DV Cams: Agents Shafer, EMartin, Reeves, Carlson
Digital Photography: Agents Nicholson, Todd
Mission Inspired By: Agent Slavinsky
The idea for this mission was submitted by a stranger via email. Agent Slavinsky wrote in to suggest I get either a large group of people in blue polo shirts and khakis to enter a Best Buy or a group in red polo shirts and khakis to enter a Target. Wearing clothing almost identical to the store’s uniform, the agents would not claim to work at the store but would be friendly and helpful if anyone had a question. There aren’t any Targets in Manhattan, so I decided to go with the two-story Best Buy on 23rd Street.
I staked out the Best Buy a few times leading up to the mission. I wanted to figure out the exact shade of blue they used for their uniforms. One detail I noticed is that all employees wore belts and black shoes. I figured it would be against policy to film in the store, so any cameras we used would have to be somewhat hidden. In addition cameras could also be “hidden” in plain sight by using Best Buy’s demo cameras to document the mission. All we would have to do is bring in blank tapes and memory cards to insert in their own video and still cameras.
I sent out an email to my mailing list to recruit agents. I didn’t want to give away the exact nature of the prank for fear of word spreading to Best Buy employees ahead of time. I had to be as vague as possible and still make sure everyone wore the correct clothing:
In order to participate you must arrive adhering to a very specific dress code:
1) Blue Polo Shirt. Short sleeved. Any brand. Preferably with no logo. As Close to Royal Blue as possible.
2) Khaki Pants. Any shade of khaki is fine. No shorts.
3) Belt. Any belt is fine.
-If possible, please wear black shoes. This is not required, but please wear them if you have them.
-You must also bring a NEWSPAPER (Any newspaper is fine–just grab a free one on the street.)
-If possible, do not bring a backpack or any type of bag. This is not a huge deal, but it will work better without bags.
-Do not bring any type of camera. This mission is, as all IE Missions should be, participatory. We are covering it with our own small staff of camera people and do not need any more cameras or journalists. Only show up if you are wearing the proper dress and ready to participate and have fun!
We met at Union Square North at 3:30 PM. Around 80 agents showed up, most them looking like wonderful Best Buy employees. More than a few came dressed in navy or teal, but with the belt and the khakis they still looked employee-like. After everyone arrived I explained the mission. The first step was for everyone to throw their newspapers away. The instruction to bring a newspaper was a red herring meant to throw people off the scent of the mission’s true nature. I then revealed the plan, “We’re heading up to the Best Buy on 23rd Street. We’ll enter the store one by one. Once inside, spread out and stand near the end of an aisle, facing away from the merchandise. Don’t shop, but don’t work either. If a customer comes up to you and asks you a question, be polite and help them if you know the answer. If anyone asks you if you work there, say no. If an employee asks you what you’re doing, respond ‘I’m waiting for my girlfriend/boyfriend who is shopping elsewhere in the store.’ If they question you about your clothing, just explain that it’s what you put on when you woke up this morning and you don’t know any of the other people dressed like you.”
Agents listening to the instructions
It had been a rainy morning, and I was worried that most agents would show up with rain jackets and umbrellas, something Best Buy employees surely would not have on their person while working. Fortunately the rain stopped about an hour before our meet up time and most folks came empty handed. One Agent had a car parked nearby and let folks store their backpacks in his trunk for the duration of the mission. Agent Simmons was particularly resourceful, opting to check his bag at the Strand Bookstore on his way to the meeting point.
After everyone was briefed on the mission, we took a few group photos. We must have looked like some type of church retreat group to anyone passing us in the park. The group slowly started heading up towards the store. I positioned myself on 22nd street, just one block south of the store and around the corner. As agents started arriving, I had them wait out of view and sent people over individually in fifteen-second intervals.
An agent waits his turn
Our camera crew entered the store first with their hidden devices.
Agents EMartin and Reeves
Agents Shafer and Reeves stored their cameras in duffle bags.
Agent Shafer’s camera
Agent EMartin hid his camera inside an Xbox 360 box, cutting a hole in the side for his lens. The plan was for him to claim he was attempting to return his Xbox and get the security guard to tag it with a pink slip. Once inside he could walk around freely with what looked liked store merchandise.
Agent Carlson entered the store with only a Mini-DV tape. He went directly to the video camera section of the store, locating on the ground level right next to the front door, conveniently. He found their best 3-CCD camera, inserted his tape, and positioned it to film everyone entering the front door.
Agent Carlson inserting his tape
IE’s favorite photographer Agent Nicholson was on board per usual to snap photos. He brought a couple of cameras of his own, but he also brought a variety of memory cards to insert into Best Buy’s own demo cameras.
Agent Nicholson with his memory cards
Using a demo camera he snapped a few photos on the upper level discreetly.
Agent Simmons and Rodgers are among the first to enter
Agent Carlson loading the a demo video camera while Agent Kinney “works” in the background
After about fifteen minutes of staggered entrances, all 80 agents were in the store. Not noticing the lack of Best Buy logo and nametag, customers immediately started asking our agents for help.
Agent Kinney helps a customer near the front door
Agent Rodgers helps someone find a router
Two agents cross each other on the escalators
Pretty soon there was an agent stationed at every aisle in every section of the store.
We had a pretty diverse crowd, men and women, young and old. One agent brought his 9 and 11 year-old daughters with him. “Take your daughter to work day,” he explained to me. Their shirts weren’t quite the right color, but they made great employees nevertheless.
