The Unsecret Shopper Goes Shopping: Hy-Vee
"Where there's a helpful smiiiiile, in every aiiiisle!"
You probably know the Hy-Vee jingle better than you know Iowa's state song, which is 52 years older (1911 vs. 1963) 156 words longer and much harder to dance to:
"You asked what land I love the best - Iowa, tis Iowa
The fairest state of all the west, Iowa, O! Iowa (blahblahblah)"
Ow, my head - sorry, don't mean to sound unstatetriotic. But you slap that diddy on the turntable at Miss Kitty's some Friday night and you'll watch the bump n' grinders scatter like fleas jumping off an electrocuted skunk.
Even as it is arguably the most recognizable jingle of any Iowa company (The first Hy-Vee opened in 1930 in Beaconsfield and no I have no idea where that is but believe it's near the Slauson Cutoff.) HV's musical imaging also brings with it the almost impossible burden of forcing all 228 stores in seven states to live up to a lyrical promise written by someone who never worked in produce.
Can you imagine how many times over the years that Hy-Vee managers have had to endure someone complaining, "I saw nothing but frowns in the spice aisle! I want a free ham!"
But you can't blame the complainers - they didn't invent the jingle and play it ad nauseum for nearly 50 years. (including a couple remixes)
So it begs the question - is there a helpful smile in every aisle of Hy-Vee? Does Hy-Vee live up to the promise of their marketing? Is there any way to qualify for a free ham?
That's what your friendly neighborhood Unsecret Shopper is for - finding answers to life's most important questions while you waste your time working and raising kids and living and junk.
Which is why I've selected the south-side Hy-Vee at S.E. 14th and Park, as our Secret Shopper evaluation of the week.
As in weeks past, I went twice the same day, as two different people - not easy when you're the same person.
I visited first at 8:30am as "Jonathan," dressed to the nine's and searching for fresh Chilean Sea Bass and some nice asparagus spears, and again at 5pm as "Jonnie," resembling a Nick Nolte booking photo and lookin fur a case of Stroh's and another case a Stroh's.
Actually I was wearing shorts, a picture not pictured - for the sake of the reader's digestive system and because, as Mrs. Doubtfire once said, "They've outlawed whaling." But you get the general drift out to sea. The obvious set-up is, would I be treated any different because of what I was wearing?
As a good friend pointed out who I'm not speaking to anymore because she's right, this might be a bias more apparent when shopping for bigger ticket items, like cars and boats and jewelry and other things out of reach of a modest blogger's salary.
Yet it seems reasonable to assume that employees in any retail setting pay more attention to better-dressed patrons - which is exactly the sort of habit we try to train, teach and beat out of employees of Buyosphere clients. Bernie Madoff wore a suit and killed 700,000 retirement accounts. Bill Gates wears jeans and a t-shirt and killed Clippy the office assistant. Clothing matters to the eye, not the soul.
The greater bias in this reviewer's view came from the times the Hy-Vee store was shopped. More on that in a minute.
Here's a quick review of our Secret Shopper scoring system:
When I secret shopped Hy-Vee, I was looking for what we're all looking for when we shop anywhere - friendly, engaging, fun employees - or, as the jingle says, a helpful smile in every aisle.
Would I get it?
I entered the Hy-Vee store on S.E. 14th and Park at 8:32am, grabbed a red shopping basket stuck to five others, managed to disengage one, hung a right and walked along the backside of the row of check-out counters, not expecting to be greeted.
Yet as I moved past the customer service counter, I was pleasantly surprised to hear a nice, big, friendly "Hi!" shout-out from Sarah, who was standing behind the counter and had no particular reason to greet me, which made it feel that much nicer. Unnecessary kindness is worth a lot of double bonus points in my little customer service game.
Moving into the floral department, I was greeted once again, with another enthusiastic "Hi," from Pam. Cool beans - two for two! This was "Hi" Vee! The jingle wasn't lyin!
Then I actually entered an aisle.
Eight and a half hours later, I stepped through the same auto-open portal, dis-prominently slob attired and, because of my previous initial experience that morning, anticipated the afternoon shift would open fire with a similar barrage of friendliness.
It would be awhile before I got shot.
The first "hi" occurred 11 employees in - including a lost opportunity to engage by three check-out clerks, two baggers, one customer service desk staffer, and a group of five employees who were erecting a summer-themed display, just outside the floral department.
In fact, to get that initial, elusive "hi" I had to literally jam my body in-between stacks of merchandise to where the five Hy-Vee'ers were display-building and then slide my body sideways to get past the employees, brushing up against two in the process - neither of whom said "hi" or "excuse me" or "Looking for Chilean Sea Bass?"
