Secret 'Shopper' Puts Sales Clerks Through Acid Test : Commerce: She is among 50 mall spies who blend in with the holiday crowds to evaluate the employees' effectiveness.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Crowds of holiday shoppers swarmed the aisles around her, picking through shelves of marked-down sweaters and blouses and tossing the rejects into sloppy piles.

Over at the cash register, customers clustered impatiently around a harried clerk trying to ring up orders, fiddle with credit cards, stuff purchases into bags and answer questions--all at the same time.

Perfect, decided shopper Carol Larson.

The thousands of others jamming the Del Amo Fashion Center in Torrance the other day were shopping for last-minute Christmas presents. But Larson was shopping for service.

Larson is a sales clerk spy. She is one of 50 phony shoppers hired by the mall to blend in with the holiday crowd and evaluate employees of Del Amo's 356 stores.

The Hollywood woman watches to see how quickly she is greeted when she walks in and how knowledgeable clerks are about their store's merchandise. Is the saleswoman pleasant when a customer makes irksome demands? Does the salesman seem eager to please?

To mollify Del Amo clerks who feel that real Christmas shoppers are stressful enough, the mall is paying $100 to each who scores high on the spies' evaluation sheets, according to mall executive Brandace Bruning.

Clerks offering only so-so service can win $70 or $20. Those with both poor technique and poor attitude receive either $1 or 2 cents, depending on how bad they are.

Out in the mall, Larson targeted the Ames women's wear shop for one of her inspections and strolled in. Sales clerk Shelly Zgrzemski was quick to strike up a conversation.

Zgrzemski, who lives in El Segundo, politely answered questions about sweaters and patiently helped Larson select several dresses to try on. She even borrowed a pair of high-heeled shoes from a store mannequin for Larson to use in the fitting room.

Surprisingly, Zgrzemski remained cheerful when Larson walked out 30 minutes later without buying anything. Outside, Larson pronounced her a $100 winner.

"My friends tell me I've got the best job because I get paid to shop," Larson said. "But it's not just going out and having fun."

She's like other mall-goers in one way, however.

"I haven't finished my own Christmas shopping yet," she said. "I exchange gifts with about 20 people. I have five people left to shop for."

Larson said it like she dreads it.

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