Some agents looked pretty close to a typical Best Buy employee.
Others, not so much.
I spent much of my time wandering the store checking out other agents and making sure everything was going to plan. Every now and then I would stay put for a bit on the end of an aisle. I helped a few customers. One woman wanted to know where she could find “Sound of Music on DVD.” I happily walked her over to the DVD section.
One employee passed me with a smile on his face and exclaimed, “All you guys have GOT to get together for a photo, because no one is ever going to believe this!” Another came up to me and said, “Let me guess, you’re waiting on your friend? Good answer.” I guess at that point he had heard that answer more than a few times.
The reaction from the employees was pretty typical as far as our missions go. The lower level employees laughed and got a kick out of it while the managers and security guards freaked out. Some employees speculated that we were a cult, or maybe protesters. One employee tried to get a date out of the incident, informing one agent, “Tell that girl in the computer section that ‘Mike says hi.’” Another employee after being told to go get some merchandise from the back, declared, “You should ask one of these other 50 people to do it!”
A real employee with three fake employees in the background
Security guards and managers started talking to each other frantically on their walkie-talkies and headsets. “Thomas Crown Affair! Thomas Crown Affair!,” one employee shouted. They were worried that were using our fake uniforms to stage some type of elaborate heist. “I want every available employee out on the floor RIGHT NOW!”
Two managers confer (right) while a security guard looks on (left)
Another manager meeting
Employees began asking our agents to leave the store if they weren’t shopping. Most stuck to their “I’m waiting for my girlfriend” story and refused to leave. Others pretended to shop whenever employees were near by. A few were escorted out by employees.
Agent EMartin’s Xbox video camera rig was discovered when an employee approached him to offer advice on how to return his Xbox. He was asked to leave, and then detained by security at the front door. There a manager claimed it was “illegal” to film in Best Buy and instructed someone to call 911. She informed him that he had violated her “civil rights” by filming in her store. Agent Nicholson, who had been taking photos at the hip to avoid detection was caught as well, but he was able to leave the store freely.
With our main photographer busted, I took out my camera and started taking covert snapshots. One employee caught me in the act and rushed over. As soon as he got to me, I caught him off guard with a question, “Hey, do you know where I can find the right memory cards for my camera?” He stammered for a second and then said, “Sure. They’re right over there.” I thanked him and was on my way. Another employee caught me moments later in the DVD section, but I disarmed him with a question as well, “Do you know how much the Star Trek DS9 DVDs are? There is no price tag.” We chatted for a second about how expensive the set was, and by the time I walked away he forgot all about the camera.
The cops arrived and began questioning Agent EMartin about why he was filming. He claimed he didn’t know us, but thought it was funny and started filming (inexplicably out of his Xbox). While filming this altercation, Agent Shafer’s camera was also discovered and the cops began questioning him as well. Already out of the store, Agent Nicholson was able to take photos through the window.
While the cops were questioning Agents Shafer and EMartin, we had two other cameramen filming the interaction. Agent Carlson remained undetected filming from a Best Buy demo camera, and despite the fact that her camera was the least hidden, Agent Reeves was never discovered. Perhaps being tall, blonde, and female had something to do with her camera not being noticed. Agent Shafer confidently informed the cops that it was not, in fact, “illegal” to film in Best Buy and that they couldn’t accuse him of trespassing until he had been asked to leave the store. He pointed out that he was perfectly willing to leave. A manger told Agent Shafer, “I don’t come to your house and film you,” to which he replied, “Who lives here?” The cops argued for a bit, but finally realized there was nothing they could do. They let the cameramen go and informed the manager, “The worst you can do is ask them to leave.”
We had been in the store for around 40 minutes, so I decided it was time to start leaving. I also figured our departure would ease the heat off of the cameramen. I walked around and gave agents the signal to leave. Before heading out, I snapped a few more photos and was busted a third time by an employee. He asked me to leave, and I informed him I was on my way out. I soon found myself in the middle of about six other agents heading towards the escalators. The guy who busted me decided he wanted to talk to me more about my camera, but couldn’t remember which one I was. As he walked with the six of us in our blue shirts, he started demanding, “Which one of you had the camera?” None of us answered. Riding the escalator up I took one last glance backwards. The employee saw my face and shouted, “That’s him!” I worried that he would make it to a security guard to radio in my description to the front door guys so they could intercept me. I picked up the pace and hurried out the front door, undetected, camera safely in pocket.
A security guard checks out an agent on his way out
Once on the street, we headed to a meet up point about five minutes away from the store. One manager followed us outside with her walkie-talkie shouting, “They’re heading down 6th Avenue!,” as if she was going to get someone to trail us.
Manager on the street
Another employee chased after us with a camera, hoping to get some group photos.
Agent EMartin, Hidden Camera
I created a hidden camera setup for this mission by making a smallish hole in an Xbox 360 box and crudely securing the camera inside. I thought I was going to be pretty clever walking around the store with a camera in a large bright-ass green box. I lasted about 5 minutes. One employee started chatting me up about return options and another employee wearing a tie came from behind me and spotted the lens-hole. They asked me if I was recording, I said yes, and he told me I had to leave the store.
