There’s no way she’s still doing this shit when she’s twenty-nine. That’s the deadline. She’s not decided what penalty she’ll mete out to herself if she fails to meet it.

The next day she’s hungover and distracted and she’s can’t get herself into the role of 32 year old secretarial worker type C16. She feels a bit too much herself, so she thinks fuck it; so, she doesn’t dress for the job, she picks up what’s on the floor from the night before, the old fluffy tights and nasty boots, what the hell, it’ll only take an hour. On the way there she reads over her list of tasks. She has to complain about this stupid jumper.

How long did it take the staff to work out the product was out of stock?

Please rate staff performance from one to ten, with one as very poor…

So she gets the stupid things from the shelves and has her line prepared about the jumper, but then there’s this girl facing her at the checkout. She looks like she just woken up and doesn’t give a fuck, she’s got this tattoo visible where her T-shirt ends, and this jet back dyed hair and she looks right through Imogen as if the wall display of socks behind her was more interesting, then snaps out of it. The girl looks her up and down and says Hey nice T.

And Imogen takes a moment to work out that T is T-shirt and of course the girl is wearing one very similar which says I Killed Cobain. Imogen walks out without even the purchase or the jumper question and tells herself that never again will she do this job as herself.

Sat on a car park bench with her questionnaire she starts ticking boxes in negative. Were the displays well maintained? Were the staff attentive/polite or intrusive? Under the question Please report the name of any staff member who fell below standard, she writes the name of the girl, Jen.

Jen, and it’s like like Imogen without the image. And maybe she’ll write a poem about that. Or to hell with poetry. She sobers a bit at the prospect of what she would do if she really did give it up, for real, cos it was kind of the alibi for this stupid job in the first place.

She looks at her schedule for the week, there’s nothing till Thursday when she has to be a type G32 mom and buy a pair of size eight Nike football boots and a medium football strip; the name of the team was not on her instructions, there was some freedom to improvise.


Ewan Morrison is the author of the novels Menage, Swung and Distance (Jonathan Cape/Vintage) and the collection of short stories The Last Book You Read. He is currently completing a collection of stories, anecdotes and facts about Shopping Malls, entitled Tales from the Mall. You can see some film s from this project on YouTube. You can also read 3:AM‘s interview with the author here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, October 16th, 2010.