The Unsecret Shopper Goes Shopping: Costco
Most stores try to get away with selling us one small quart of chocolate syrup at a time. (Click this sentence to read about two stores that do.) Or two measly little ounces of Peanut M & M's. (Click this one to read about a store that does.) Or a couple (hinky) dinky pounds of crinkle cut french fries. (And click here to read about some that don't.) No wonder we Americans are so skinny! (Here's why that's "funny.")
To the consumer's rescue comes the same company that airdrops provisions into military hotspots and Third World countries, out of the back of C-130's.
Starving shoppers know them better as "Costco."
Want 3 mangoes? Tough bananas. At Costco, you'll get the entire 12-month production from one tree, stuffed inside a bag made of the same reinforced mesh they use for nets, to deep-sea fish for crab in the North Atlantic. Five pounds of hamburger? Pleeze. How long is that going to keep you alive after Canada drops the big one?
The company started in a converted airplane hanger in California in 1976, which is the template for all Costcos since: If you can park a 757 in it, then fill it with stuff, and put a "Costco" sign out front.
And that's where I got to spend the day, Secret Shopping, and trying to avoid a second hernia: in an airplane hanger, without an airplane. (Click here to read a Secret Shopper review involving lighter products.)
Our local Costco - at 7205 Mills Civic Parkway in West Des Moines - is one of nearly 600 Costco locations nationwide. The company employees 147,000 weightlifters, and generates over $70 billion annually, making Costco the 3rd largest retailer in the U.S.
One of the allures for its 55 million MEMBERS is, indeed, that really large word, five words back. There are three types of membership: Executive, Business and Goldstar. There's a fourth, "Use to purchase entire countries," coming out this fall.
The one below is the one that normal newbies like me buy, for $50.
With it, you can shop till you drop (something on your foot) to your heart's content. Otherwise, you can get a "day" pass, which gives you the thrill of shopping, without that nasty buyer's remorse.
The perfect Secret Shopper scenario!
I have to admit, I have never been to Costco and knew nothing about the store going in, other than a) they have a name that sounds kinda like Cost Cutters, except lose the "o," add a "u," then five more letters, and throw in some hair stylists; and b) they sell just groceries.
C) I'm an idiot.
Before we grab a (steel reinforced) cart and C how dumb I am, let's first see how smart you think my rating system is:
Yep. Me, too.
Here's The Unsecret Shopper's untrademarked method of attempting to look like two people, on two separate visits to Costco on the same day, an old college try that will comically flunk, later in this review:
We KNOW that membership has its privileges. Is one of them (besides six dozen count egg crates and six packs of sofas) oversized amounts of customer service?
I whipped into the Costco parking lot on a warm, late Monday morning, at 11:32am.
I rolled outta my Prius ride and strode up to the garage door-sized entrance, where I immediately wondered if I'd mistakenly rolled on to a car lot, since one (a car, not a lot) was parked there.
What schmuck had triple-parked their Town and Country practically inside the store?
It turned out to be the "schmucks" at Costco, who had it there because it was helping pimp their Car Buying Program.
So they're not just about groceries: Jonnie epiphany #1.
While checking out the van, I almost tripped on a sandwich board, which said: Member price for gasoline: $2.49/gal.
So they're not just about groceries: Jonnie epiphany #2.
Melis, a Costco greeter, engaged me warmly, with the kind of beautifully beaming smile and big fat friendly "Hello!" you'd normally expect when entering a five star restaurant, not a warehouse crammed with enough food stuffs to power all of the restaurants on the entire Earth until 2018.
The epiphanies were mounting and I'd barely made it past the triple parked Caravan.
Melis and I would meet again, during visit #2, epiphany #17. (More on that below, after I get done rambling on about visit #1)
Jillian, at the Customer Service desk, unsmilingly greeted with the one question that people who are paid and positioned in stores to help customers, can't ask the customers they're paid and positioned to help: "Can I help you?
Long - time readers of this blog (I've only been writing for seven months, but it probably feels like you've been reading longer) will recognize this as a closed-ended question. Asking one of a customer is like handing them a dead rat who hasn't brushed his teeth for three days. (Click this sentence to read about a Secret Shopper experience full of closed-ended questions.) (Click this sentence to read about a company that emphasizes open-ended questions.) (Click this sentence to see if there's anything good on TV tonight.)