I was escorted up the escalator, thinking that I was going to be kicked out. Near the front door a manager stopped the employee with a tie and started asking me questions about “what was going on.” I said I had no idea. She then lectured me about how I violated her civil rights and how I had endangered people in the store by distracting the employees. Her exaggerated arguments didn’t make much sense, but she was set on doing this “by the book” and calling the police. Two security guards made sure I didn’t leave. It took the manager a while to find the correct precinct phone number in their manual, and eventually they just dialed 911.
While I was waiting for the cops (it took 15-20 minutes for them to show up) I overheard some interesting exchanges. Only a couple of employees interacted with me directly, but aside from the one manager accusing me of endangering the masses, everyone was very polite. Both security guards loudly advanced their own theories about what was going on. One security guard didn’t know who the group was, but suspected that it was some cult, because, “They all have that zombie look in their eyes. They just stand there staring at nothing.” They also argued about if the prank was funny or not. One did not think it was funny at all and the other said he thought it was “kinda funny,” and tried to explain the humor, “What if you went into Home Depot and there were all these people wearing orange aprons all over the store?” “That’s completely different.” A few employees tried to get me to spill the secret on what the group was, and another employee came over twice and asked me in a hushed voice, “Are YOU a police officer?”
Once the cops showed up everyone including me got a bit more tense. They were obviously not happy about having to deal with the situation. They did not think the prank was funny and they repeatedly asked me for everyone’s names. I didn’t say anything, but agreed to show them the tape. One cop watched it while another spoke with store employees. Every time it would show an agent on the tape he would ask me what his name was. I would say I didn’t know (which was the honest truth), but he kept saying, “Bullshit, I don’t believe you. Why are you taping them if you don’t know them.” “Because, I think it’s funny.” “I don’t think it’s funny.” This whole time, agents were recording the event with Best Buy’s own demo video cameras. No employees noticed, even though they seemed to be pretty blatant.
Eventually, the cop angrily insisted that I was to go around and personally get all of the non-employees in blue shirts to leave the store. I complied and went around the store relaying the message to any of the agents left in the store. My favorite part of this was when an agent and his daughter refused to acknowledge me and didn’t break character, even though I was speaking directly to them.
Apparently, while I was walking around the store Agent Shafer was also discovered with a video camera. They kept asking us for the names of everyone else involved, which we didn’t disclose. They grew frustrated and at one point said that they would be writing both Agent Shafer and I summons for trespassing. Fortunately, Agent Shafer knew the law and kept turning the officer’s statements back on themselves:
“I’m not trespassing until you ask me to leave. No one has asked me to leave yet.”
“Are you disobeying a lawful order?”
“Are you asking me to leave?”
With most the agents now gone from the store, the cops gave up and we left the store.
Agent Shafer, Hidden Camera
Agent Reeves, Hidden Camera
I was excited to see so many people show up at Union Square in Blue polo’s and Khaki pants. When I got to Best Buy my job was to first stand outside and videotape the agents going in. After the first five minutes, four employees came out and stood next to me as they smoked. They knew something was up, one guy thought he was tripping on Acid, another said it was just like the Thomas Crown Affair. Whenever a new agent walked by, the guys would say, “Hey, Best Buy is right here, you might want to go in, your friends are in there.” Then they noticed agents were coming from every direction and this made them confused.
Audio clips of these employees:
Out of all the camera people, I was the most obvious. The lens was sticking out of my bag but nobody ever said anything. I caught up with Agent Kula as he helped some shoppers who were looking for a new TV. I saw some other Agents talking with customers about which video game or cell phone to buy. As everyone was leaving I stood downstairs in front of the escalators and spoke with two Black shirts about why they had so many employees working that day. The guy said about 50 people just came in randomly dressed as Best Buy employees and they absolutely did not work there. When I was leaving, I saw a police confrontation another cameraman, Agent Shafer. I stood next to them and videotaped the whole thing. That must have been the highlight for me. I made it in and out with a camera videotaping the whole time and nobody asked me about it. It’s just too bad we didn’t walk down to Blockbuster afterwards.
This was my third mission, and the first time I had the opportunity to bring my daughters (Agents Co and Bo). For us, it was a HUGE success. At one point on the way over to Best Buy, Agent Co said to me: “My cheeks hurt I’m smiling so much!”
We actually had other plans for Sunday–fortunately canceled by the rain–so we woke up uniform-less that morning. A stop at Old Navy got Bo and Co as close as we could get, and Agent Todd hooked me up with the perfect royal blue shirt. I must say that the anticipation, and the speculation about what we might be doing, was at least half the fun for the kids. And spotting other people in their “prank uniforms” on the way to the meeting place provoked total giggles in all three of us!
I was actually surprised that my kids didn’t feel a little disappointed by the prank itself, because there was no, like, “big moment.” Keeping on a game face and seeing their dad do something so… I don’t know… ridiculous and silly and “daring” was obviously entertaining enough.
Some highlights of our time inside the store: the customers who would stop mid-question upon seeing no logo on my shirt and apologize, sometimes pretty profusely, that they thought I worked there (wonder what gave them THAT idea!?); watching my kids massage their cheeks in that classic “don’tsmiledon’tsmiledon’tsmile” maneuver; the dude who seemed genuinely angry at me for wearing the shirt (“What are you guys doing?!! Why are you wearing these clothes!!??); and at one point about 45 minutes in, wandering from the video games all the way back to the TVs and seeing the scope of our “invasion.”
