A fun story I wrote that just got published on Mystery Shopping

Confessions of a Mystery Shopper

I was once a high-valued corporate spy, investigating customer service everywhere I went by working as a mystery shopper. After a year of luxury brand espionage, I went inactive.

Why would I forgo hitting posh hair salons on the house, free smells, scrubs, and soaps while receiving hand massages? Wouldn’t I miss playing ‘let’s pretend I’m rich and famous’ while being measured for Haute Couture I’d never pick up?

After 22 years of living and working full-time with Bipolar I, I fell into a depression so deep I had to quit a stimulating, high paying job. I applied for disability insurance and was immediately approved. So I’m that sick. Eventually I felt better.

My best friend was a Mystery Shopper.  She took me to lunch at incredible restaurants while chattering about overdue reports for ‘shops’ she’d already done.

She said she’d show me the ropes; warning me about companies selling lists of companies. She said they were scams.

I signed up through the Mystery Shopper Providers of America (MSPA). The MSPA represents both shoppers and hundreds of mystery shopping companies. There are ethical standards both are expected to uphold. There is work outside this network but I was warned it was unreliable. Things like not getting paid.

I registered with five companies my friend said she enjoyed working with. All of them were upscale. Two of them represented restaurants only. I filled out endless personal profile forms. It was interesting to study each brand’s corporate culture and customer service requirements. It was thrilling to spy on their employees and inform on them. I became hypomanic.

There were drive-thru banks, movie theatres, and car dealerships. The shops that paid the most were boring economy hotels that required a weekend stay and a 100-question report due the next Monday. I was so elevated, I just couldn’t stay in one place that long.

My grandiosity got over on me at the ‘just looking’ drop ins. By then, I was beginning to hear things. The handbags all screamed “Take Me Home!”

Once I had to purchase and return shoes on a credit card. I was ashamed. How could I be such a horrible, lowly creature that I couldn’t afford a pair of flats?

What really cost me was equating money with value. If I didn’t have enough money to keep something I wanted, I wasn’t anyone. What a mindwarp.

My last run involved six desirable shops at high-end cosmetics counters. My payment was one hundred dollars per, to be used for purchases I could keep. I was offered a complimentary makeover. While she was touching my face, the saleswoman kept intoning, “You should buy this, your face needs more moisture,” etc.

I dropped over 700.00. Even though I had been compensated 600.00 in cosmetics, I lost 100.00. And that’s not including gas and online time spent on reports for these projects.

This also happened in my restaurant jobs. We were supposed to bring a friend, but they didn’t give you enough for two. Not wanting to seem stingy, I always overspent.

Eventually, I realized I was spinning my wheels, and had racked up five thousand dollars in credit card debt. I went online and deactivated all of my profiles. I made a significant shift.

I see the importance of giving back to the world, leaving something good in my trail. Even though I’m on disability, I want to be a creator, rather than someone who has to buy things all the time in order to feel whole.

I began to write, study nutrition, exercise, make jewelry, and try new recipes from the newspaper to improve my meal planning and cooking. I feel better about myself.

As a person with bipolar disorder with a tendency towards mania and overspending, I don’t need additional triggers. I have friends with bipolar disorder who hit every sale, and have finally stopped urging me to take them there.

About the only time I go to a shopping center is during the holidays or to see some art film that’s not playing elsewhere. I go to the grocery store nearly every day. That’s enough time consumerism for me.

Read the rest of Allison’s posts for IBPF here. Allison has also written for NAMI Not Alone and has personal blogs on WordPress and Tumblr.You can find her on Facebook where she has a closed group to share coping strategies for living with bipolar disorder. 

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Mystery Shopping While Manic Part 3 resources and restaurant shops

You are probably wondering why there is a series of mystery shopping posts on my blog. There are a few reasons. One, I did all these shops while hypomanic and functioning at a high level, so in a way I got turned on to a bunch of restaurants I didn’t know about and got to visit stores like Aveda …things I’ve never done before. It was a romp. Two, a lot of us are on disability and need something to do, to exercise the mind and get out of the house.  Three, the best thing for depression is to learn something. And I guarantee you that all the tutorials you’ll take as you do jobs for different mystery shopping companies (there are 200 out there according to The Mystery Shopper’s Manual), they have little tests to get on their list as a shopper and another test for every ‘shop’ you do. If you do Cole Haan three times at three different locations, they won’t make you do three tests, just one and once you’ve done that, they will try to make sure you do a bunch of ‘shops’ for that client. But don’t say the same thing every time you write your summation report. They hate that. The clients catch on and get mad, they say ‘why should I pay this one person to just give me the same info over and over?” This isn’t fair because the truth is, the employees of these companies sometimes all act the same. So sometimes you have to get ‘creative.’

