The Unsecret Shopper Goes Shopping: Bass Pro Shops
One word describes the retail interior of the Bass Pro Shops in Altoona:
The store would make Ole Walt himself smile (on a face attached to a head cryogenically frozen in a storage facility underneath the It's a Small World attraction) were he to browse the store’s mightily impressive 154,000 square feet, each foot designed for and dedicated to the wonder, amusement and purchasing power of one person – the hunter.
Purists will no doubt correct me – outdoorsman, nin-cow-poop. Yet it’s hard to deny that much of what is sold at Bass Pro Shops is either directly or indirectly designed to enhance the act of shooting, piercing, snagging, shagging, stabbing, clubbing, gutting, stuffing and mounting things that don’t come that way.
But that’s not where the magic of BPS lies. Anybody can hang a shingle and sell a bob.
Bass Pro Shops leaves that low expectation in the rear with the gear, augmenting the store’s layout with a stunning array of floor to ceiling design elements that completely plug in to the outdoorsman’s lifestyle: knotty pine floor boards, rustic artwork, a “shooting” range, a 30,000 gallon fish tank with waterfall, an old-school sweet shop, a talking moose head, random rafts and canoes and assorted outdoor paraphernalia lining every inch of available wall space.
But, back to the moose – which goes by the unfortunate handle of “Morris,” immediately reminding one of the quaint Weekly Reader series from childhood, Morris The Moose. Staring up at his yakkin noggin, it felt like they’d shot Morris, cut off his head, cryogenically frozen it until they could mount it on the wall and connect wires to his brain that now afford him the ability to happily entertain audiences of all ages.
Morris The Moose, Goes To School – Where Somebody Puts A Cap In His Aspirations.
Truth be told, he’s funnier now. Nice job, BPS.
From the minute you grab the rough surface of the handle on the store’s huge front door, made of what feels like a real branch from a real tree that the door was also apparently carved from, you know you’re not shopping at Target. (which you’ll read about at great length in tomorrow’s post)
Everything about this store is uber - kinesthetic, designed with sights and sounds and smells and textures that best replicate the look, sound and feel of the great outdoors, igniting the imagination of patrons.
Speaking of sounds, Bass Pro Shops is one of the loudest (and I say that with complete love and admiration) retail settings I’ve ever been in, and I’ve been to Jordan Creek Mall. (Read review by clicking here.)
The store’s soundtrack includes country music two-stepping through high-hung PA speakers, interspersed with clever marketing messages from Larry Whiteley, Bass Pro Shop’s spokesperson, mixed in with audio coming from small TV’s scattered about the store playing “how to” videos, along with shooting sounds from the gallery, mooing sounds when “prey” is brought down and the wise-cracking observations of Morris.
To its great credit, the store’s soundtrack is front and center, not in the background as is typical retail, or non-existent as is the case at Target (WHICH YOU'LL READ ABOUT AT GREAT LENGTH IN TOMORROW'S POST)
All of that is fish-fantastic and hunterrific - how was the customer service?
That, Mr. And Mrs. Marlin Perkins, is what we are about to find out.
The secret shopping took place on a Tuesday - one trip in the morning, wearing a suit, and the other that late afternoon, wearing grubbies.
" Jonnie" "Jonathan"
Our secret shopping ratings system:
Yet it would be unsporting of me, not to change the rating icons for today’s review…
If you didn’t see that one coming, then I’m not as funny as we both think I am.
And now, put on your hip-waders, sling the fish net over your shoulder, grab a carafe of worms – or whatever you use – and enjoy a secret shopper’s backwater trip through an outdoorsman’s paradise.
I pulled into the BPS parking lot at 10:35am and parked alongside the “Cart Corral” on the east side of the building, which was stupid because the main entrance is way over on the north side. Better signage in this regard – like, “This way, stupid” with an arrow - would be welcome, especially for a middle-aged Midwesterner with a 28 BMI.
At the front of the building it already looked like a blast – deer antlers jutted out from the façade, lanterns hung from the entryway, ATV’s and boats lined the sidewalk – it was like walking into Frontierland.
