It started with an e-mail. Second to None, an Ann Arbor (Mich.) field research company, was looking for people in the New York area who would pretend to shop for a luxury watch, negotiate on the price, then complete an online questionnaire about the experience. Training would be provided, and I was to receive $80 for each negotiation, plus the occasional bonus.
Many companies hire mystery shoppers—just like regular shoppers, except nosier—to find out if their front-line customer service representatives and sales associates comply with corporate guidelines. They hire outfits such as Second to None to oversee the fieldwork; it's a $1 billion industry with more than 250 companies and 1.5 million independent contractors worldwide, according to the Dallas-based Mystery Shopping Providers Assn. I love shopping for watches. And the idea that I might be paid to shop for them trumped my innate fear of e-mails that seem too good to be true—even if I wasn't actually purchasing a watch. (Transactions were ended by, for example, claiming I'd forgotten my credit card.)
During a five-hour training session in midtown Manhattan, my group of 10 would-be mystery shoppers role-played with a sales trainer whose typical task was teaching sales associates how to close a deal at the highest possible price. Now, she was teaching us how to get them at the lowest possible price. The trainer, who, like the client, remained anonymous, stressed that watch negotiations are generally civilized and friendly. We were trained to be gentle, likable, and patient-verging-on-slow. Rudeness doesn't work when you're buying a $20,000 timepiece. Real buyers savor the experience, and the best price is reserved for favored clients.
On my first assignment, at an independent jewelry and watch store near Wall Street, I got a white-gold-and-diamond Cartier Tank Française reduced by 25 percent after reciting a few polite, rehearsed lines of dissatisfaction. Walking the saleswoman down the price ladder—using questions from "Is there something more you can do for me?" and "Can you offer any price assistance?" to "This isn't what I was thinking about; is there any further consideration you can offer?"—got the price from $28,200 to $21,150. Then I trotted out the "ask a higher authority" card: "I'm a bit embarrassed, but I have a hang-up about paying more than $20,000 for a watch. Would your boss consider 19,900?" Done.
Over eight months, I visited 26 stores in four states on both coasts. I shopped for watches from 10 different brands whose retail prices varied from below $2,000 to almost $30,000. Along the way, I learned some unexpected things. At three different Tourneau stores in Manhattan, the sales associates articulated substantially different offers. Two mentioned the company's trade-in program, but only one told me I could bring in any watch in any condition and qualify for a 20 percent savings on almost any watch in the store other than a Rolex. At the Cartier counter at Saks Fifth Avenue (SKS), I was offered a 10 percent discount if I opened a Saks credit account—then was told I didn't actually need to open the account to get the discount. After some haggling, I was offered an additional 2 percent off the price of a steel Cartier or 5 percent off the price of a gold one. All the stores were independent, authorized dealers rather than company-owned stores, which are loath to provide any price concessions. The average discount secured was 18 percent.
Only twice did I fail: While shopping for a Cartier in Princeton, N.J., I was unable to improve the price. While shopping for a Panerai in San Francisco, I also hit a wall. Panerai watches are so scarce and so popular that this particular sales associate would not budge. On two other occasions, though, I did secure discounts on a Panerai. It was interesting to see how price discipline varied from store to store.
My work didn't always go smoothly. I arrived at a store in Lawrenceville, N.J., to negotiate for a Cartier only to discover that the store didn't carry Cartier watches. Having driven over an hour and feeling a little saucy, I instead decided to attempt the luxury equivalent of scaling Mt. Everest: negotiating a discount on a Rolex.
The initial price of the Rolex Datejust II was $7,525 before New Jersey sales tax. After a few minutes eyeing the watch, I asked, "Is there anything you can do for me?" The sales associate immediately brought the price down to $6,850. After a few more minutes, I checked with the manager. The price came down to $6,700. My final gambit was to ask if there were any way to get the total price, after sales tax, under $7,000. The manager brought out a calculator, punched some numbers, and—nope. The lowest price—including sales tax—she could offer was $7,085. Still, my 40 minutes in the store translated into a 12 percent reduction, or $966.
Second to None has paid me about $4,000 for my undercover work. While I never brought a watch home, I fear mystery shopping could be a gateway drug. Eventually, I'll spend all that money on a real purchase. At least I'll get a good deal.