You know, though, having recently seen V for Vendetta and The Inside Man (both of which feature robberies and/or escapes using lots of people in identical outfits, I could definitely identify with the growing anxiety of Best Buy’s security and managerial staff. All in all, though, we had a great, truly memorable day, which always seems to happen when I hang with the Improv Everywhere crew!
When I entered the store, right off the bat, the employees pointed at my blue shirt and said, “Look, here comes another one! What’s going on?” So it didn’t take them long to be on to me. I then walked to the most vacant open space I could find, which happened to be the speaker section. It was there that I became the focal point of the manager Al (yellow shirt), and his manager Rick (white shirt.) As I stood with my back to the display case and arms behind me, Al first approached me within 30 seconds and asked if I needed any help. I asked him where the bathrooms were (I was actually needing to go), but he told me they were out of order. I said, “Alright, I’ll just wait for my girlfriend then. She’s looking for the bathroom. I guess I might be here awhile.” Five minutes later Rick came by and asked me pointedly, “What’s going on? What are you and your buddies doing?” I, flabbergasted, told him kindly I was waiting for the bathrooms to be fixed. And he, not believing me, asked me to leave and said he’s calling the police and then stormed off. I said ok and just went to another section.
In this section, Al approached me twice asking me if I needed help. I assured him, if I did indeed need help, I knew to come find him. And then he asked me if I had a child at home, and if I knew any children. Curious about his line of questioning, I asked him what he was getting at. He said he noticed that I was in the children’s section for a long time and it was making him uncomfortable. Not wanting to make him or any children uncomfortable, I went back to the speaker section. Rick then came by again said, “I can’t believe you guys are this bored; you better not talk to any of my customers.” I just stared at him with a puzzled look on my face claiming I knew of no others here but my lost girlfriend who I was becoming concerned about. He just walked away in a huff.
A customer did approach me soon after though and asked where the calculators were. I, trying to be helpful, pointed and said I think they are on the other side of the store. As soon as I finished my sentence, the couple says, “Here they are!” That was when I learned I was in the speaker and calculator section of Best Buy. I would not have made a good employee.
About 10 minutes later, I saw Al walking towards me from across the store. Trying to avoid him, I picked up a Best Buy brochure that was at the end of the aisle. I picked it up thinking it was an employment application, and Al asked if I needed any assistance once again. I asked him if they were hiring, nodding towards the brochures. And then we got into an awkward discussion about how it was actually a Best Buy credit card application and I said “it would be good for me if I actually did any shopping here.” He then said, “It looks like a lot of people like you like to shop at this store” as he pointed to all the other blue shirts. All I could muster was, “Yeah… that’s weird.”
Al and Rick finally approached me together towards the end of the mission. Al asked me my name, and I told them it was Al too, and of course they didn’t believe me. Al explained that he was still very uncomfortable with my presence in the store (even in the speaker and calculator section) and wanted to know what I was shopping for. I said, “I’m not shopping for anything. I’m browsing.” And the two looked at me like I was the first person to ever browse a Best Buy aisle with my back to the display cases the whole time. Rick, feeling defeated, said to Al. “You know what Al, just let them have their fun. We can’t do anything.” And as he said that, I got the cue from Agent Todd to exit, and then we all left in a timely manner.
I was lucky to score one of the regulation shirts from Agent Todd. As such, I was one of the first of the blue shirts to enter the store. I didn’t get five steps in before a dude asked me on the elevator, “Where are your land line phones? Are they downstairs?” I said, “Yeah, I think so.” He then asked, “Oh and where are the bathrooms?” I said sheepishly, “Oh I don’t actually work here.” He pointed, “The blue shirt.” I shrugged and said, “Oh right.”
Then downstairs very quickly the real boys in blue started to notice the mass influx of recreational blue shirters. They responded at first by very deliberately greeting me. “Hello!” “How are you?” Then, they grew more suspicious trying to suss out my level of craziness. “Can I help you with something?” Then to, “Hey, why are you wearing a blue shirt? It’s confusing.” To finally flat out accusation from a yellow shirted higher up, “Hey man, what’s going on? What are you guys going to do?” I explained I was just browsing and had felt like wearing blue today. He didn’t buy it. Two minutes later, I heard one of the dudes say, “I can’t deal with this, I’m calling the police.” To be fair, I think I might have been a little freaked out too. Still, if you were a manager you had to love what appeared to be wall-to-wall employee coverage of the store for every five feet. Now, that’s service!
I arrive at Best Buy and immediately have the chance to hold the door for a few customers. I step inside, cruise down the escalator, and quickly encounter an annoyed security guard. “May I help you sir?” he asks. “No thanks.” “What’s going on here?” “What do you mean?” I respond. “Is this some sort of event?” “I don’t understand.” “Why are you wearing that?” he presses. “Oh,” I smile, “These are just my clothes.” He shakes his head, and I wander off.
I tour the store and feel pretty good about landing a spot next to the vacuum cleaners. There are no employees in sight. I hover. A 50-something bearded Jewish man makes eye contact, walks toward me, my first customer. “Do you work here?” he asks. “No, I don’t.” He starts looking at vacuum cleaners, not knowing where to start. “What are you looking for?” I ask. “I need a vacuum cleaner,” he says. “I have a Dirt Devil. It works really well, very powerful machine,” I say. “A Dirt Devil. Dirt Devil, OK.” A real employee approaches. “May I help you sir? the employee asks. “Yes, I’d like to buy a Dirt Devil,” the man responds.” I sold my first vacuum cleaner. Damn, it feels good.