Another reason I wrote about this is that we often need diversion from depression. Hey, Some of us want free stuff. You won’t get that, you’ll get approximately 3/4 free stuff. But that is better than nothing!! Like for example the restaurant shops at Seasons 52. The food was so incredible and they gave you enough or almost enough to take a friend. They had a high end chop house too, “Capital Grill,” I think it was called. And that was a really good ‘shop.’ But the tests afterwards were long. They really make you earn your money. But if you want to shop around and do stuff that is almost free and don’t mind driving thirty miles to make 20 bucks, have at it.Contact the MSPA, pay them their fee (this is the only fee you should ever pay for Mystery Shopping) and start contacting Mystery Shopping companies. There are over 200 of them.

Manic While Mystery Shopping

So I was mystery shopping after getting my certification and driving from one supermall to another. I was the type of customer that the workers remembered so if I felt I was getting to familiar and and so forth I would tell the mystery shopping people and they would take me off the account.

They always pay you less than you are going to want to spend. For example, I was sent to L’Occitane, a shop with perfums and soaps that start at forty bucks. And for that shop you are given 30 to spend. Yuk, right?

Then I got a string of ‘shops’ that’s what jobs are called at Chanel and Dior cosmetic counters. A total of six. One after another, pretending to be interested, accepting a makeover, fun, right? Not so much, really. I was given 80 to spend, and their eye shadows start at 50.00. And if you get a makeover for free or go to a class, you will have so much pushed on you that it’s hard to stay within budget. The company was called “A Closer Look,” for those of you who want to do this kind of high end sampling.

Then there was the three hour long report with 200 questions on the back end of each shop.
And there was something wrong with their computer system. So I had to do each of these reports twice. That was the end of mystery shopping for me. Because the report was due tomorrow and they didn’t take any responsibility. Plus I had incurred credit card debt on account of being in stores, shopping, while manic. Never a fine idea.

Manic while Mystery Shopping

About four years ago I had a sponsor in Overeaters anonymous. She was a tough cookie. She was in her eighties and had survived two rounds of cancer. She was an accomplished and sought after mystery shopper. She did four jobs a week.

She taught me how to get involved. First of all, half of those offering assistance in finding jobs in the field of mystery shopping are fraudulent. They charge people for lists of mystery shopping companies. There are quite a few and some of them specialize in high end, shoplifting prevention and restaurant reviews to name a few. But this ‘charging’ for lists is bogus. Getting good jobs in mystery shopping is a different process. Here it is:

What a person needs to do is become silver certified by the MSPA, Mystery Shoppers Providers Association. Google that, pay them a one time fee of around sixty bucks to study their tutorial, take their test and get Silver Certified. Most mystery shopping firms, like ‘A closer Look,’ and Jancyn (sp?) require that certification before giving you anything.  You get the ‘silver,’ (there is a gold cert available but it’s inconvenient and requires travel. Then you start googling to find that list or request a list from MSPA.  My OA sponsor told me all that stuff. I still have my silver certificate on the wall. It has a number so that the mystery shopping outfits can verify that I am Silver Certified.

I got ‘in’ with a high end outfit who sent me to Burberry, Chanel Cosmetics, Dior cosmetic counter,  Aveda, Dior Couture, Ferragamo, Kate Spade, Coach Barney’s New York, Cole Haan, and other such stores.  I also ‘in’ with a few restaurant accounts. Each company  makes you study yet another tutorial on what that mystery shopping company wants from its’ employees. Then they have you on a list of available mystery shoppers. Sometimes they contact you for last minute stuff that you have to do and report on by the next day with an added financial incentive. A relationship with a mystery shopping company representative involves a lot of trading. It’s ok. If you do them favors, they will make sure that they save the more lucrative shops for you. It works out. But it requires constant computer access. Everything is done over the computer.

What you have to do for every different store job, is study and pass a test. These tests cover what the ‘brand,’ stands for and they type of displays, customer service, how long the line is, what questions they ask you, all sort of things that the parent company wants you to make sure that the employees are doing.  I get triggered in high end shopping environments. Since the jobs usually require you to purchase something and then return it, it can be a double trigger. One time I bought a pair of Ferragamo Shoes that I loved and had to return them. I have foot problems from excessive sports and I have to have really high quality shoes so that my feet don’t hurt. These shoes were 500.00 and I could not afford such a purchase. As I returned the shoes, I felt like a total fraud. I didn’t want to. But the job required that. For the next six months  I visited the outlet stores at Sawgrass Mills, searching for the same shoe on sale. But it was never available In my size. The amount of money they paid me to go there twice and write the report might have been forty dollars. It wasn’t worth the heartbreak. I’d have just as soon never known about this perfect black, stretchy shoe.

After a mystery shopping job, you have to fill out a very time consuming form and write mini essays on your experience with the retailer. Believe me, you have to do your homework and do quality work. If your memory is not so strong (as in my case due to psych meds) this can be challenging. And for a long one like a restaurant, they do not let you take notes because that would give you away as a corporate ‘spy.’

More on mystery shopping while manic tomorrow. There are some funny stories.