Ex-CIA 'chief of disguise' offers shopping tips

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

(c) 2013, The Washington Post.

WASHINGTON — What does it take to get your children the perfect holiday gift? A professional sleuth, apparently.

As the pressure to win the holiday shopping battle builds, marketers are inventing creative ways to help parents strategize.

Enter Jonna Mendez.

After a 27-year career at the CIA, the former "chief of disguise" (yes, that was her actual title) has an unconventional retirement job — teaching parents to scope out their kids' wish lists. Mendez's official role is Target's "Kids' Gift Detective." This season, she is sharing years of spy expertise in an online series that will guide mommy-bloggers in their quest to identify their children's favorite things.

To parents whose children have no problem stating exactly what they want, the whole exercise may seem pointless. Mendez said she wondered about the same thing when Target approached her with the idea. But she knew from her own parenting experience that children think in different ways.

"My son didn't want to give me his list," she said. "It was between him and Santa — I was never in that equation."

Monica Sakala, mother of two daughters, agreed. Sakala, who writes the Washington parenting blog Wired Momma, said finding gifts for her girls becomes tougher every year. Her 8-year-old, Emma, can't decide on what she wants, while her 5-year-old, Sophie, starts a list months in advance.

Sakala said she wanted to put more thought into their gifts this year.

"My challenge as a parent is not just quantity," she said, "it's quality."

As with most things, the economy has a role to play in the way parents will shop this holiday season. Americans have been frugal in their holiday spending and retailers are nervous that sales won't improve before Christmas. A lack of confidence in the economy will affect the nature of gifts people give each other, and especially their children, said Ronald Goodstein, an expert in consumer behavior and brand equity at Georgetown University.

"People are going to give fewer gifts," he said. "Those fewer gifts are going to be much more focused on the person."

Target's partnership with Mendez is also a move to stand out in a competitive retail market and engage directly with parents, said David Bell, marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.

Over the years, Mendez said, she applied basic CIA techniques to find out what her son wanted, shop discreetly and keep gifts hidden until Christmas morning. That led to some of the pointers she is giving parents, chockablock with all the movie-spy jargon you might expect.

To find out what kids really want, she recommends talking to people close to them — or "access agents" — who hear ideas that parents may not. "Your son's coach at school might know that he wants that Nerf blaster gun more than anything," she said.

Another way to guess children's holiday wishes is to encourage "clandestine communication" with Santa Claus, she said. Ask them to write "invisible" letters using milk or lemon juice so no one can read them. Parents can see the ink by warming up the letter, using nothing more than a hair dryer.

The CIA also used secret ink, Mendez said. "But it was not milk or lemon juice."

Finally, to hide holiday gifts, Mendez suggests moving them to an "off-site location" (spy talk for "next door") or using "concealment devices" (simply covering presents in brown wrapping paper and sticking on a mailing address). Mendez said she would simply mislabel her son's gift, placing his father's name on it instead.

After a career that involved staying firmly out of the spotlight, Mendez, 68, has embraced it. She is one half of a CIA couple; her husband, Antonio Mendez, is the former agent Ben Affleck portrayed in the 2012 political thriller "Argo." (Her husband jokes that Affleck wasn't "good-looking enough" to play him, she said.)

In 2003, the couple — who live with their 20-year-old son, Toby, near Frederick, Md. — co-wrote a book called "Spy Dust: Two Masters of Disguise Reveal the Tools and Operations that Helped Win the Cold War," about their experience as agents in Moscow. They have also given talks at the District of Columbia's International Spy Museum.

Jonna Mendez moved through several departments during her tenure at the CIA, but her specialty was clandestine photography in the Office of Technical Service. The office was not unlike "Q in James Bond," she said.

Back in the real world, Sakala said she has successfully managed to keep this year's presents (two fairy houses for the garden) hidden from her girls. Her strategy includes moving the presents around and choosing dark, scary places such as the basement where kids don't usually go.

"You've got to think about how to outsmart them," she said. "It's part of the fun."

bc-cia-shopping (TPN)