Shortly after that, I was asked to leave for not shopping. Instead, I decide to stay. I stroll around the store for awhile, until I overhear an employee say the cops had been called. I casually make a daring escape up the escalator and out the front door. Have a nice day, a large, bald bouncer says in a tough voice as I left.
I searched frantically the day before the event for a shirt that was perfect color, that “Best Buy Blue.” I found a decent approximation, but I was concerned it was off enough that I wouldn’t fit in well. Nevertheless, I got into my role the second I walked into the store, I went to the video game section, (the section I personally spend the most time in whenever I’m actually shopping at a Best Buy). I leaned against the “discount games” table, crossed my arms and patiently waited for any customers in need. Within 5 minutes an older gentleman approached me, began asking me a question, then paused and looked carefully at my shirt. “Oh, I’m sorry, you don’t work here…” Damn! I was sure now that I wasn’t fooling anyone. I was just a guy who kinda sorta looked like a Best Buy employee. But then, a person playing on the Xbox 360 on display looked over at me and asked me to change games on the system. “Sorry,” I said, with an unusually large smile, “I don’t work here, but maybe I can find someone that can help you. Also, may I recommend `Burnout: Revenge’?” The look on his face showed genuine surprise. “Damn! You really don’t work here?!? Shit, that’s just…confusing.” That’s all I wanted to hear. After that I got asked three times by different people where to go to check out. “Oh, right over there,” I told them, adding: “they should really make that clearer for us, right?”
The rest of my tenure was spent watching other Best Buy employees freak out. They walked past me, usually staring at me, occasionally asking if I needed any assistance. But one guy, “Mike” was his name, made it a point to let us all know he A) knew what was going on, and B) was A.O.K. with it. He walked over to at least five IE Agents and asked them their name, and how it was going, and if they were having a good time. He would then turn to one of the other real Best Buy employees and give a grin, a laugh or a thumbs up to indicate that he had engaged with us, and recognized us as a non-threat. I also saw another employee snapping photos of us with her camera phone.
I was one of the last to enter the store. As I approached I saw two employees smoking at the curb. I glanced at the store door and heard from behind me, “…another one!”
As I entered the upper level at least half the employees in the open display area there turned to look at me. I was thinking, “Wow, a Cheers moment!” I stepped forward intending to go down the escalator and found myself in the roped off area at the top of the up escalator and had to backtrack to get around to the down escalator. I heard several people giggle.
As I came off the down escalator I heard an employee say, “I don’t know but they are stationed around and helping customers.”
After about 15 minutes downstairs I went back up to see how things were on the street level section. As I stood near the digital video cameras a young male employee walked round the display table touching and counting aloud the cameras and an older female employee walked around touching each of the associates on the upper arm and saying, “Keep your cool, just keep your cool.”
I went back downstairs and walked toward the CD section. A short 40ish black woman with dreadlocks pulled back and tied behind her head started following me. We walked the length of the classic music aisle and turned the corner starting back past the country western CDs. She is walking about five feet behind me. I stop and just look across the top of the display toward the escalators. She stands there looking toward me for a few seconds then backtracks and walks up the next aisle directly through my field of vision. She is walking very stiffly with eyes pointed forward avoiding eye contact. At the end of the row she turns the corner back into my aisle again and starts toward me. She takes about two steps directly toward me. When I glance over in her direction I see that she has both her hands together at waist level. From between her hands there is a camera flash. She immediately turned and headed back toward customer service.
I was lingering near the audio equipment at one point when a middle-aged couple asked me if I knew the price of some speakers. I looked for a price tag and then read $99.99 labeled on the shelf by the product. I said “$99.99?” Unsure. And they pointed out, “No. That is the price of the wireless speakers”. “Oh”, I said “Maybe it’s been labeled wrong.” The man said, “Well, do you work here?” I said, “No,” but I thought they looked like good speakers. They looked puzzled.
Just then an actual Best Buy floor clerk approached me:
Employee: “You can’t talk to my customers”.
Simmons: “I’m just having a friendly conversation with these people”
Employee: “But you don’t work here.”
Simmons: “It’s a free country I feel I can speak with anybody I choose.”
Employee: “You’re playing some games.”
Simmons: “I’m just here to shop with my wife.”
Employee: “Yeah, you and your 50 friends?”
Simmons: “I don’t know anybody else here.”
Employee: “Yeah, you’re instigating (sic) our shirts.”
Yes, he said INSTIGATING.
I told him, “I’m only wearing what I wore this morning,” and walked away.
A little while later, an older woman with a handful of products walked past me at one point muttering to herself, “Everyone in this goddamned store is wearing a blue shirt and nobody knows a thing!”
Saturday: I entered Conway discount store and spotted a fellow agent surveying the royal blue polo shirts. A funny side effect of this mission, I realized, would be a baffling increase in sales of royal blue polo shirts.
Sunday: Once we got the logistics and the group photos out of the way, Agent Todd situated himself around the corner from the store and waved us in individually to avoid a conspicuous glut of agents entering the store. As soon as I got inside, I overheard two blue-shirted Best Buy employees remark that this was something like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”. I meandered slowly through the downstairs, putting on a blank stare so as to avoid eye contact with anyone. BB blue-shirts kept coming up to help me–apparently “can I help you?” is the only icebreaker they know, and they just walk away dejectedly if you say no.