It was Katie, the final Hy-Veeinian in the gaggle who, as I stepped around her, said "hi," smiled and broke my 0-11 streak.
Nice job, young lady.
The trouble for Jonathan started in the frozen food aisle.
That's where an employee enthusiastically ignored me while I opened up freezer doors on each side of him.
Next, aisle 7, the potato chip aisle - I've heard those Doritos Cheeseburger flavored chips are da bomb.
What bombed instead is the chance the three employees had to engage me - one of whom was dressed in a white buttoned dress shirt, a sure sign of either a Hy-Vee manager or some other blogging dork, secret shopping the joint.
Instead they said nothing to me and continued talking to each other.
I made my way counter-clockwise along the back of the store and over to the deli, where Barbie was ringing up patrons at the register.
As I was next in line and had nothing in my hands to buy, I figured I'd play it cool and ask her if she thought she could get a raise if they changed the department name from "deli" to "delicatessen."
I never had time to sound stupid - she immediately walked away, mumbling "be right with you" over her shoulder.
That was kinda weird.
She checked on something back by the wall, then came back and looked at me without saying anything - a strange moment, twice.
Mike at the meat counter saved the day - I should have guessed as much. Why do meat counter guys seem to be the friendliest people in any grocery store, even though they're constantly surrounded by not always terribly aromatic mounds of beef, pork, fish and dangerous cutting instruments?
Mike stuck a big smile on his puss and said, as he's probably been saying for decades, "Hi! How are you this morning? What can I help you find?"
Help management find a way to clone you, Michael - you're awesome.
On a Mike n' Meat high, I worked my way clock-wise back over to the pharmacy, where two pharmacists were too busy engaged in a friendly conversation to engage me, as was Randy in the dairy section, who was by himself and engaging quarts of milk.
I continued walking around the front of the store and back over to produce, where Jeremy mumbled something between a grunt and a "hello" with his head down, as he walked past me.
Back at the deli I figured I'd see Katie but instead saw Dwayne, who didn't say anything until I engaged him, and then offered up a beautiful smile that lit up the macaroni salad.
I'd seen enough - time to pay for my items - a Birds Eye Steamfresh Grilled Chicken in Creamy Alfredo Sauce Meals For Two that I'll scarf myself, a bag of Grimmway Farms cut and peeled baby carrots which will last me 16 years, a Jell-O sugar-free Dulce de Leche six-pack and a less French-sounding six-bunch of banana's.
Now you know what a secret shopper eats. You can die happy.
Nicole said "hello" at the check-out counter but forgot to throw in a smile, free of charge. Also, her soft voice, schlumpy body language and overall ambivalent demeanor indicated she was as bored with my carrots as I was.
I slid my debit card, told her to throw away my receipt (some retail stores are now insisting you take your receipt, a baaaad customer service policy, by the way - I'm the shopper, I'm paying the bill, I'll leave behind what I want, thank you) and walked out to my car - 37 minutes after I'd arrived.
There's a quick but extremely important point to make here.
Hy-Vee has (as do other stores) a very large, colorful computer display screen which shows customers at check-out, what each scanned item is, along with what it costs and the running total.
The screens at this Hy-Vee are mounted and pointed directly down the conveyor belt, so the customer - and everyone else in line - can see all of this information.
Okay, big whoop - I'm behind you, I can see you're 47 and putting a box of Count Chocula and a quart of chocolate milk on the belt - who cares if I can also see the price of each item and the $8.93 you're gonna drop to snack off the chockizzle tonight. Don't forget the Hannah Montana DVD rental!
But if you use food stamps - or more precisely, a food stamp debit card - that's also going to show up, in "FOOD STAMPS" living color on big, beautiful Hy-Vee check-out screen.
And since one of the official stated reasons the Department of Human Services went to electronic food stamp cards was to spare users the shame, stigma and embarrassment of having to admit in public to being on public assistance, then having that info flash on a computer screen for all to see, seems to be a bit oxy-moronic, n'est-ce pas?
To make sure this was the case at this Hy-Vee, I had a friend of mine meet me at the store, step in line ahead of me and use their food stamp card.
Sure enough, there it was: FOOD STAMPS.
Can a customer grab the screen and turn it so that it faces only them? Yes- usually, unless - as it was in this case - the screen has been anchored down and won't turn.
So you either have the customer feeling self-conscious as they turn the screen away from patrons, or they attempt to turn the screen and can't, which is even worse.
Or you have the very smart people at Hy-Vee corporate, do what Target and other stores do - re-program their system to read "EBS (Electronic Banking System) Transaction" instead of "FOOD STAMPS." That covers debit, credit and food stamp cards - problem solved, people leave happy.