As I started to pull open the huge wooden entrance doors with all my (limited) might, the hydraulics, sensing a weak, city-fied interloper, delivered on what the sign – “automatic open” – promised. Dances with Wolves rustic meets The Terminator techno – awesome!
Inside the entryway, there was a version of duck architecture, with a goose themed log chair to the immediate left, and to the right, raccoon architecture – yep, the same style chair except with a raccoon painted on it.
20 feet ahead, I passed through turn-styles – and into the warm greeting of Henry.
Very friendly, nice job – we were off and hunting. I hung a right, and headed towards the boats.
Your friendly secret shopping great white hunter was back at it seven hours later at 6:40pm, entering the store and greeted by Angel, who smiled and said, “Good afternoon, welcome to Bass Pro.”
I hung a right towards the boats and The Great Hunt II was underway – the secret shopper search for smiling, greeting, engaging employees. Would they be found?
Miranda Lambert sang overhead, crooning pointedly about a failed relationship with some two-timin no good lousy stinkin cheatin dew-dew head. (I’m paraphrasing)
On the showroom floor, I was closely examining boats – and there were a lot of them - fishing, motor, pontoon and otherwise. These were the biggest ticket items in the store and so you’d expect to see several store associates.
17 minutes worth of perusing in, I’d yet to see one.
I spotted Bette, sitting in an adjacent office with glass frontage, and walked past several times to get her attention, until I poked my head in the doorway.
“Need some help?” she asked with an open smile and closed-ended question.
Thus began the engagement pattern that would hold true throughout both store visits – no employee ever asked me an open-ended question. More on that coming up.
I exchanged pleasantries with Bette, who lives in Ankeny.
“All of our sales guys are in meetings.”
Ahhh – so that explains all these boats with no one to sell them.
Walking back towards the many beautiful motorized vessels, my sea-dulled eyes finally spotted what I hadn’t seen the first dozen laps through the area – 8 ½ by 11 Microsoft word document signs, taped to several computer monitors.
SORRY ALL SALES PERSONAL
ARE IN BAD BOY BUGGIE TRAINING
THANK YOU FOR YOUR PATIENCE
AS WE TRAIN TO MAKE OUR SERVICE
BETTER FOR OUR CLIENTS
PLEASE SEE BETTE OUR BUSINESS MANAGER
IF YOU NEED URGENT ASSISTANCE
Some words of advice for businesses posting signage about something as important as nobody’s working in the store:
1. Don’t do it – don’t depend on signs to announce something that so dramatically affects a consumer’s shopping experience.
2. Don’t do it – don’t depend on signs that aren’t at least 11 by 17, announcing something this important. We’re customers – we’re looking at $20,000 boats and listening to talking moosies, like you want us to.
3. Don’t do it – don’t depend on signs to direct patrons to find a specific employee, if that patron needs “urgent” assistance. Isn’t any time a customer needs assistance, urgent? What are the criteria? “I have a question about a boat.” You’ll have to wait. “A talking moose head fell on me.” Find Bette.
4. Don’t do it – don’t schedule full staff meetings during business hours.
5. Don’t do it – don’t leave an area featuring your store’s most expensive merchandise – and perhaps most profitable – unattended, ever.
6. Don’t do it – don’t forget to tell Henry the store greeter to greet everyone with this important information, instead of depending on nearly invisible signs, and blind luck.
7. Don’t do it – don’t forget to put a message announcing this fact, into the overhead music rotation – I’d put it right before a real gotta-sing-along happy toe-tapper - Alabama’s Mountain Music, George Strait’s Heartland, Toby Keith’s Who’s Your Daddy, AC/DC’s It’s A Long Way To The Top If You Wanna Rock And Roll – so patrons will quickly lose their potential frustration at shopping on their own.
8. Don’t do it – don’t forget to use spell-check and multiple sets of eyes, to make sure every word is spelled correctly, especially when there are only 27. (“Personal” vs.“personnel”)
There were employees on the floor, and I found one, by the fishing boat motors.
Shawn – whose name tag also said he worked in receiving – was within five feet of me and saw me but was more focused on stocking than on greeting.
Mike was working behind the counter and didn’t greet me for five minutes as I stared at motors, finally asking “Help you find anything?” Great smile, nice guy, just waited a little too long to ask the wrong question.