A customer in the big-screen TV section asked, redundantly, if he could ask me a question. I admitted I didn’t work there, but offered to help anyway. He wanted to buy a large, flat-screen TV, but didn’t know whether to look at plasma models or LCDs. I told him that plasmas tend to be a lot more expensive and tend to have a limited lifespan (both true, I think?). He thanked me and wandered off with his girlfriend.
A little later, when I was loitering near the computers, a female customer got kind of snappy with me when I couldn’t tell her where the scanners were. I politely let her know that I didn’t work there and she got totally apologetic, like she’d insulted me by assuming I worked at Best Buy. Then an employee approached and asked (of course) if I needed any help. I said no, I was just waiting for my friend. “You mean all of your other friends you’re here with?” No, I said, just my one friend–I think she’s over looking at CDs. “Well, it’s hard to tell with everyone wearing these shirts.” Yeah, I told her, what a weird coincidence! She asked that I refrain from helping any customers and rushed off to ask other IE agents if they needed any help.
As time wore on, I could sense the growing confusion of the BB people–the yellow-shirts were out in force, the black-shirts were on their walkie-talkies. I imagine some off-duty regional manager was receiving a very confused call from BB personnel at this point.
Around 4:45 or so, Agent Todd signaled that it was time to go. On the way out, I saw Agent Shafer getting a talking-to by a cop. He was saying something about “trespassing” which I’m sure was a load of crap, but I figured it was better to leave than test whether that would hold up in court.
I got mixed up when buying my polo shirt and bought a Navy Blue one, so I wasn’t an exact match for an employee and was a little dejected when I showed up and was informed of the mission. As I approached the store a passer-by said how he was freaking out about the number of people with blue shirts. When I was cleared by Agent Todd to stagger in, I overheard employees outside smoking that they didn’t know what was going on but it was weird.
It seemed pretty immediate once I entered the store and took the escalator down that the management was freaking out. I overheard a woman first asking an agent what was going on and then discussing it with an employee about how weird it was. People were on their walkie-talkies asking what was going on, saying they were calling the cops, not to let them talk to the customers, etc. After awhile I was glad that I wasn’t a Royal Blue shirt, because although I’m pretty sure the employees knew I was with the group, since I wasn’t wearing the correct color, they couldn’t be 100% sure and I was able to blend in more to observe and listen.
At different times I tried to find a spot that wasn’t around any other agents, but this was impossible. So I mingled. A couple of times it got a little busy around me with employees so I started shopping, picking up a DVD or CD and looking at it. The most anyone said to me was to ask if I needed help, which I didn’t. Later I tried to hang out more near other agents to hear what was going on. Then it seems like every idling agent was being asked to leave so I again started shopping. I then got the cue from Agent Todd to leave the store and meet up a block away to hear the other stories. Now, I think it might be good to buy the right color shirt and go back on my own and shop to see if they think it’s happening again.
Some of my favorite quotes when I was in Best Buy:
Lady on a headset: “They’re coming in droves–what do I do?”
A dude walked up to me and said: “Are you guys demonstrating or protesting or something?” I said: “Oh, I’m just waiting for my girlfriend, she’s somewhere around here.” And he says: “So the shirts….?” And I said: “Shirts?” A security guard walked by and said to the dude, “Sir, this man does not even work here, do not ask him questions.”
And finally when I was “escorted” out by a large female manager:
Manager: “What are you doing can I help you?” [very sassy tone]
Me: I’m just waiting for a friend.
Manager: “Oh yeah? Where is your friend? Let’s go find your friend, I want to see him.”
Me: I’m not sure; I think he’s looking at flat-screen TV’s.
Manager: Okay. Either you’re shopping or you’re leaving.
Me: I suppose I’ll leave
Manager: That’s right. And I’m going to escort you out.
I stopped in two stores to kill some time before heading to Best Buy. In West Elm, a chic home furnishings store, a woman flagged me down.
“Excuse miss, do you work here?” she said.
“No, but did you need help with something?” I said.
She started laughing then said, “Well, no, not if you don’t work here.”
I think she thought that I was crazy. After that I went to Staples. A young woman approached me.
“Do you know where I can find those things that hold business cards?” she said. I paused. She waited.
“I don’t work here,” I said.
“Oh, I thought you did,” she said, gesturing wildly to my outfit. “I’m sorry.”
I was about to leave when an old man and a young child approached me. The man was carrying a newspaper. He pointed to it and asked me if I could unlock the cabinet holding the item he needed. We walked over to the cabinet. I told him twice that I didn’t work there, but he just kept saying, “We’ll have to get the key.”
Finally I just walked off and left the store. I headed to Best Buy and once inside I took the escalator downstairs. Several people asked me for help. One man wanted to know about some software and started laughing when I said I didn’t work there. After about 15 minutes I went upstairs and stood by the front door. At this point the managers and security knew something was going on. A girl walked in and approached me.
“Do you know where I can find a USB port?” she said.
“What is that?” I said.
“It’s a computer thing,” she said.
“What does USB stand for?” I asked. She gave me a strange look.
“I don’t know,” she said. “You just plug it in…”
At that point a Best Buy employee wearing a black shirt came running over shouting “She doesn’t work here!” but the girl was already heading down the escalator.
