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Slices of Life: The stalking of the secret shopper
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It was an unassuming Sunday afternoon. I had to venture to the store for a few items. It was a leisurely excursion. Unlike most days, I wasn't in a hurry and indulged in the luxury of lollygagging my way through the aisles. Picture a normal, average shopper in the camping department examining flashlights. Commonplace, ordinary and routine. That's me.

Or maybe not. I didn't think I looked overly suspicious, but apparently I was. Either that or it was a slow day in the store detective department, because it wasn't long before I had one following me.

He was easy to spot. As obvious as a fake beard on Santa Claus, whom he sort of resembled. He was a late-middle-aged gent, without a coat (despite the cold temperature outside), without a cart, without any items to purchase, strolling at a leisurely pace pretending (in the most conspicuous of manners) to be looking at items and shopping. Ha. Without a cart. Who does that?

A secret shopper, that's who.

Secret shopper is my code for store detective. They have a penchant for following me, although I've yet to figure out why. I'm an unassuming mom, typically wearing an unassuming black coat. I clearly have a written list of items I am looking for, making me a serious and legitimate shopper - versus a thief. My tiny purse has room for a wallet, phone and nothing more, especially not stolen items. My appearance practically screams law-abiding citizen.

I saw him out of the corner of my eye looking at me out of the corner of his eye. I had to stifle a giggle. He thought he was so undercover. Not.

Because this isn't my first secret shopper showdown, I did my best to act suspicious. You know, to give him a sense of purpose in his job. Sometimes you've got to find your own fun in a situation. I picked up a flashlight, examined it and returned it to the shelf. I repeated this a few times wondering how long he'd stay in the aisle with me. He remained intact, pretending to look at golf balls. I sauntered over to the next aisle. He followed.

As much as I wanted to keep the fun times going, I actually had items on my shopping list. I exited the sporting goods department and headed toward dairy. I lost him somewhere between electronics and pet food.

Here's my take on store detectives: They are an important and needed commodity. Honest shoppers like me depend on them to stop a thief from absconding with a large screen TV or bottle of nail polish. But in order to be undercover, they've got to appear undercover.

In a word: Stealth. This means they should look like they are actual shoppers. This means walking with a cart. Approximately 99 percent of shoppers use carts. Not having a cart depletes the covertness of any undercover status. If it is cold outside, they should wear a coat. If a man is walking around in a store without a coat and without a cart, where is his coat?

It's in the break room where the employees put their coats, that's where. Any normal, unassuming shopper with a grocery list and cart can tell you that.

- Jill Pertler's column appears Thursdays in the Times. She can be reached at