For weeks, I had been reading up on Walmart, absorbing everything from Sam’s biography to reports about how the global chain was destroying labor guarantees put into place by the New Deal. I wanted to understand how Walmart had evolved from a variety store to an international behemoth hated and loved by all. Call it a penchant I have for getting to the bottom of things that seem bottomless.
So I wasn’t suprised when I received a priority mail package inviting me to be a secret shopper for a day. After all, I had just returned from Walmart’s Bentonville headquarters, birthplace of the every day low price. Maybe a corporate scout had spotted me in the Visitor Center and decided I had potential.
I was living in a place where shopping was limited to approximately two outlets. Walmart was one of them. I had little choice but to patronize its big box located about 25 miles from my house in Sterlington, Louisiana.
I was eager to serve as a secret shopper, congratulated the company on their good sense in putting me to work. Depending upon my GPS location, here was a grocery, clothing, appliance, pet store, pharmacy, lingerie shop, lawn and garden shop, all contained under one roof, a veritable city of shining things.
I recall my earliest experience with shopping for something that I wanted. I was young enough not to have a doll, but admired these magical beings pitched on television commercials. Dolls talked, their eyes sparkled different colors, and they could pirouette inside stars. They could even fly. Charles Baudelaire said that dolls are our first experience of abstraction. Rainer Maria Rilke opined that dolls teach a child the bitterness of wasted tenderness. For me, dolls taught not to trust adults or advertising. Once I saw my first doll sitting on a shelf, I was unable to bridge the gap between expectations shaped by commercials and the reality of the dumb broad sitting inside a cellophane package. I learned later about imagination, which saved me.
Back to my role as a secret shopper, I began to take notes as I entered the store. The concrete walkway was cracked and caught the wheels of my shopping cart. I noticed that there was no “greeter” to cast a smile upon my shopping expedition. I was undeterred. I wanted to spend my entire allotment of $20.00 in the vitamin aisle. My secret shopper instructions had advised:
“The payment you received covers all expenditures including evaluation, shopping, transport and your compensation ( Assignment Payment $100) for these surveys. You are to purchase Goods of your Choice for your own Use not more than $20 at any Wal-Mart store close to you and also you will be using Western Union services to send the balance to another Mystery shopper to carry out her own Assignment ( We want to confirm the differences between Local transfers and International transfers)”
I had received a check for $950, which I had deposited and withdrew the next day before driving into Monroe. As I navigated past Easter candy displays, I made note that the floors were dirty with bits of garbage: paper, a stray bandaid, cellophane, rubber bands, etc. Also, I had to run the gauntlet of carts piled high with distressed merchandise. Unsightly, I thought. I kept going back and forth between shampoo displays and toothpaste items without finding vitamins. I retraced my steps. Finally, I located the vitamin aisle, the only one without a sign. I jotted down another note.
Then I was on to part two of my assignment: to wire the rest of my bankroll to an “Adedapo Sanni” in Paris, France. I wondered what country Adedapo came from. The name didn’t sound French. The teller at the Western Union window asked if I knew the person to whom I was sending the money. I shook my head, and almost explained how I had been selected as a secret shopper.
“We won’t be able to help you,” she said. “Try the Super1 across the street. They also have a Western Union office.”
Across the street I got the same message with more information. “This is probably a scam,” said the young woman who gave me a customer service number. Everyone had seen this before. What would happen is that the bank clearing house would come looking for the money in my account and finding none (once it had been wired elsewhere), I would be left holding the bag.
Oh trusting nature! Oh hubris! Oh stupid one for not recognizing typos and lack of corporate letterhead on the “secret shopper” instructions! I rushed back to the bank to deposit all those hundred dollar bills.
I ended up with a bottle of calcium supplements that I needed and learned a lot more about Walmart. And also to steer clear of things that seem magical but are just come-ons wrapped in clear cellophane.