He turned to me and said, “You can’t help her!”
“Oh, believe me,” I said. “I wasn’t helping her.”
“Who are you guys with?” he asked.
Shortly thereafter, I left the store.
My favorite moment of the day happened within five minutes of entering the store. When I took a very visible (and helpful, I thought!) position near the base of the escalator, I was told by some yellow-shirted security tool with a corporate lackey by his side that I needed to leave the premises. I said sure, and was on my way out, when I was stopped by a guest who needed help finding some PS2 game. And with that, I was back on the job. I walked the guest over to the game section, bullshitted my way through assisting her (“No, that game’s got great graphics. Me? I play it all the time. Oh yeah. Sure. Why not?”), and then took up my new position there…where I remained, until the mass exodus of IE Agents. Next time: We need yellow shirts.
My friend and I took a longer walking route to the Best Buy (at 23rd and 7th) so we could observe fellow agents entering the store. From across the street, it was very funny to watch because anyone would have assumed that the gaggles we kept seeing were actual Best Buy employees and they were on break together or something. We crossed the street and were instructed by Agent Todd when to enter the store. Once we were downstairs on the sales floor, I started seeing more and more blue-shirted people coming down the escalator, to the point where there was an IE agent at the end of every aisle. I decided I needed to walk around the store to get the full effect. I passed a couple of real employees, one of whom was saying “they must have NOTHING BETTER TO DO” and another of whom was saying “I’ma smack them all upside the head, that’ll make `em leave,” which was my first indication that we were in trouble. I started looking around for my friend, who I’d gotten separated from, but couldn’t find him, so finally I perched myself at the end of an aisle and waited. A customer came up to me and asked me where the DVD’s were. I said I didn’t know, because I didn’t work here, and he looked at me weirdly and moved on. I then realized that I was standing in the middle of the DVD section, so I have to think that my “customer” was another undercover IE Agent. Then I started getting approached by managerial types. One manager came up to me and said, “I don’t know what you and all your friends are doing here, but you need to leave.” I said, “What? I’m just waiting for someone, I don’t know…” and the guy goes, “Yeah, yeah, all of you are just ‘waiting for someone.’” Then I was ambushed by two more managers who started barking “Are you purchasing anything ma’am? Are you purchasing anything ma’am?” at me, and escorted me to the escalator, and amid my protests were telling me that I was causing a distraction by being dressed too much like them. This was the rule that they determined I was breaking: causing a distraction by being dressed too much like them. Hilarious.
Outside, I conferred with some other agents who’d been kicked out, one of whom reported that she’d overheard a manager saying, “The police are on their way.” Two minutes later, the police car pulled up. I feel guilty for wasting the time of New York’s Finest with our silly prank where absolutely nothing untoward was going to happen, but I didn’t feel quite as guilty when one of the policemen came up and started being, predictably, a total dick: “This is absolute nonsense. If you go back in there, you’re getting a summons and you’ll be going to jail.” He walked away and an agent said “Okay, so now we’ve established where the line is. You can go in once, but you can’t go in again.” I said, “Are we banned from Best Buy for life?” Everyone shivered. Then, someone else: “Where’s the nearest Blockbuster?”
I had to hang around for quite awhile waiting for my friend (who did a better job of hiding than I did – he was hanging out by the calculators waiting to tell unsuspecting customers who asked him a question, any question: “I’m sorry, I’m the calculator guy, and calculators are all I know about.”), so I got to hear lots of other stories, including one who said a customer was carping about us to a manager because “they won’t do anything and they won’t tell us what they’re protesting!” I also saw one guy who thought the gag was pretty funny, and on his way out of the store he said “Well done, guys.” So all in all, I think a success!
An old man asked me to help him get down a big box from a top shelf for him. I began to try to get the box, when I realized I was way too short to actually get it, and at best I’d knock it off the shelf. I then told him, “You know I don’t work here, sir?”
He was so confused, and just pointed at my shirt, began to laugh, and apologized. He went to another nearby ACTUAL-Best Buy employee, and said, “Looks like your twin!” The Best Buy employee did not share a laugh with him.
I really enjoyed selling a phone to a customer, recommending different products, talking a couple out of buying a particular washing machine, and referring a customer to a Best Buy employee when I couldn’t quite help him with his question about a cord extension for his speakers. It was also really fun talking to the other employees and calling them by name as if they knew me- “Hey Randy this woman needs more help with…”
Here are some bullet points from my observations:
1. I waited to enter the store so I’d be toward the tail end of the group. The first thing I heard was the manager walking rapidly through the store with her walkie. She was saying, “I want every available person on the floor right now…!”
2. Shortly thereafter, several of the more official-looking employees were walking rapidly around the store saying, apparently for the benefit of the ears of all blue shirts they did not recognize, “…the cops have been called…” They said this as they walked by me, as if in the middle of a conversation, and I understand they repeated this again for others to hear. A clever strategy on their part, I thought.
Soon afterward some of our agents walked around passing this information along to their fellows in an under-the breath way. (It was suggested afterward that one thing we could have done is informed the regular customers of this fact, as well: “Just wanted you to know the cops have been called, so don’t panic.”)
3. An employee, who seemed to dog me through the store, walked up beside me near the refrigerators. “So, you guys get bored or something?” he asked in an offhand, amiable way. I looked blank: “Huh?” He repeated it. “You guys all got bored and so you got blue shirts and came in here…?”
