Something to Fear…as a B&N Bookseller

I sniffed the wind this week and felt a cold presence. A shift in the force that gave me existential dread. It wasn’t the fact that America is slowly falling in on itself or that I now had a strange, new attraction to Melissa McCarthy. No, my spidey senses told me that something else was afoot.

Barnes & Noble management teams are announcing the return of the horrifying Secret Shopper Program.

Back in the day, four times a year, strangers were allowed to go into all of the bookstores and try to trick us into not giving good customer service and graded us on what we did. This was nixed during the recession and one of the few decisions made during that era that all booksellers applauded. Seriously. I never saw morale that high before. The consequences of a bad secret shop could mean harm to your job or your store’s performance record AND the manager’s bonus. If you’re getting stressed out just reading that, try living it.

These were the days when you feared the Secret Shopper. It could be anyone and they could be having a good day or bad day which definitely determined the outcome. Secret Shopper agencies were hired by Barnes & Noble (money well spent, y’all) and they sent out the shoppers. A shopper does not announce their presence and has a checklist of requirements. Did someone greet you as you walked into the store? Were they wearing a name tag? Did they offer you the B&N Membership as you checked out? Did they put the book you asked for IN YOUR HAND? What did the bookseller look like and what was their approximate age?

Now that I work for a law firm, those last questions are doozies. Here’s a little advice for this upcoming Secret Shopper revamp. How about giving checklists for hair color and sex and that’s it? Might save you some trouble down the road.

Here’s why. Back in the early 2000’s I worked with a bookseller named “Barb”. She was four feet tall, egg shaped, had apricot colored Ronald McDonald hair, thick 70’s glasses, a hawk nose, and sort of walked and talked like a chicken. “Barb” believed in UFO’s and told me in great detail about how her deceased father would roam her house at night, moving the picture frames around as she chided him for it. She was awesome.

She was also 55 years old at the time. That’s important.

“Barb” got caught by a secret shopper (I really wish I could convey to you how stressed out everyone always was about it back then) and I had to give her the bad news. After showing her the secret shopper’s write up, she started crying hysterically. I thought it was because she missed one question, leading to a 75% grade and a mark on her record, but what was really making her lose it was that the secret shopper thought she was in her mid 60’s. It took a week to calm her down and she kept bringing up ageism and lawsuits.

Then there was the time that I was dinged and given a 75%. I was managing the B. Dalton in Springfield, Ohio and a woman asked me for Twilight. Her hand was resting on a display of Twilight books and I told her so. We exchanged pleasantries and that was that. Until a few days later when I got the news that I failed the shop and it was because I didn’t put the book in the customer’s hand. I fought it, really. But no, I was supposed to walk around the counter, walk up to the middle of the store, take her hand off of the stack and hand it to her.

So the program’s back? Greeeeaaat!


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Nicolina Torres
Nicolina Torres

Nikki worked for Barnes & Noble for 15 years, in seven stores. She is the author of This Red Fire, Young Nation, and Girls Who Wear Glasses. She prefers to live in the country and is a new aunt to a potential bookworm.

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