The spy who loves helping parents buy gifts for their children

Jonna Mendez was a globe-trotting spy for nearly three decades, briefing the president, slipping across borders armed with false identities, using cameras so tiny they fit into a lipstick tube or a blazer button.

As the CIA’s chief of disguise, she helped fellow agents avoid detection. She married Tony Mendez, a fellow agent recently portrayed by actor Ben Affleck in the Oscar-winning espionage film “Argo.”

In retirement, Jonna Mendez’s undercover operations haven’t stopped. But her priority is no longer national security.

Her new goal? To help parents find the best presents for their children without tipping their hand.

Mendez, 68, is Target’s so-called Kids’ Gift Detective, hired as an outside consultant during the holiday season. She’s part of a scattered cadre of gift experts aiding consumers and companies in a competitive Christmas.


Sales over the Black Friday weekend were lukewarm this year, as shoppers who have adapted to tighter budgets consolidated their store visits and headed for deeply discounted items. With only a day left before gifts are exchanged, retailers are doing everything in their power to make last-minute shopping simple for their patrons.

As of Dec. 8, some 64% of consumers had half or more of their holiday shopping remaining, according to a report from American Express.

To help out, daily deals site Groupon employs a team of eight so-called Grouponcierges who point out gift trends and money-saving tips to customers, usually through social media.

There’s also a small industry of independent gift consultants, such as Julie Kenney, who writes a popular blog called the Gifting Experts. Clients contact her through her Bay Area blog.

“More people want different, unique gifts instead of the last-minute things you get running to the mall,” Kenney said. “There are just so many options now, it’s hard to navigate.”

But the only gift-advising expert with a spy’s eye is Mendez.

Her tips, compiled on Target’s website, coach parents to ask their children to write out their wish lists in a secret letter to Santa using makeshift invisible ink created with lemon juice or milk. The script becomes legible later when heated.

She preaches misdirection: Label packages with another family member’s name or disguise them with a shipping label so children don’t become suspicious. Camouflage presents inside other wrapped gifts so kids can’t guess the contents from the size or shape of the box. Hide items inside the cleaning cabinet or other areas no child would think to check.

“Moms and dads have this annual problem at Christmas: How do you find out what a kid wants when sometimes they don’t even know? How do you go on a covert mission to purchase it? How do you store it until Christmas?” she said. “There’s an espionage equivalent in each of those steps.”

She’s had a lot of practice with her son Jesse, 21, who has always been difficult to shop for, she said.

When his friends came over with toys for play dates, Mendez would make a note of which playthings most attracted Jesse’s attention. She’d interrogate people she calls “access agents” — coaches, teachers, carpool drivers and baby sitters who spent a lot of time with her son. She’d ask Jesse to flip through gift catalogs, watching his face “to see when he would light up.”

“Today, you might call it biometrics, but it’s body language basically,” she said. “When kids like something, they talk faster, their eyes light up, they sit up straighter.”

Mendez said her skills are now “second nature.”

But in 1966, as a 21-year-old in love with Germany, all of her focus was on staying in Europe. With no grasp of the language and no work permit, Mendez said she talked herself into a secretarial position at a Chase Manhattan Bank outpost.

From there, she was recruited by the CIA, which eventually brought her to Washington to work a similar job. When she indicated that she might leave to work at the Smithsonian, the CIA persuaded her to stay by offering her more exciting work in the field.

This is where Mendez says she has to be “a little circumspect” in describing operations. She says only that she traversed the globe — to India, Cuba and a host of other locales — teaching agents to surreptitiously record sensitive information and helping them slip past authorities by altering their looks. She said she has had to elude foreign security agencies such as the Soviet Union’s KGB and East Germany’s Stasi during the Cold War.

“When we’re looking for plans and the intentions of our enemies, we can’t get that from satellites,” she said. “You can only get those from people in meetings.”

Mendez retired when her son was 4 months old. Her family has helped keep her spy skills sharp — her husband has children from a previous marriage and several grandchildren. The Mendez offspring have won nearly every Halloween costume contest they ever entered.

Now, Jonna Mendez and her family live on a 40-acre farm in rural Maryland, where she keeps an art studio. That’s where she was this year when Target reached out to her via a phone call to her literary agent.

The Minneapolis retailer recently indicated to Wall Street that the holiday season may be difficult.

In a conference call with analysts in late November, Target Chief Executive Gregg Steinhafel said that “consumers will be laser-focused on value” during the holidays and that the company is “entering the season with guarded expectations for sales.”

Trying to be indispensable to Christmas shoppers, Target launched what Steinhafel called “the most digitally enabled holiday campaign in our history” and built up larger inventories of popular gift items such as toys and electronics.

Mendez is part of that strategy.

In her blog posts, she appears as a cartoon bundled up in a red trench coat, her short blond hair covered with a red fedora — a sort of retail industry Carmen Sandiego. So far, no other company has tried to poach her away, she said.

“I think I’m the only one doing this,” she said of her gift-sleuthing gig. “I’m the first person in the parade.”

Twitter: @tiffhsulatimes