For more than a quarter-century, Jonna Mendez traveled exotic corners of the globe as a CIA operative, often in disguise and wielding tiny spy cameras just like the ones that made James Bond famous.

Now retired, she has a new title this holiday shopping season: Kids' Gift Detective for Target Corp.

The Minneapolis-based cheap-chic retailer has long partnered with fashion designers, makeup artists, famous architects and chefs to create unique products, but the alliance with supersleuth Mendez may well be its most unusual. It comes a time when toys are a crucial part of Target's holiday sales, during a retail season that is expected to be tepid.

The new assignment for Mendez involves crafting covert tips to help moms suss out what kids really want for Christmas, ways to surreptitiously peek at letters to Santa, and suggestions for hiding gifts in plain sight from ever-curious children — all inspired by her "years spent as a top-secret agent," Target declares. The pointers are published for all to see on the retailer's blog,, complete with cartoon illustrations featuring Mendez in a sassy red trench coat and fedora.

"Target called me out of the blue," Mendez said in a recent interview. "I really don't know a thing about merchandising, but I do have a son. They convinced me that a lot of the skills I acquired over the years could help moms treat Christmas like a covert operation. So I said, 'Sure, I'm in.' "

Covert mission

Target decided early on that kids' holiday gifting is akin to completing a top-secret spy mission, or so the marketing narrative goes. "And who better to help with a covert mission than a CIA agent?" spokeswoman Erin Conroy said in a statement. Mendez came to the fore right away. "Jonna is well-known as a public speaker about her experience as former CIA Chief of Disguise and author of the book "Spy Dust." We love that she is also a mom."

Mendez retired in 1993 as the agency's top disguise expert and now lives in rural western Maryland with her husband, Tony, the famed ex-spy played by actor Ben Affleck in the Oscar-winning movie "Argo." Tony Mendez led the derring-do operation that rescued six U.S. diplomats from Tehran during the Iranian hostage crisis 34 years ago.

The past year has been a busy one for the couple, given all the hoo-ha over the film. "When Tony and I are not doing spy-related things, we're doing art-related things, including our gallery," said Mendez, who still bears a slight drawl from her native Kentucky. (She's a creative photographer, and her husband paints.)

Mendez rose through the CIA's ranks at the height of the Cold War, and at a time where there weren't many female contemporaries. She was recruited by the CIA while working at a bank in Germany and traveled the world over in Europe, the Far East and the Indian subcontinent. "I've been to more places than I haven't," she said.

Mendez eventually became a technical operations officer overseas, specializing in clandestine photography — helping agents in the field with tiny spy cams and bugs. "This was the office at the CIA that closely resembled the Q office in James Bond movies," she said, referring to the gee-whiz gadgetry that defined the dashing British agent. She concealed cameras in lipsticks, cigarette lighters, even buttons.

A master of disguise

In the mid-1980s she returned to Langley, becoming an expert in disguise, often outwitting the KGB, Stasi and DGI, Cuba's intelligence agency — the spy apparatchik of the day.

"We can change most everything, your gender, your ethnicity, we could make two of you," Mendez said, before quickly noting, "I can't really talk about it," since some of the tricks are still classified. "It really was the best job you could imagine."

Mendez's new assignment — put bluntly — involves coaxing shoppers (especially time-pressed moms) to frequent Target this holiday season. "We thought it would be a fun and whimsical way to approach kids' gifting, also to help parents," said Scott Nygaard, Target's senior vice president of hard lines. "It's surprisingly difficult for parents to find out what kids want." (Target would not reveal financial terms of the Mendez partnership.)

Tracy Morrison, a Twin Cities mom of three who blogs at, says she could use a little help with her kids' gift lists, "but mostly I get help from them."

"My kids make a Santa list that they share with me and we 'mail' it off to him," she said in an e-mail. "None of my kids have loved talking to Santa, but they do believe (even my 11-year old) and make a list each year. Without this list I'm not sure I'd know what to buy." Morrison added that she doesn't think tips on hiding gifts would help her much. "My kids aren't major snoopers."

Family budgets are tight

The gift detective is one of many promotions Target is rolling out for the holidays — expected to be a tough one, since there are six fewer shopping days this year, and many family budgets remain tight in a skittish economy. Last month, the National Retail Federation predicted sales in November and December to increase just 3.9 percent to $602 billion, a marginal increase over last year's 3.5 percent increase. While clothing and gift cards are the top two gift categories, more than 44.3 percent of people said in a NRF-commissioned survey they plan to buy toys this season.

"This sounds like a fun branding project," said senior analyst Amy Koo of Kantar Retail, when asked about the gift detective promotion. "It's a little unusual. I'm not sure it will move the needle much on sales."

But Mendez said out-sleuthing kids has proved to be fun and a tad challenging. "The more I got into it, the more unique and interesting it became," she said.

Janet Moore • 612-673-7752