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"Sugar Land Mystery Woman Earns Easy Money While Shopping Incognito"

Houston Business Journal - by Laura Elder

Cathy Stucker has the job to die for.

Whenever she feels an urge to splurge, she actually picks up a paycheck for going on a shopping spree. She dines at swanky restaurants, browses at upscale boutiques and even frequents big banks.

So how does someone like Stucker go about getting a great gig like that?

"Become a mystery shopper," says the Sugar Land resident.

When Stucker was laid off from her job at an insurance company four years ago, she decided to shuck the corporate world for good and become a "solo-preneur."

"I wanted to get paid to do what I love to do," she says.

Talking is one of her favorite pastimes, so she began teaching business courses at local colleges to help others learn about making money by doing things they enjoyed. So many students inquired about ways to become mystery shoppers that Stucker decided to investigate the industry.

There isn't a lot of data available on the subject, so Stucker had to learn about the process first hand.

She learned enough about secret shopping to conduct seminars and author "The Mystery Shopper's Manual," which she is constantly updating and revising to include the names of new clients.

Through her research, Stucker discovered that plenty of companies are willing to pay undercover operatives to report what really goes on when a boss isn't looking.

In fact, she says, hiring mystery shoppers is becoming quite trendy among companies seeking a sales edge.

Stucker took her first assignment from a discount store.

"It was pretty standard. Everyone greeted me and said thank you and did what they were supposed to do," she recalls.

Such covert customers are hired to scope out business by a growing host of retailers such as Houston-based Foley's, Borders Bookstores, Kmart and Wal-Mart -- just to name a few. The industry is getting bigger by the year, and is even going high-tech.

Houston-based Mystery Shoppers Inc., headed by Joe Woskow, uses a microscopic hidden video camera to capture a shopping experience.

While written assessments have been part of the industry for about 50 years, Woskow says his company is in high demand for offering "game film."

While both Woskow and Stucker use different tactics, they both agree that companies are using mystery shopping more these days for a competitive edge.

"We have national credit companies, hotels, restaurants and grocery stores as clients," says Woskow.

Stucker and Woskow don't like to refer to mystery shopping as spying.

And clandestine shoppers aren't hired to simply find fault with stores.

"We're not there to catch somebody doing something wrong," Stucker says.

"We're not there to catch somebody doing something wrong," Stucker says.

Wannabe mystery shoppers should be objective. It isn't uncommon for some of Stucker's students to consider mystery shopping a chance for the ultimate customer revenge.

"Some of the students say, `Boy I can't wait to mystery shop that store, they're awful there,'" Stucker says. "Shoppers should go in as a blank slate."

And some of the shopping assignments aren't quite as glamorous as the general public might suspect.

In most cases, secret shoppers are given an allowance to purchase items at a particular store or business. Shoppers are usually allowed to keep the merchandise and are paid about $10 to $20 for 15 minutes or an or hour of shopping at a particular store.

Stucker warns that mystery shopping is not a full-time job, and doesn't even qualify in most cases as part-time employment. It's generally spare-time work filled by retirees and homemakers, she says.

A customer who completes an assignment has to fill out a questionnaire about the experience. Companies are generally concerned if help was available to customers, if employees were courteous, and if they were alert to potential sales.

Stucker says most of her assignments are positive, but there are some exceptions.

She recalls the time that she stood in a luggage store looking for help and was completely ignored by employees.

"I was supposed to interact with a clerk," she says. "In order to do that, I tried to trip somebody in the aisle -- and I still couldn't get their attention."

Stucker is sometimes asked to return items immediately after she buys them. Or she's asked to buy mismatched shoes to see if store clerks catch the error.

Stucker is sometimes asked to return items immediately after she buys them. Or she's asked to buy mismatched shoes to see if store clerks catch the error.

Such scenarios are awkward she says.

"I concoct these elaborate scenarios about why I was returning something so quickly, but no one ever asks," she says.

Then again, some assignments are cushy no matter how you slice it. She says she enjoys some restaurant work. Some companies provide her and a guest with a $150 allowance to snoop at a restaurant.

While she used to worry about being found out by store employees, Stucker says she's never been discovered.

"When I first started doing it, I felt like I had this big scarlet M that told everybody I was a mystery shopper," says Stucker. "But I've never had anyone ask me if I was a mystery shopper."

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