As has been mentioned on infrequent occasions, in these blog posts - 15,382 times - open-ended questions demonstrate a genuine interest by the questioner, in the questionee. It's a "How can I help you?" instead of "Can I help you?" It's perhaps tossing in a "Welcome to Costco" as a friendly prelude. It's laying the groundwork for the customer to give you an expansive answer, not a dismissive "yes/no" response. These glittering open-ended gems are as rare as employee smiles, and just as welcome.
Add both to your otherwise very pleasant repertoire at the counter, Jillian, and you'll deliver and then some, on the "Customer Service" promise. :)
I made my way to the left and clockwise, to the Pharmacy counter, where Allison had obviously been reading my blog:
"Can I help you?"
Just not the part about the proper greeting.
Allison, you almost gave me a smile, and you absolutely gave me a very pleasant attitude. Just write yourself a prescription for an open-ended greeting, take one with every customer, and you'll have them feeling even better in no time.
I walked past a five foot high stack of 5-packs of Five Degree For Men, "Adrenalin" flavored anti-perspirant, that contained enough drying agent to stop the overflow at Saylorville, on my way down the "Avenue of Samplers."
First, a clarification: There is no "Avenue of Samplers" at Costco, although there might be a Pork Rind Road, and I just missed it.
Second, another unnecessary explanation: In many grocery stores, a few store employees (or reps for the food they're pimping) will sometimes be strategically placed at select spots, to offer samples of whatever food or beverage the store (or food maker) wants to try to sell more of.
The theory, which makes perfectly good sense to our stomachs, is that if you give us shoppers a little taste, we'll want a bigger one. Which means we can either stand there in front of the sample person who doesn't want to be rude and just keeps on cooking and cutting while we stuff our faces hand over fist with sample after sample like it's a buffet until the cops are called, or we can reach into the nearby freezer case, pull out the product, pay for it at the check-out line, stick it in the freezer, and, six months later, toss the freezer-burnt New! Jenos Jolly Rancher And Garlic Flavored Pizza Snacks in the garbage.
Third, Costco just flat-out has this sampling stuff down to a science. As much science as one can associate with a half-dozen elderly women wearing hair nets and plastic gloves, handing out plastic forks along with mini-cups filled with chocolate covered blueberries, Chex Cereal, and Yoplait Yogurt, which can only be purchased in 18-count container-filled boxes.
Since the company that does the sampling for Costco, Cost Demonstration Services, isn't actually a part of The Costco store (yet works only for Costco) I won't evaluate how the samplers engaged me.
Okay, I will. They pretty much stunk.
Yes, I'm being a bit harsh, maybe even offensive and unfair. And you know that's just not how I normally roll.
Yes, these women are probably semi-retired. Affirmative, they're probably making diddly-squat. Mais oui, they've probably been standing on their feet (which is normally the most effective way to stand) for hours, trying to fend off the fat kids and fatter adults who stuff their face with freebies, then head back out to the car, sans purchases.
But I did product sampling for three years, for a beverage company, so I speak with some experience on the topic, and almost none on anything else.
My goal (as Regional Vice District President Supervising Manager In Charge Of Handing Out Free Booze) was to not only greet every person who passed within a 10 feet "sampling circle" of my table, but to do so with a smile, eye contact and something other than, "Want some free beer?"
Maybe the ladies were having an off day. Maybe somebody stuck a sign on my back that said Please don't feed the Unsecret Shopper.
All I know is that I rolled down the Avenue of Samplers over and over, sample-free, until my cart's bad wheel actually straightened out. I went down the middle of the aisle with samplers on each side of me. I slowly rolled past, directly in front of them. I approached from behind them, attempting not to scare them but kinda thinking about maybe nudging one, just to liven things up. Yet I did all of that while, bizarrely, not being greeted, invited to munch, or even tossed a "I'd give you a taste, but I'd prefer to give it to someone who isn't you" bone.
Finally, Laura, a relatively new CDS'er, noticed me gently weeping by the nearby 500 gallon jugs of liquid Tide, and said, "Would you like to try some yogurt?"
Bingo! I was in! I was somebody!