What’s the right question? Ask one that engages customers as people who sales associates want to get to know, rather than as afterthoughts that are keeping them from their tasks.
Here’s a good question that Mike could have asked:
“That is a great little motor – are you looking for something that runs as quiet as that one or can I show you something with a bit more power?”
Let’s take a potty break.
I hoofed it back to the men’s room where a simple but clever dude accessory was located – a toilet seat with an extended lip on the right side, so a guy could lift it up and do his duty without touching the top of the base rim – a real gross-out, especially in public restroom lid-lifting.
The loud music playing out of the ceiling speaker and reverberating against the walls of the small bathroom would have woke up Pete Townsend.
I spotted the first female employee, in the Marine Center, who smiled and said, “Help you find anything” before moving on. Four more employees – two behind a desk that I stood in front of, and two others coming out of an employee office area, walked past but said nothing.
One word about what staff said and how they said it.
Employees were generally friendly, some exceptionally so, but they often seemed rushed – a lot of “Finding everything okay?” and “Doing alright?” as they walked past. With many associates in a meeting that morning, it’s logical that whoever was left in the showroom, was rushed.
Part of it too may be an underlying belief (shared by your loveable writer) that men do not generally admit they need help – surprise! That is, there's no admission until we really really REALLY need it – as there’s no denying the propensity of the male species to drive, lost, past 16 gas stations staffed by 16 area natives, while we remain steadfastly determined to find the place we seek, using that high-tech internal GPS navigator, The Guess.
Regardless of why, it’s still good retail form for employees to follow the pillars of good customer service - stop, smile, open-end query, engage, thank. Anybody who takes time out of their busy schedule to come spend their hard-earned moo-lah, deserves that much.
On a rack of shorts, one of the sizes caught my eye – 54. For the love of John Goodman, no wonder our wives outlive us.
Scott – who had briefly been behind the desk in the fishing gear area, left, and come back, stared intently at a computer monitor, his back to me, while I browsed for several minutes in his section.
Finally I walked up to him and asked him for the time (to actually see his name tag) which he gave me, then turned back around and continued working, without asking me if I needed help.
Onto the camping area, where Bob, through a beautiful smile, said “Are you finding everything this morning?” Robyn, in the same area, said “Hello” but nothing else, even as I stood a few feet from her, looking at water bottles.
James, in hunting clothing, greeted warmly - “Finding everything okay? Point you in the right direction?” Great smile, very nice man, just ask that question in a different way.
Two female employees in the same area were very engaged in a conversation - one of them appeared to be a manager, perhaps talking to a newer employee about different sections of the store. The manager didn’t say anything as I browsed within five feet of them, and the employee followed suit.
Kelly, who was working in the gun section, walked past without smiling or greeting.
At the shooting range, the real greeting started – by an animatronic moose, who elevated the whole Bass Pro Shops vibe, from seeming like Disneyworld, to being the park itself, minus The Hall of Presidents, except for perhaps a guest appearance by that ole’ moose hunter, Teddy Roosevelt.
Morris, mounted high above the shooting gallery, had a thick southern drawl, was uttering insane gibberish, and I couldn’t take my eyes off him, or stop laughing.
“Greetings, solicitations and howdy-doody – I’m Morris The Moose…”
Somebody working in the store introduced himself by name!
“…I better take that call…it’s probably the mayor, calling me back.”
Ya want me to hold the receiver while ya talk to Altoona Mayor Tim Burget?
“Why don’t y’all head over to Uncle Buck’s Fish Bar and Grill!”
That’s extra funny comin from you, telling us to “head!”
“We’ll all meet back here later.”
That ain’t quite right – not all of your meat is here!
“On the count of three, all you kids shout out your name, okay? 1 – 2 – 3!”
Heyyyyy! You stole that from Floppy!
The shooting gallery offered 12 rifles, any one of which could, for 50 cents, turn you into Annie Oakley or a backwoods-minded Harry Callahan, as you blast away into a nature themed area complete with unnaturally LED-illuminated targets – I’m assuming that’s how squirrel’s eyes light up when they’re about to be shot.
As I walked away, Morris mentioned, “The entire arcade was built by Bass Pro employees.” I took a quick glance back into the blast area, searching for pictures of BPS managers.
