Spies on the job as menacing as Nintendo-crazed youngsters

THIS JUST IN...

February 02, 1994|By DAN RODRICKS

Ralph Batchelor and Bob Scheufele call themselves "spies with an eye to service." Their company, based in Anne Arundel County, specializes in rooting out lazy sales clerks, bored and rude waiters, indifferent and careless waitresses, sticky-fingered cashiers.

For a fee, their employees pose as customers and either make purchases in retail outlets or sit down for meals in client restaurants. They buy, they eat, they drink, they observe, they file reports. They tell restaurateurs which of their waiters is unpleasant, or which waitress has an effective sales pitch for the "extras" that make a place profitable -- extra drinks, extra coffee, dessert, etc. They tell convenience stores which cashier is stealing cash. They tell liquor stores which of their employees are slack in asking young customers for proper identification.

Batchelor, a retired private investigator, and Scheufele, who once headed security for a supermarket chain, operate as Securcheck Services, based in Pasadena. They're "mystery shoppers." The Los Angeles Times reported last fall that some 200 companies are now doing this kind of undercover investigating, and that number is triple what it was just five years ago. "After years of neglect, businesses have rediscovered the customer," a California business professor told the Times.

In Maryland, the bulk of Securcheck's business is the random checking of employees in liquor stores -- the company hires college students, 21 years or older, to make the purchases -- but it also has provided hard-nosed restaurant reviews for Eastern Shore establishments.

"In a convenience store, we'll do an honesty shop, or an integrity shop," Scheufele says. "We send two shoppers in. One goes ahead and makes a purchase. While he's waiting for change and the cash register is open, the second shopper will say he has exact change for an item and offer it to the cashier. We check to see whether [the cashier] puts the money in the register and records the sale, or pockets it." Scheufele says his company caught one cashier pocketing $83.

Live wires, indeed

Cheryl Narizzano of Bel Air speculated about why the recent Big Chill that visited Maryland and most of the East Coast forced the so-called "rolling blackouts" to conserve energy through the regional power grid. It's just a theory, but I think Cheryl might be onto something that, at least, contributed to the crisis. "Do you think," she wondered, "that the real reason we had a power demand emergency from BG&E was that all those kids, all over the state, were all home from school, all playing Nintendo at the same time?"

The last bargain

Regarding things tacky, here's some language from a newspaper advertisement for a Carroll County funeral establishment: "If you have been thinking about funeral arrangements . . . now is the time to lock in 1993 costs." It's the dead man's inflation buster!

Bones and art

Many people have been wondering about Lydia Brown's bone art, an example of which appeared in this space a few weeks ago. People want to know how Lydia became interested in making figurines out of bones. The answer is simple: Bones are challenging. "After you have finished eating all of the meat from a drumstick, you don't wash it and put it on the mantelpiece for everyone to see," Lydia says. "It just looks like a brown-and-white drumstick. Wow! What a challenge!"

How does she do it? "Eat as much meat from the bone as possible," Lydia explains. "Boil the bones twice. Place in a bleach solution for four days. Remove from solution and spread on paper towels to dry (three or four days). Study the bones, determine what you can see, like a face, leg, head, neck, etc. (A large turkey neck has about 12 bones, each resembles an animal head. A ham bone can resemble an animal's head and neck. Chicken leg bones sometimes resemble little men." After you've constructed your work of art from the bones -- presumably gluing them together; Lydia did not give away all of her secrets -- you coat it with shellac. That way it lasts forever.

Pedaling for peace

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