I'll cut the ladies a lot of slack, in this instance. Most of us would walk up to the sampling tables and help ourselves, without waiting to be invited. I understand that. Yet the only point I'll make here is that, in many ways, these sampling staff are true customer service ambassadors for Costco. Their only responsibility is to meet, greet and feed customers. I know they do a great job, because they work for a company that does a great job, for all of Costco's 600 locations.
The dish of yogurt was delish, by the way. Thanks for talking me into eating it, Laura. I'm usually a pudding guy.
Enough food - I was (un)stuffed. It was time to head to Home Electronics and Big Screen TV's, where, certainly, a king's welcome awaited...
Or, like, maybe not.
There were over two-dozen TV's, all nicely displayed and playing the same very pleasant Costco marketing video. I browsed them for 12-15 minutes, stopping by each of the screens, watching, listening, touching, and thankfully foregoing the two senses left. Justin, Gar and Philip did pretty much the same thing, looking at the TV's, talking among themselves. I was never further than 15 feet away from them. I shadowed them, and in fact, one of them even brushed past my shoulder. Yet nobody said a word to me.
That was really the first time during the Secret Shopper visit that I felt abandoned and adrift in a warehouse dedicated to stuff, and not to the people who buy it.
There really has to be someone who can engage customers and answer their questions, in that section of Costco. As smart as we shoppers are today about the products we buy, we're still dumb as stumps about consumer electronics, especially Big Screen TV's and laptops, both of which I wandered without being acknowledged or helped.
Plus, none of us has figured out a way to smile at ourselves, look ourselves in the eye, warmly greet ourselves, welcome ourselves to the store and ask ourselves what we're looking for. Three store employees had ample opportunity to do just that, and didn't. That doesn't make them bad people. It makes them average retail employees. And that certainly doesn't fit the dynamics of Costco's visual experience, which is anything but.
Aaron recovered nicely at the cell phone kiosk, offering a closed-ended but pleasant,"Looking for anything in particular or are you just browsing?"
Patrick, back in the bakery, was chatting with a co-worker and working away, really not paying attention to us folks who were browsing the baked goods at the counter. Finally, I walked back into the employee area like I was looking for my pet parrot that had escaped from his perch on my shoulder. Patrick, very nicely, and with a smile, said, "Oh hey, you can't be back here, you'll slip," and kindly escorted me back to the area in front of the counter.
I walked around in the same general bakery area, in front of and around a young woman whose nametag, I believe, read Deshu (forgive me if I read it incorrectly) without being acknowledged. She brightened when I asked her for the time, but never quite managed to let a smile pop out. Let it come out and play! You'll make more! :)
Nicole, working for Leafguard and surrounded on three sides by their display booth, let me drift past her counter multiple times without raking me in. On my third attempt, she finally said a nice "Hello," followed by "If you're interested, we do give free estimates." Maybe she said, "howareyounicedaywe'rehavinghowisyourshoppinggoingtoday" really fast in between, and I missed it. Otherwise, pleasant enough tone, but the engagement was a tad squirrelly.
It was time to grab a howitzer shell-sized plastic jar of peanuts - which was surprisingly cellophaned to another equal sized jar jammed full of legumes - and head to the check-out counter.
Of course, there was a slight problem: I was not a Costco member. I'd intentionally not purchased a membership, because I'm a naughty little Secret Shopping troublemaker, and on a Secret Shopper's budget, which is $00.00.
I noticed two guys stationed at the head of each checkout counter, working in fast motion. Travis and Scott were performing what seemed like a very gracious gesture, removing people's items from their carts and quickly placing them up on the moving belt.
This seemed nice, until I noticed that they weren't verbally engaging patrons or even smiling, just pulling items from carts at break-neck speed and tossing them on the counter, like they were herding cattle, instead of human beings, who just ate like them.
It seemed less nice when Scott ripped my peanuts out of my hand and tossed them onto the counter, without a hello, a glance at my face, a thank you, or "Have a nutty day!"
I get and like the idea: Keep the line moving. I don't get or like the execution, which could be much improved by the interjection of interjections: "Hey! How was your shopping?" "Wow! Only one cellophane wrapped 2-pack of howitzer shell-sized peanuts?"
Try a little TLC, guys, and we shoppers will be far more appreciative of the otherwise thoughtful gesture.
