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HOUSTON As airports evolve from bland transportation terminals to lively and lucrative shopping environments, the Houston Airport System wants to try something that s become common in retailing: mystery shoppers.

Stroll through the terminals at Houston airports and you ll pass some of the same attractions that draw crowds to shopping malls.

Look to your left and you ll see the bookstore where you can buy the latest John Grisham thriller. Look to the right and you ll pass a place where you can buy barbecue, right across from the food court with the burger franchise and the Chinese restaurant. Look further down the terminal and you ll find retailers selling everything from clothing to jewelry to DVDs.

That s the goal, said Randy Goodman, the commercial development manager for the Houston Airport System. You know, you re stressed for time, so you want to pick up something to shop, you want to eat, while you re traveling.

The airport system is asking Houston City Council to approve paying a contractor to hire secret shoppers. The undercover workers would pose as customers to critique the performance of concessionaires. The five-year contract with Evaluation Systems for Personnel Inc. would cost $436,000.

They don t let anybody know who they are, said John DePriest of HMS Host, one of Bush Intercontinental Airport s leading concessionaires. And they actually would shop and then, they would step out and grade how the service was.

DePriest said his privately owned firm has hired mystery shoppers in the past, but this is the first time the publicly owned airport system has decided to use them.

They ll come in, shop the stores, critique them and then give us the feedback, DePriest said.

But some airport customers and let s face it, they re accustomed to paying premiums for goods and services are surprised with the contract s price tag.

Wow! said Jackie Hogue, a traveler who d just bought a plate of barbecue in Bush Intercontinental s Terminal C. I think we ought to know the truth about places, but that s a lot of money.

Are you asking me to apply for the job? said Susie Needler, laughing about the size of the contract. Yes!

Officials say the deal was competitively bid and more than 60 potential contractors downloaded related documents from the city s website. A committee selected the contractor from among four companies that bid on the business.

It s good, because this is the place where people see the city of Houston, Goodman said. When they come in and they leave, they leave a good impression. We need to see where we re at in customer service.

Houston City Council members are scheduled to vote on the deal on Wednesday.

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