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Shopping for a Living

By Jun Guiterrez

As the end of quarantine and complete lockdowns appear to be approaching, (well, the signs are becoming more evident as economies can’t hold out much longer.) I hope we can all start looking forward to some form of normality at Christmas time. Most of us look forward the holiday period to boost our morale and spirits.

Last December was one of the most pleasurable Christmas shopping experiences on record for me. I actually got paid in hard cash for walking around the shops looking for bargains.

There’s a small company in Hong Kong, a consumer help unit, that sends a newsletter to subscribers containing a list of shops that sell various items at the best prices. I was given a long list of popular items and sent off to Hong Kong’s shopping areas in Causeway Bay and Central, and across Victoria Harbour to Tsim Sha Tsui, to look for bargain prices.

My wife’s eyes shone gleefully when I gave her the news - the job would have been a dream for her and her shopaholic friends - but this was strictly business.

The shops at that time of year were packed with young Hong Kongers all busy spending thousands of dollars on as many things as they could carry. There weren’t too many bargain hunters like me.

The company who employed me are new to Asia and cater mainly to expats who are not sure what to buy and where. Hong Kong can be a pretty daunting place to find your way around, especially when you have to fight your way through Christmas shopping crowds. Fortunately, I lived in Causeway Bay for five years and managed to learn quite a lot of Cantonese. And of course, being a Filipino, I know how to find where the bargains are. So I was the obvious choice when the German lady, Helga, who owns the company, was asking around for someone to help them.

The concept that Helga has is not so new in some European cities, but it’s the first time I had come across it in Asia. I do recall an English friend having a dream job of writing a monthly newspaper review of many of Manila’s finest restaurants, which is not the same idea as Helga’s, but actually the concept is similar: finding a quality product that sells well and is also good value for money.

For many years, food critics were generally freelance journalists who were paid by their publishers but also earned part of their living from the establishments themselves. By this I mean that they customarily introduced themselves with “I’m a writer from xxx magazine,” and this routinely got them a free sumptuous meal and first-class service at most restaurants. They then got paid by the publisher for their story. Good work if you can get it.

One fine example is a French guy I knew, Didier, who worked as a travel journalist for two big US magazines. Several times a year he would get his girlfriend to phone around a few of the big luxury hotels in Asia and ask if they could “accommodate” them for two or three nights. Also, they did the same with the airlines. If I remember correctly, they had two or three complimentary holidays a year. In fairness, he did write truthful stories about the clients, but it was always because they looked after the pair of them exceptionally well. In my opinion, that is not the way it should be. Maybe there’s a touch of envy in there somewhere.

Mystery Shoppers

But there are now many establishment and brand owners who want to know the truth about what customers think of their products and services. Sure, you can employ a professional market research company, but that can be really expensive.

Enter the mystery shopper. When I was checking out the products and prices in Hong Kong, no one knew who I was. I simply took a phone pic of the item and price, and noted which shop it was in.

If you’re a business owner, especially in the hospitality industry, and want to know what customers truthfully like and don’t like about your establishment, get a mystery shopper onboard. My English friend who used to write the restaurant review columns never let anyone know his true identity and always wrote under the pen name of Lord Fauntleroy (Lord Fauntleroy was a fictional English aristocrat who indulged in many of the finer things in life). When he made a restaurant reservation it would always be under the name of Mr. & Mrs. Smith. He would secretly but meticulously make notes on every aspect of the service: food quality, ambience, cleanliness, absolutely everything.

The following week the newspaper would run Lord Fauntleroy’s column, and the publisher, who I personally know, reported selling 500 - 600 extra copies of that particular issue. Nobody at the restaurant knew Mr. Smith nor who the mysterious Lord Fauntleroy was. The difference in the story being told can be immense. If the restaurant manager or owner knows that you’re writing a review, you will undoubtedly get special treatment. Not so if you’re deemed to be an ordinary customer.

There’s a famous old adage, “Be careful, you never know who you are speaking to.” So from now on, think twice before brushing off or being rude to a customer - no matter how they look or are dressed. You never know who they might be.


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