None. Obviously everybody who works there gets along. :)
A friend told me there was camo furniture – I never saw it. (Joke submitted by kind reader)
Onto footwear, where Josh, with a Southern accent that rivaled Morris’, greeted with a “How you doin today? Anything I can help you find?”
Nope - just found a warm, nice greeting that fit perfectly, thank you.
Sydney, along with Heather, worked behind the sunglasses/jewelry counter. Heather smiled and said “hi” as she left the area, while Sydney, still behind the counter, focused instead on something work-related and didn’t greet me in the nearly ten minutes I browsed in circles around her.
I’m right there – you’ve got to reach out verbally and touch your nearby customer, just a quick “hi.”
Sarah, a young woman working on a display case, forgot to work on greeting the several customers and moi who stood within feet of her.
It was time to check out at the register. Nicole engaged me there with a vibrant smile and wonderful energy.
“Hi! How are you today? Did you find everything you needed?”
At 11:51 I walked out, an hour and 16 minutes later.
As I began browsing the vessels, the issue of a near-vacant showroom had been cleared up – there were two associates working in the boat area, both sharply dressed in long-sleeved white shirts.
Both of them were also busy – one engaging customers, one on the phone, also apparently talking with someone who wanted info on a particular rig.
No problem – customers understand that we sometimes have to wait, especially at a popular store.
About 10 minutes in, the associate on the phone finished his call and walked off. Bob, the employee who’d been working with a customer, was now on the phone, again answering questions from a caller.
This was a trend that would show itself several more times – employees engaged with customers on the phone, answering their questions about specific merchandise. Again, it’s usually understood by patrons on the premises – you wait your turn.
But because it was so prevalent, you could see where it might become irritating for patrons in the store, who rightly feel like they took the time to actually come in and so deserve first come, first service.
There is no obvious remedy, other than do what you can as an employee as best you can as fast as you can, without making anyone feel rushed – and that’s what was obviously being consistently done throughout the store.
Back to Bob.
After perusing boats for nearly 20 minutes, I noticed him out of the corner of my eye, now off the phone, standing some 25 feet away, watching me read info on a particular showroom model.
Instead of walking up to me he instead stood his ground and waited for me to walk towards him – I did, at which point he greeted me:
“Anything I can help you find?”
No other way to put it - that’s a disaster.
Browsing for nearly 20 minutes unattended is okay when sales reps are obviously engaged and busy with patrons.
But Bob had seen me more than once as I’d been walking around looking into boats, reading signs, checking prices – he needed to reward my patience with something other than a particularly bad under the circumstances, closed-ended question.
It got worse.
After I said I was just looking, Bob didn’t respond with, “What are you looking for, maybe I can help you find it.”
Instead, he pulled out his business card – the obvious end of a transaction – handed it to me and said, “Here’s my card, if I can help you find anything, just let me know.” No asking me for my name, no shaking my hand – just the card, and give me a holla.
That’s the S. S. Disaster II.
Bob has a beaming smile and wonderfully engaging disposition – you really have to, if you want to convince someone to part with 20K for something that sits in their driveway but can’t be driven down it. I know he can do better, and probably does almost all the time.
Steve walked up and engaged me in the small boat motor section – “Finding what you need?” he said through a big smile that would have seemed bigger, with the right question coming out of it.
Marcus in fishing gear – on the phone for much of the time I stood near by him – finally got off, then went about working, silently, on something behind the case/counter area while I browsed not far away, until he finally said, “hi” and nothing else.
Brittany, who had the most wonderful smile, hung women’s clothes on a rack while I walked around her several times, browsing through ladies tops - particularly strange-looking, in such a dude-imbued store.
After I spent several minutes an arm’s length away from her, looking for something, she finally said, “Looking for something?”
Ouch. Again, Brittany has an awesome smile and engaging personality, but she needs to work on a stronger retail question to ask customers.
Onto the gun and rifle case, where Mark stood, behind it, engaged in a great conversation with a young man in his 20’s wearing military clothing and, alongside him, two people who appeared to be his parents.
