The Whitehall Ledger - Serving Southern Jefferson County in the Great State of Montana

By Jack H. Smith
Whitehall Ledger 

Column: Secret Shopper


December 4, 2019

Since I started studying journalism in college, I've been able to have a lot of very interesting newspaper jobs. While they were not always as much fun as I would have liked, I always learned a lot and from a wide variety of people.

I just had a friend who just left a newspaper job she had for around 15 years and I really think that is quite the accomplishment in the field of journalism, but I'm glad that I took the route of a literal roving reporter.

During my travels, I've had mostly jobs at newspapers but have strayed from that path a couple of times and it usually was very interesting. I've helped run a program to assist at-risk students, contracted for nearly two years for BP America and helped with a telepsychology program at a counseling service. These were all drastically different but helped me learn that I much rather write a story.

I also for a few months worked at an arcade and this was like no job I've ever had and not one I would ever want to do again.

It's hard for me to believe, but around 20 years ago while working for the local school district I picked up a few shifts a week at the local arcade. This was in a day and age where malls were still very viable and would be a place for teens to come together on the weekends or during the summer and a place that was packed like sardines during the Christmas season.

The at-risk program at the school would not start until after 3 p.m. so I had plenty of open time during the day and when I heard about the job at the arcade I certainly was interested. In my mind, I would be able to play video games and chat with the friends I knew that would come in to play.

I had my first training shift on a weekend, and it was far different than I imagined. I spent most of my time fixing the stupid ticket machines on each game that would get stuck about every five minutes. Once I fixed one, another one would break. It was a never-ending cycle. When I wasn't doing that, I would be counting the tickets one by one seeing our location was too cheap to buy a machine that did it for you. I would then wait as a kid would spend about 20 minutes deciding which junk $.20 cent toy he wanted to buy with his 1,000 tickets.

The job also felt a lot like babysitting. Some parents would drop off their kids at 10 a.m. and not show up to pick them up until 5 p.m.

So after the first weekend, I wondered what I had got myself into. I had serious thoughts of quitting my second job until I got my first-weekday shift.

The first few days of working during the week when school was in session were pure nirvana. I spent my first hour of the day reading a few newspapers and then would wander down and get a soft pretzel. I would venture to say that about five people would come in during the six-hour shift and none of them were worried about tickets and prizes. These were serious gamers who would prefer I leave them alone.

I had a key that allowed me to play every game for free so that is what I would do the rest of the shift. I've never been a huge gamer, but I certainly had no problem getting paid to do it.

I was settling into the daily routine when an unexpected customer ruined it from me.

One day I man in his early 30's walked into the arcade shortly after opening, purchased a few tokens and started playing. I didn't think much of it, so I went about my routine of reading the paper, eating my pretzel, and playing games.


Turns out he was what the corporate office liked to call "a secret shopper". He was basically a manager from another store sent in to spy on my location. I got a very bad report and my manager verbally spanked me for about 15 minutes.

I was doing this job because I was bored so I just kind of laughed and walked out of the store. I thought the whole "secret shopper" thing was nonsense. Perhaps it wasn't the best way to end my job but it seemed everyone in town wanted to work at the arcade, so they didn't have any problem filling it.

Luckily I was able to get a newspaper job again soon and I still cringe when we take the kids somewhere and those stupid tickets pop out the machines.


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