At A Point In Time: I Was A Secret Shopper!

I graduated from Industrial Design school two years ago, ready to take the world by storm and become a successful Product Designer. Little did I know, now I am not even sure if Product Design is what I really want to do. Design was always bigger to me; bigger than objects, bigger than symbols. I’ve always been involved in a project, a workshop, volunteered or became part of something big. I like to keep myself busy and I happily jump at the next opportunity that presents itself. But more than often the things I’ve done had little to do with Design, so I am starting this series of posts sharing what I’ve been doing in the last few years; what I've learned and how I screwed up. Hopefully, it will all add up in the end and show me a direction.

Why should you read this? A. See if you can relate to it B. Learn something new C. Maybe it’ll encourage you to dive into an unusual opportunity and D. Learn from my F*cking mistakes bec. am not gonna publicly embarrass myself for nothing!

At a point in time, I was a Secret Shopper!

For those who don’t know secret shopping is when you are hired by a company to shop and spy on their employees; you’re like an undercover agent reporting to the headquarters about what happens on ground. You see where I am going with all the secret agent stuff! Pretty cool! The whole idea got me too curious and I just had to find out what was it all about!

Generally I am not very fond of shopping, I get overwhelmed with choices and I actually hate everything about this activity! Buuut I do enjoy eating, a lot! So when I received this task or ‘check’ from a famous fast food chain- that would stay anonymous- and I was asked to basically go eat there and write a report about the whole experience, I went for it! Back then I was just starting school in Malaysia and I was already on an intense fast food diet during my culture shock period, so I thought why not! I wanted to know how this whole thing works, and it gave me a reason to hop on different buses to discover different areas in the city I lived in since I’ll be going to more than one outlet, plus hey it’s a free meal.

The whole process amazed me; I never thought about how international corporations work, I mean I just go to Burger King or Mcdonald’s and eat my fries! I don’t sit and wonder how many napkins should they have given me! But apparently those little things matter; they matter big time, to the point that you’d hire a secret shopper to investigate it. I had to take an initial test to make sure I knew all their rules and regulations, and by that I mean study a 7-paged pdf of operations! I thought I was just going to go order food and write if the fries were a bit oily or not. But it was really more than that, not that it was hard, but that’s when I realized how having a detailed system for your business and operations is crucial, it’s what makes your brand powerful and consistent, I’ve never thought about it that way, I mean really thought about how a company that has 35 thousand outlets in 119 countries can manage to maintain its success over years and years.

I can’t share details of what I had to do exactly; but generally I had to time them, notice what they’ve said, what they did, how they are dressed, the place, food, parking. Let me tell you this, all of the stores I’ve been too, they were all consistent; they all said the same thing, in the same way, in the same order! It was not a coincidence; I knew what they were going to say. Everything had a system, a rule, and an action. It might sound obvious when read, but it really is amazing to see how systems can work!

I also got to notice how little things that we might take for granted were designed and planned. I’ve stared at receipts before, the only thing I notice is obviously the price! Maybe the date, but I’ve never cared to notice what else is written there, I had to scan my receipt after every meal and this is how they tracked my checks and made sure I wasn’t giving them a false one or writing some false info in my report. And from the receipt they can know which exact store was it billed from by checking a certain coded number written on the top. This got me to look at objects differently, now anything I see I know that there is a reason for it being there, whether it's a number, an indent, an embossment; someone put it there and it serves a function.

Sadly I had to end my intense junk food diet because well, I’ve eaten in all the outlets in my city! Plus that ‘Nasi Lemak’ dish was starting to grow on me.

And that is when I started to really look at how systems can make businesses work and grow.