After my recent post on the “mystery shoplifter” scam, I heard from several shoppers who said that they had been offered assignments from reputable companies that required them to steal. Some said that they refused the assignments because they were afraid that they would be caught and might be arrested—or at least embarrassed.
These assignments have varying requirements, but many of them involve shopping at a grocery store, placing an item on the bottom of the cart and waiting to see if the cashier rings it up. In some scenarios shoppers are told to leave the store with the item, even if they haven’t paid for it.
So is it stealing?
In my opinion, it is absolutely not stealing because they were hired by the store to do it. Stores lose a lot of merchandise, not only to deliberate theft, but also due to carelessness. If cashiers are not ringing up all of the customer’s merchandise, the store needs to know. This is a good way to find out if cashiers are checking the carts as they are supposed to do.
Could the shopper be arrested for leaving the store with an item they didn’t pay for? I would never say never, but it is unlikely a store would prosecute a customer for accidentally walking out of the store with a forgotten package of toilet paper in clear view in their cart. And that is the scenario for this mystery shop–the shopper puts an item on the bottom of the cart and “forgets” that it is there.
In the recent case in England where the customer was arrested, it was because she was deliberately concealing items in order to take them out of the store without paying. There is a difference between having a large package out in the open in a shopping cart and making an effort to conceal items from store personnel.
So what is likely to happen during these shops? One likely outcome is that the cashier sees the item and rings it up, as she is supposed to do. But what if she doesn’t? You might be out the door or on your way out of the store when someone calls out to you. Chances are they are not going to scream, “Stop, thief!” More likely, they might say, “May I see your receipt, Ma’m?” or something similar. The most likely scenario is that if the cashier did not notice, no one will say a thing.
I was in a store recently (not on a mystery shop) and the cashier missed a carton of soda on the bottom of my cart. It was big and heavy, and I didn’t lift it up to the conveyor belt at the register. Usually I would point it out and make sure she saw the item, but I got distracted and didn’t notice that she hadn’t rung it up. It wasn’t until I got to my car that I discovered I hadn’t been charged for the soda. No one tackled me to the ground when I left the store with my “stolen” goods, and I could easily have put the soda in my car and driven away without paying for it; however, I did the right thing and went back into the store to pay.
As a customer, returning to the store to pay for merchandise the cashier missed is the right thing to do. But had I been doing a mystery shop where I was instructed not to volunteer information about the item or go back into the store to pay, I would have had no qualms about loading the soda into my trunk and driving off. If that is what I was hired to do, I would do it and not feel guilty for doing my job. After all, if it was part of a required purchase, the client would probably pay for it anyway.
If you would feel guilty for doing your job, then maybe you should not accept any of these assignments. If you would be too nervous about the possibility of being “discovered” to calmly complete the assignment, these shops may not be for you. You always have a choice of taking an assignment or refusing it.