I said, “I’m sorry, but I don’t understand what you mean. If you mean, am I bored, it’s true I’m kind of bored because I’m waiting for someone.” He then changed tactics. “It’s really cold today, right, and raining like [some off-color phrase], isn’t it? Isn’t it a bit cold for the shirts? I mean, short sleeves and all?” I assured him it was now sunny and warm and he should check it for himself. As I was no help, he excused himself and went elsewhere.
4. I was asked “Can I help you” by several people over time. I found the best answer, besides my story that I was waiting for my wife shopping for baby supplies across the street at Burlington Coat Factory, was to actually ask some question about something in the store. “Is that a rear projection screen or is there a projector somewhere?” “Is that screen more or less effective in terms of glare if there’s bright sunlight?” That sort of thing. They would answer me and I’d say “thanks” and look off into the distance; they must have felt that somehow I had just proven my right to be in the store, because in each case they then left me alone.
5. For a bit I stationed myself at the foot of the escalator so the maximum number of store patrons would ask me for directions. This worked not so very well. Then I decided to freak out the fellow(s) watching me a bit and for some time I would check my watch, then go up the escalator and hang out at the top. After a few minutes, I checked the time again and went back down, as if there were some reason to be one place or the other. (Later other agents and I thought it would have been more fun if I’d touched my ear and looked like I was receiving instructions through an implant, nodded and proceeded to change position, rather than merely checking the watch.)
6. As I hung out on the top floor, hoping to overhear something being said by the employees talking with the cops, a guy in a black jacket walked up and warned me, “You’re going to have to leave. The police are going to start arresting people if you don’t leave.” I had been talking with an employee at that moment, and as the man moved away I looked at the employee with a confused expression and asked “Do we know him?” The employee said nothing. I asked, “Does he work here?” but the employee moved away. I still don’t know if the man worked for the store. He might have been an undercover agent of the store.
7. Another employee — or the same one; they all dress alike, I noticed — asked “You guys all together? You come as a group?” I gave him my patented blank look. “What do you mean? I’m just here by myself.” Like the other very confused employees, he wasn’t sure how to follow up on this line of questioning and went away.
8. Being as I was near the very front door of the store at 4:45, I was perhaps the first person told by the police to vacate. “Are you shopping?” said the policeman. “No, I’m just waiting.” “All the people wearing blue shirts who are not employees of Best Buy have to leave right now. You have to leave right now.” I obliged, looking inconvenienced.
I was one of the earlier entries into the store and as I walked around trying to get a feel for the layout I overheard some employees already on alert. One of them was giving orders to the others, “Eyes open. Eyes open. Anyone wearing a blue shirt. Eyes open.’
I found a comfortable spot by a pillar in front of a TV. I hoped I could look like a bored employee to random customers and like a bored customer to random employees. Almost immediately somebody asked me for help finding a certain Bose speaker system. I told the customer I wasn’t sure but I’d get one of the women who work in this section to help him. I found two female employees chatting and said, “There’s a customer who wants help finding Bose speakers. Can you help him?” They seemed reluctant to, maybe they thought I was trying to give them orders or something, but one of them came and I introduced her to the customer then went back to my post.
One of the male employees was particularly take charge. He questioned me early on about what was going on. The typical “What are you up to?/I have no idea what you’re talking about” conversation. I did let him know that a customer had asked me about speakers and that I had found an employee to help and he said “Thank you” and stopped questioning me.
Another customer got my attention in a more rude way by snapping his fingers and saying hello then going into the aisle a few rows down before waiting for a response. So I followed him to where he was with his wife looking at cordless phones. He seemed to be ignoring me so I asked, “Were you talking to me?” and he replied “Yes” very annoyed and asked me something about the frequencies. So once again I hooked them up with an employee. I continued to do that for the rest of the questions I received.
One customer got particularly annoyed. She came up demanding, “Do you work here?” When I said I didn’t she said, “Then why are you wearing a blue shirt? You shouldn’t come here in that shirt.” She too got taken care of by a real employee. After some time the employee who had questioned and thanked me earlier came back really pissed. We had a conversation that went something like:
“I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
“You’re kicking me out?”
“No, I’m not saying that.”
“Ok, then I can stay?”
“You’re not buying anything.”
“I’m waiting for my friend, just watching TV while I wait.”
“I’m asking you to leave.”
“Are you kicking me out?”
This repeated in various versions until eventually he conceded with, “Fine, just do what you have to do.” Agent Todd also overheard him add, “Have fun,” as he walked away. A little while later a more managerial guy came by simply saying, “You can stay there, but just don’t help our customers.” Before I could respond he was already moving on to give the warning to the next blue shirt in sight. I grew tired of my spot and walked around. I went to a bathroom that I had seen on my initial scout of the store but when I got to it I noticed it had an Employees Only sign. I considered it for a moment, but I didn’t want to push my trespassing luck so I moved on.
The last and best-overheard moment was two employees who were actually getting a kick out of the whole thing saying, “These guys rock!” They started discussing some part they needed. “You’ve got to go to the warehouse and get it yourself… or send one of these guys to do it.” The other guy agreed he should send me.
Agent Nicholson’s Flickr photoset (highlights)
Agent Nicholson’s Flickr photoset (128 photos)
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