When a company or commercial entity puts "American" in their title, they do so knowing full well that it brings certain images to our shopper's mind: happy patriotism, happy families, happy parades, happy apple pie, hotdogs and baseball (unless you're the Cubs).
A few well-known "American" brands whose names always put a proud smile on our puss and a lump in our throat:
Which brings us to American, without anything after it.
American was founded in 1954, is headquartered in Madison, Wisconsin and has 15 stores in five states, including 5355 NW 86th Street in Johnston, just down the street a spell from where my bloggin head roars.
It (and the 14 others) sells TV's, appliances and furniture, which tosses American into the same crowded big-box sandbox with Homemakers, Best Buy, Target, WalMart and other home electronics and furnishings stores in the Metro.
So how does American differentiate itself, beyond its Red, White and Blue-infused name?
Let's take a gander at their website, for clues:
I made two trips to American on the same day, in typical Unsecret Shopper fashion: first, as a businessman fashionably attired; second, as an unemployed elderly cabana boy:
You're a doubter. I'm a believer. Let's see if I'm (W)right, or if their marketing person should be brought up on charges.
I approached American's double set of entry doors (unless you're leaving) at 11:30 on a recent Monday morning.
About 20 feet away, off to the left-hand side and in front of the outer store wall stood Ben, a young man who was obviously an employee, dressed in a nice tie and beautiful green dress shirt. He was having a conversation with another young man who was dressed very casually.
They were standing in a spot where employees typically stand when they're taking a smoke break; I'm not accusing Ben of doing so. But there are probably better places to have a conversation, if you're an employee.
Especially when I heard one of them say "I drank five gin and tonics, dude..."
There was no drink offered by Christopher; apparently that's not what those kids outside were talking about. Instead, the official store greeter uttered an unsmiling and ambivalent Walmart-quality "hello" as I entered.
Standing around and saying hi to strangers is probably pretty boring, Chris. But being nice and friendly and engaging and pleasant can turn those strangers into friends - over time, if they come back.
I headed straight to the back and passed by Ned, who showed Chris how it's done, giving me a warm, smiling, friendly "Hi!"
I strolled over to the beds, where Mettow followed Ned's lead, engaging me with a beautiful smile and nice "hi," followed by the unfortunate "Anything I can help you find?"
Who here serves gin and tonics - and open-ended questions?
Mettow, you have a smile that can be seen for miles, and a wonderfully engaging manner - things that can not be taught. You introduced yourself, asked for my name and shook my hand - fantastic! But there is no room in your otherwise awesome opening for such a clunky, pedestrian closed-ended question.
Astaire and I approached each other but she didn't know it, since her head was down, looking at her phone while she appeared to be texting. She did give me a very nice smile, "Hi," and "How are you?" when she finally looked up. Nice save. :)
Unfortunately, Christopher, the official store greeter, was doing the same as Astaire - texting on his cell phone, as I walked past a second time.
This would happen over and over, with other employees.
A quick tip on the dope rhyme to those store staff members who walked around the showroom floor, focused on their cell phones: Try selling it a recliner.
Over by the big screen TV's, Joe opened with fingers down a chalkboard: "Anything I can help you with?" He also didn't smile, didn't introduce himself or ask for my name at any point during our lengthy conversation about LCD vs. Plasma, and also managed a Mayberry RFD-style "sir" reference, aging me faster than I was aging already.
And Joe's dress pants were hanging down in the back, about four inches below his waistline.
Selling big-ticket items requires putting on your big boy sales pants, Joe - all the way on. You were quite knowledgeable about your products and pleasant enough, but PE doesn't cut it when you're asking a shopper to write a check for two grand. Bottom line: Do you want to move a lot of boy toys and make a lot of jack, or be an ordinary sales Joe?
I know you got the goods, Joe - now show 'em. :)
Julie made great eye contact as she walked past, and even tossed in a very pleasant "hi" and a smile, free of charge.
On the backside of the big screens was a row of PC's, which I browsed on either side of Dan for half a minute while he ignored me, focused instead on a piece of merchandise. To get his name, I asked him for the time. He gave it to me - then went back to whatever he was doing.
The stuff you sell is important, Dan, and needs your attention. Customers need it more. Head on a swivel, and engage.