Kim, at the checkout counter, had her head turned towards the customer in front of me, talking to them, while she extended her hand towards me, which was apparently her way of asking for my Costco card, without actually saying it out loud.
Again, I'm a customer, not a cow. Engage me.
I told Kim I didn't have a card. Oops! Goofy me! She reacted with a quick smile and thoughtfully offered to take care of it, right there. That was a wonderful touch, Kim!
I thanked her, passed on the offer, put down my peanuts, and, an hour after I'd entered, walked back out into the parking lot.
Around 6 hours later, at around 7:30pm, I stepped around the Town And Country by the Costco entrance, and began my second Secret Shopper journey around the store.
Costco closed one hour from the time I entered. Would that have an affect on the level of customer service?
Let's be honest. When it's 60 minutes away from quittin time, we're all thinking about sprinting for the exits, like the joint's on fire. That's natural, normal and completely expected. But as long as a store is open, that store's employees have some level of responsibility to engage their customers.
The person with the first opportunity to do so was Steve, a different store greeter than Melis, the one who'd started me off on such a high note, earlier in the day. Instead of a greeting, he immediately asked me for my card, making me feel as if I was entering East Berlin, and not a retail store. Papers, please!
Lucy - I think that was her name - at the Customer Service counter, made up for Steve kinda dropping the ball, times 100. She was fantastic! She greeted, smiled, made jokes and was awesome. Great job!
I didn't see an employee on the floor until 10 minutes in, when Dan rushed by, pushing a cart.
I'm no genius (They rarely write blogs) but I guessed that Dan's shift was over, and he was now on "him" time. That as cool as the other side of the 64 count package of frozen turkey burgers, not facing the freezer door that some yo-yo left open. But you might want to take off your name tag, Dan, so yo-yo's like me don't see you flying by, and wonder why you don't say hi. It's your time, you shouldn't have to.
The 2nd best customer service moment of the 2nd trip through, came compliments of the deliverer of the best customer service moment of the 1st time through.
Melis, the original store greeter from earlier that day, walked towards me, and I her, me having of course replaced my professional duds from that morning with early evening Hawaiian Tropic.
Certainly she wouldn't recognize me, in cognito.
"Back again, huh? Couldn't get enough?"
Apparently, I needed to return my cognito and request a refund.
She may have blown my cover, but it was worth the emotional collateral damage, because Melis has one of the most friendly, warm, outgoing, engaging, vibrant personalities I've ever encountered in a retail setting. She is a natural smiler, dimple city, with eyes that light up like lighthouse lights. She's carries a level of poise that is beyond her 27 years, is totally down to earth, completely authentic and believably happy, because she so clearly is.
Paying Melis to be a store greeter is like hiring Pavarotti to mow your lawn. Unless the dude agrees to sing and trim. Costco would be well served to promote this talented young lady and rising star, and quickly, into a position of greater authority, before someone hires her away.
Way ahead of you. I already tried. I'm going to keep trying. Meantime, can't say enough about you, Melis - you're a total rock star!
Further into the store, I watched a young man - who I won't throw under the bus, because this is more a funny anecdote than narco material - work on stocking shelves with paper towels, as I walked past him, without receiving an acknowledgement.
It's all good, he's working hard and focused on the job at hand, that's understood.
Then, as I moved into another aisle, I glanced back, and noticed that the young man had suddenly stopped working, and was now focusing his attention on a woman who'd just walked past the same paper towels, wearing a rather revealing dress.
Kid, if only you'd seen me 60 pounds ago, when I had some pretty impressive cleavage myself. Plus, to a more serious point, it's a very teachable moment here for any employee: Always feel like a customer is watching you, watch whatever you're watching, because they almost always are.
I moved over into the meat area, browsing boneless chickens, while Brad worked within 3, 2, even a foot of me, laying down paper into an empty meat case, silently.
Young man, you've got to acknowledge me. I'm in your department, shopping in your aisle, standing close enough to be burped by you. Sure it's close to closing time, and you wanna get out of there, I get that. But you can't let me stand there, within half your arm's reach, ungreeted. Instead, continue to do the work you're doing, and say a friendly "Hi!" I promise, the word, coming out of your smile, won't slow you down a bit. :)
I passed by a display of 40 count packs of Duracell Double-A batteries, then made the mistake of grabbing one with one hand and lifting it, which immediately produced a hairline fracture in my femur, which is nowhere near my arm, yet was almost immediately healed by the low level of radiation which emanated from the package.
