A guide, and a warning, to living life on the cheap in London.
Everyone’s always banging on about how expensive London is. ‘I could never live down there,’ relatives up north never tire of telling. ‘How do you afford the rent, the tube and all that? And pints over a fiver? Not for me, that.’ But for three years, I drank, dined, shopped and bowled my way through the capital – all for free.
How did I do it? It’s simple: I was an obsessive – in all honesty, addicted – secret shopper. Working for three ‘customer insight’ agencies, Market Force, Secret Squirrels and Insight Retail Consulting (now in liquidation – RIP), I posed as a customer while covertly assessing and reporting back on the establishments I visited.
Companies, from high street chains to independent coffee shops, hire these agencies to keep tabs on their staff and make sure the customer experience lives up to the glossy marketing. The agency sends a secret shopper like me into one of their branches, with instructions to surreptitiously examine the service, standards and products on offer. The branch receives a score out of 100 based on my report and the staff members on duty that day receive glowing praise or a stern bollocking as appropriate.
I could eat out three or four nights a week, shop for new trainers, take my mates out drinking, bet on the football and enjoy bottomless brunches, spa treatments, hot yoga and gym sessions without spending a penny. All I had to do was write a few hundred words about my experience, send in a picture of the storefront (to confirm I’d visited the right location) and my receipt, and that was it – London was gratis. I’d be reimbursed fortnightly or monthly for the money spent (up to a certain amount), plus a nominal fee for my time (around £3).
When I was a student at Manchester University, I needed a way to make my student loan stretch a bit further and the best way to do that, I reasoned, was to stop paying for the things I enjoyed. A bit of internet searching took me to a Mumsnet forum on ‘mystery shopping’, a giddy promised land where the rivers flow with free booze, butties and clobber: a nirvana for the time-rich yet money-poor. I signed up to an agency and passed a laughably simple English comprehension test before being allocated a trial mission as a ‘probationary agent’.
As any spy will relate, you never forget your first assignment. I had to take a bus (my return ticket would be reimbursed) out to the city’s unlovely hinterlands, with the M60 roaring overhead, to the kind of pub where the welcome is as flat as the roof. Inside, I had to examine the lights (‘broken or flickering bulbs?’ – check), tables (‘uncleared glasses?’ – everywhere, check) and carpets (‘any noticeable stains – please tick all that apply: beer, wine, grease, other’ – yes, yes, yes, blood).
Approaching the bar, I asked for a pint of a well-known Irish stout, timing the pour to see if the bar staff took the recommended 119.5 seconds. I retreated to my table to take a picture on my phone and compile my report, drawing quizzical looks from the puce-faced regulars. From the moment that £7 reimbursement hit my account (well, my overdraft), I was hooked.
When I moved down to London, mystery shopping became a way of gaming the capital: allowing me to indulge in everything the city had to offer, without paying any prices – never mind ‘London prices’. I splashed a carefree £200 on a light lunch at a renowned two-Michelin-starred seafood restaurant on Fulham Road, taking note of the dirty look the waiter shot at me as I rocked up in a Liverpool FC top (the best spies hide in plain sight, I thought).
I was living in an impossible, utopian reflection of London, where everything was free. The city’s shops, restaurants, bars and cafés were at my mercy; London bent to my will. I felt like Neo after dropping the red pill and entering the Matrix for the first time, eyes open, wallet liberated from the shackles of reality.
The faceless ‘CX’ consultants who set these missions, with their labyrinthine instructions on what I had to observe, ask and report back on, had a dark sense of humour I began to relish. At one pub chain, where I dined every fortnight, I had to question a staff member taking my order about the vegan and gluten-free options on the menu – before ordering sirloin steak, chicken wings and chips.
Getting all this for free was brilliant, of course. But an addiction soon formed. I felt an irresistible compulsion not to pay for stuff, taking mission after mission to chase the thrill of consumption, free from all economic repercussions. I began to resent paying for anything at all and scorned those who did. Soon my life was not my own and my time was devoured by shopping assignments.
Lunch breaks, no longer relaxing, were swallowed by shopping missions. I’d hare across Westminster, glued to Google Maps, in search of some forgettable central London pub (the kind only tourists and football hooligans visit), returning bloated on an oversize, twice-fried lunch, my head foggy with the obligatory accompanying pint.
I was reprimanded by my boss at the advertising agency I then worked at for my ‘extracurricular’ writing. And I experienced abject, inconsolable grief when I narrowly missed out on juicy assignments, none more so than an all-inclusive package holiday to Crete paid for by a high street travel agent keen to keep tabs on flight and hotel staff, a loss which I still mourn today.
And that’s when it dawned on me. I was a spy, yes – but for the wrong side. I realised I was nothing less than that undercover prefect snitching to the teachers, an officer of Gestapo capitalism. Disgusted at what I’d become, I resolved to go rogue, to become a double agent, nay, a socialist fifth column operating at the heart of corporate surveillance.
If I received poor service from some tired and overworked bartender or checkout staff, instead of dobbing them in to the suits upstairs, I’d note their name badge and fabricate some story about how they went above and beyond the call of duty to elevate my customer experience to heavenly heights.
One particularly enjoyable (and frequent) mission was to go into off-licences and supermarkets to buy booze, in order to check whether staff asked for ID. If they’re caught selling to someone underage, it is the staff member in question – not the company – who has to pay a fine of up to £5,000. To prevent that, I’d whip my ID out as soon as I got to the till – saving the server at the cost of sabotaging the mission.
My reports began to resemble the most hellish postmodern fiction: fragments of dull commercial ephemera – prices, products, labels, lists of ingredients, company uniforms, menus and receipts (though I reckon had I only compiled and arranged them, and added another layer of metanarrative commenting on the experience years later, I’d be hailed as the saviour of contemporary metropolitan literature.)
I had to get out. The paranoia was taking over. Was I a heroic double agent with vast yet untapped literary potential? Or was I just a terrible secret shopper, wasting my time writing unimaginably dull and utterly pointless fiction, read only by an anonymous Customer Insight Manager? I was in so deep my head was spinning. I turned over my badge and gun (unsubscribed from mission alerts and email updates) and went cold turkey.
Those first few weeks were hell, as I learned the true price of London on civvy street. Pints really were over £5, as I told my friends and family up north. Though, in the process, I grasped the real value of time and liberty. Sure, I had to take on extra freelance work to fund a pathetically meagre lifestyle, but now I choose what shit, overpriced pub food to eat. And if that isn’t real freedom, I don’t know what is.