I browsed handguns in the case for seven minutes, standing within a foot of the family, but Mark didn’t acknowledge me. Yes he was talking to this family and having a wonderful conversation, but still, in retail, it’s always, "see and greet."
There was a wonderful encounter with David, who greeted warmly and quickly in the Archery section.
David had just graduated law school and was weeks away from moving back to Pierre, South Dakota where he was going to work with a native Americans. He’s a great young man who, as a rabid Vikings fan, properly ribbed me about my Dallas Cowboys t-shirt.
At the entryway to Uncle Buck’s Fish Bar and Grill, Martin leaned on a podium but said nothing, as I read a nearby menu posted on a display.
As I walked back towards the front of the store, an authoritative voice on the overhead PA said, in part, “The future of our business depends on how we serve our customers here at Bass Pro Shops.”
Large sections of the store seemed free of employees – Sunglasses and Jewelry, Gifts and Nature. Patrons also seemed scarce so it made sense to be a bit under-staffed.
In the food section, the names of the products spoke directly to the hearts (and burning intestines) of consumers.
“Ass-kickin peanuts,” “Whoop-ass hot sauce,” “Hot Chit Salsa,” “Melt-down Marlin hot sauce,” “Texas tongue torch,” “Crazy Jerry’s Hot N’ Chili Cheese Dip, Louisiana Jalapeno Hot Sauce.” There was some more moderate sounding peach salsa – which had likely been mixed with poisonous scorpion stingers.
And no sign of tofu.
Onto the checkout counter, where Debra smiled and said, “Hi, how are you?”
At 7:51pm, just over an hour after the last time I’d step into the store and through the tree-made doors, I walked out, looked up at the beautiful façade, smiled, and headed home.
Several observations about the overall shopping experience.
First, Bass Pro Shops is far and away the most aesthetically entertaining and engaging retail environment I’ve ever been in.
I don’t hunt or fish – the last time I did either, I was 14 and four years old, respectively (with the first, I shot a squirrel, threw up and decided I liked eatin stuff better than killin it) But the incredible sensory experience offered at BPS made me want to blow $4,000 on what would be unused camo gear, bowie-knife and canoe.
There is an environment created inside Bass Pro Shops that seems genetically connected to our American history, inherent to our rugged individualism, and our compulsion to search, explore and conquer new frontiers.
After entering BPS, you feel changed – revitalized and invigorated, yet somehow more secure, as if 21st Century fears of technology and societal uncertainty have been tethered, subdued and silenced by the presence of basic tools for our survival. If the outdoors is a church where God holds his services, then the products sold inside Bass Pro Shop are the artifacts through which one can communicate their faith.
I do not know if women feel this, too. I know that as a man, I did.
Speaking of which, in other male dominant retail environments – hardware stores, lumberyard (not THAT Lumberyard) there sometimes seems to be reluctance by some female employees to engage, almost as if they may not really want to be in that environment, because it’s so covered in testosterone. That’s reasonable enough.
At Bass Pro Shops, the women were having as much fun, sometimes more, than the men. That creates a very comforting feeling for all shoppers but one that’s even more so, I would imagine, for women.
All of this somehow makes the lack of consistent customer service – basic greetings, open-ended questions – less important. The experience at Bass Pro Shop, felt better than it was. The whole of the aesthetics was greater than the sum of the customer service parts.
There is certainly work to be done on this front.
Employees should be reminded that, in spite of how busy they are and how rushed they get, that they must always make time, and take time, for customers – for without them, there would be nothing to rush to or be busy with.
When BPS staff engaged, they were, for the most part, incredibly generous with their smiles and joy and desire to help. They simply need to remember what is so easy to forget – head on a swivel, see and greet, smile, engage and thank.
The acts are simple – the consistency’s the challenge.
Yet for those talented men and women who work at Bass Pro Shop, it is hopefully a challenge made easier by the knowledge that so few of us are so lucky as they to spend our working day inside a place that serves worship to the human spirit, in the spirit of the individual, and the great outdoors.
Jonnie Wright is a customer service evaluator and trainer, professional secret shopper, marketing strategist and host of “The Unsecret Shopper Radio Show,” Saturday mornings 8-9am on 1350 KRNT. Email Jonnie at firstname.lastname@example.org.