Shannon, at the Optical Department counter, greeted with a nice "How are you today, sir?" followed by the not quite as nice, "Need any help?"
I met the second customer service super-star of the day next, as Richard, in the Home Electronics Department, smiled, greeted, engaged, shook my hand, twice, and firmly, and was as kind and gentle and generous a man as you'd ever want to meet.
I asked him if Costco offers customer service training.
He said, "I don't know. I'm just here to enjoy myself and have fun. I love meeting people - that's the funnest part of the job."
Richard, who is 65 going on 30, even asked me for my name, and used it throughout the conversation. Awesome!
As we chit-chatted, I mentioned to him that I teach customer service.
"Tell your students to enjoy what they're doing," Richard replied, "and they'll live a long time."
You just taught next week's class, Richard. :)
As I walked past a display full of 56 ounce bags of Peanut M & M's and considered buying two of them, as a cheaper alternative to bags of salt for added traction this winter, I encountered Tammy, around the frozen foods area, who said, without a smile and void of the type of inflection that would suggest that she really wanted to help me, "Do you need help finding an item?"
No, I said, but did she know the time?
"8:10 - we close at 8:30."
Finally, Tammy got to the answer it felt like she really wanted to lay on me, and the reason it felt like she'd put on the brakes as she was walking towards the front of the store, while I was walking towards the back. In the context of how it was delivered, it felt more like a warning to hurry it up, vs. an attempt to share helpful info.
Regardless of what time it is, it's never a good idea for an employee to push a customer out of their store. They may really get the hint, and not come back.
Speaking of which, it was time to head to the exit.
Scott and Travis, the two guys who had been "helping" people empty their carts, were no longer doing so, even though the lines were longer this time, and it was closer to closing. People seemed to be managing fine without them.
As I walked past the checkout counter and towards the doors, I heard a voice say, somewhat perturbed, "No closing stuff goes in Charles' box tonight, none at all."
The speaker remains unidentified, but he was talking to Coon, another employee, and continued doing so, as a bit more frustration seeped into his voice:
"Your box has been full the past couple nights. You've got to get that cleaned out. I've told you before."
Okay, so it's not exactly like "Your new name is Colonel Poo-Poo Pants." Certainly, nothing was uttered to that devastating extent.
Whenever we hear a conversation among employees we know we shouldn't hear, there's always that cringe factor. We'd rather be anyplace than there, listening to anything but that.
That's why it's important for employees, especially managers, to protect customers from the part of their jobs that involves discipline, or governing of employees, or personal matters. Those issues have to be addressed out of earshot of patrons. Again, it wasn't heated, but you could hear it possibly turning in that direction.
Costco seems like a prety cool place to work. Even if I'm wrong, don't shatter that illusion for me.
At 8:28, right before closing, I headed out the huge exit door, my Secret Shopping journey, fini.
Costco's local cathedral to consumerism unquestionably delivers the goods, as promised: inexpensive stuff, to the 10,000th power.
What isn't consistently present at the West Des Moines Costco is what any retailer who builds the store, and hangs the shingle, implicitly guarantees: smiling, friendly, engaging staff.
Yet within the customer service barrenness of Costco, lies the occasional oasis, where we lucky farmers can harvest succulent smiles and delicious friendliness.
Among the fertile crops scattered about, Lucy, Melis and Richard are standouts, in their field.
My great hope is that all three of them - with their natural affinity for smiling, greeting, engaging and thanking - will be recognized by Costco store management: not as individual anomalies to be acknowledged and then forgotten, but as high achievers, whose talents can be sought out in others, and aspired to by all.
Because in the end, any retailer can sell stuff, even lots of it. The next Costco is being dreamed up and designed, by dreamers and designers, who will be bringing it soon enough, to an airplane hanger near you.
But not every retail employee will engage us with a limitless smile and unabashed happiness. Alas, hardly anyone does.
That makes Lucy, Melis and Richard, all the more unique. And together, this terrific trio makes a visit to Costco, worth it.
Even if the place was empty.
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.
Click to email Jonnie (firstname.lastname@example.org)