Incredibly, there are some Hy-Vee's where the screen is beside the cashier, and the debit/credit card slide is positioned past it, so the people in line can see the screen info, but the customer swiping their card, can not. Bizarre - and unacceptable, either way.
Jonnie apparently was too focused on cheap, cold beer to remember to get a red basket - so I walked back past the 10 people who had originally ignored me and continued ignoring me to grab one, then started walking back expecting more of the same when Crystal, one of the people bagging groceries, turned around and smiled at me.
Head on a swivel, turn, and smile - THAT'S what we want as shoppers, from employees. Great job, Crystal!
I wanted more and returned to the scene of the first smile - the summer merchandise display under construction. While four employees in this area didn't acknowledge me, another one did - Katie, old Miss Reliable, who, like Crystal, turned, saw me and immediately said "hi!" once again.
That's the kind of gold-standard knee-jerk-friendly reaction that is almost impossible to train and hard to consistently find in employees - but tastes like butta on warm soft toast, to consumers.
I worked my way back to the meat counter. Mike appeared to be gone but in his place were three employees, none of whom seemed particularly enthusiastic about chucking ground round and pork loins onto white paper and scales.
An older woman asked, "Can I help you?" without a smile, adding insult to closed-ended-question injury, but did manage a grin after she'd told me they had no Chilean Sea Bass.
That was fine - just consider tossing in the smile at the beginning, which would lessen the sting of having to go with Mrs. Paul's Frozen Fish Sticks instead of CSB.
Over to the deli case I sauntered, where Ben, like the meat lady before him, offered an unsmiling "Can I help you?" but recovered nicely at the end with a huge smile that took his eyes with it.
I then walked back across the store to the opposite aisle, where a young man near the clothing section ignored me in spite of doing enough circles around him to qualify for a crop dusting license.
Finally I asked the question that made him laugh - do you have any Iowa State shirts?
That led to a nice conversation with the very friendly, finally smiling Eric, who had worked at the Euclid Hy-Vee for ten years before coming to the S.E. 14th store.
Then it was back over to produce, where Suzanne was handing out verbal invitations to taste tasty samples of fruit and fruit topping.
When I told her my refrigerator would be frightened of a strawberry, she avoided plugging into my reality and instead dialed up her own, using that old tried and true selling technique of bragging that she and her kids ate fruit every day and that her frig, pantry and kitchen were a stuffed luau fruit grenade, waiting to have the pin pulled - wow, how silly is it not to eat fruit?
Lack of fruit doesn't kill us. Guilt does.
Laura at the bakery warmly asked, "What can we help you with today?" Something without fruit in it, thank you. Instead I eventually opted for a couple Reese's Peanut Butter and Chocolate Easter Bunny's and headed to the check-out counter.
My cashier, Justin, looked at the two lonely Reese's PB&C EB's in my basket, smiled and said, one dude to another, "Just the good stuff tonight?" Right on, my good friend, right on.
Fran, another cashier working right beside the naturally smiling Justin, was a natural frowner - I looked away from Buzz Killington, slid my card, did the drill and walked out, looking forward to a chocolate gorge - it wasn't Count Chocula and chocolate milk, but it would do.
On my way out of the store, I spotted Crystal coming in - the woman who had turned and smiled at me after I'd remembered to grab a shopping basket towards the beginning of my shopping journey.
I stopped as the auto-door opened and told her who I was, what I was doing and that I really appreciated the fact that she'd been nice to me.
The huge smile that appeared on her face, lit up all 21 aisles.
The day's second trip to the store was better than the first - the employees were busier at 5pm and thus seemed more alert and engaged than the morning crew.
Yet it still took me initiating the contact, to get employees to unabashedly share their joy. And when they did - pow! They were no longer just grocery store employees, but the customer service ambassadors that Hy-Vee - and their jingle - brag about.
The morning staff has some work to do - Sarah and Pam at the starting gate, Mike the meat counter stud and Dwayne the deli cat, notwithstanding - but there's nothing with the rest of the staff that can't be improved, with persistence, dedication and - my recommendation - video-taping employee interaction with patrons, for customer service training.
The afternoon shift has some potential customer service stars - Crystal, Katie, Ben, Eric, Laura and Justin among others - some of whom simply need gentle reminders to initiate contact and share those huge smiles and unbridled joy.
There was not a "helpful smile in every aisle" for shoppers on this particular day at Hy-Vee. But you can't help but smile, as you think about what your grocery shopping experience could look like, if they would.
For those that work there, listen to your jingle - and believe you can.
Look for another retail store evaluation next Thursday.
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. You can email Jonnie at email@example.com.