Levi was also working, looking intently at a checkout computer, while I stood to his right, browsing - then walked behind him and to his left side, browsing - then walked to the other side of him, directly in his line of vision, if he'd looked up.
I gave Levi one more chance to acknowledge the fact that a human being had just spent the past three minutes close enough to him to steal his wallet.
I came back across and stood once again to his right, within two feet of him, once again browsing.
He must have smelled me.
"Anything I can help you with?" He finally asked, without a smile, and like I was bothering him.
I turned around and there was Christopher, the Official Ungreetful Store Greeter. He looked me right in the eye, looked down, said nothing and walked away.
I got ya coming into the store, man. Now you're on your own.
I ran into Mettow again, who sweetly asked, "Are you doing okay, hon?" I said yes, that I was just browsing. But instead of turning me lose, she literally followed me - out of the beds, into the dining room furniture, all the way back across the store to the big screens.
Before I had time to interrupt an employee's text messaging on their cell phone to borrow it to call my attorney to get a restraining order, Mettow peeled off and fell by the wayside.
I approached the pretty green shirt-wearing but wearing no name tag Ben, who was finished with his chit-chat outside.
"Finding everything okay?"
I walked over to appliances, where Scott waited on a couple. I stood around in the general area within his eyeshot and waited until he was finished, then stared at a stove, expecting him to approach me.
Instead, he moved away from me, to the front of the section, leaving me to browse.
So far, the staff had dropped more balls than the combined receiving corps in a Chiefs-Raiders tilt at Arrowhead.
Luckily, Jerry Rice entered the game - in the form of Marty.
He was extraordinary.
Marty greeted me in appliances with a smile and a handshake, listened intently to my questions, responded directly and with poise, asked personal questions and knocked down the walls between two strangers, showed off and described the merchandise with major aplomb and a showman's flair, and was genuinely interested in who I was and what I wanted.
Marty was easily the best of the day, and is in the running for one of the best of the (Secret Shopper) year.
Two missteps: first, he didn't introduce himself or get my name until last. Second, I'm guessing that Marty is a smoker and a coffee drinker - and not because I saw him with a Starbucks and a pack of Kools.
This is an uber-delicate issue for all sales people, but it needs to be said: bad breath will kill the sale. I'll leave it at that, and Marty will know what to do with it.
Willie obviously knew what to do with his cell phone, as he expertly texted away, head down as I approached him. He was standing in the position once occupied by Christopher, as store greeter. Like, right out in the very front of the store. Where customers enter. And leave.
You're a very engaging guy, Willie - once you engage. But either go in the back and text, or stand out front and greet, and stop fooling yourself into thinking you're doing both.
With a friendly "have a good one" from Willie, I walked out the door, an hour and four minutes after I'd entered, which felt more like a week and four days.
Would it get better the second time around?
I entered the store for the second time that day at 7:47pm, with visions of smiling, happy, engaging employees dancing in my head.
I was immediately hit in the skull with a sledgehammer in the form of Carol, who "greeted" me, without even looking at me, with one of the weakest, most uncaring "hi"'s I've ever heard, and I've been to the DOT Driver's License Station.
Ned - as he'd done earlier in the day - shared the first smile of my visit, along with the 120th closed-ended question: "Anything I can help you find?" Pleasant man, unpleasant inquiry.
The unpleasantness would increase by 10,000 fold.
As I stood in appliances, I watched and heard Jeff from about 25 feet away, yell across the store to Scott: "I was working on a $10,000 sale, and then it got snatched."
Hey man, don't feel like you have to whisper on my account!
Many customers would have obviously been offended, and left. I was offended, but didn't want to leave and miss out on more fun!
That additional fun was delivered in the form of Carol, who'd left her post as "Ambivalent Greeter" to come greet me as "Engaging, sweet, endearing bed salesperson."
She was. In fact, she was doing a very nice job of having me try out mattresses, trying to get a feel for what I thought felt best.
Then in came Mettow - the woman who'd engaged me earlier in the day, in that same section.
"My manager told me he recognized you from earlier today because of those cute glasses you're wearing, and told me to come help you," said Mettow.
I hadn't tried out a bed with Mettow or talked specifics with Mettow. All I'd tried to do was escape Mettow. But sure, it made sense; Mettow had engaged me first that day, Mettow should be the one to sell me.
Carol didn't quite see it that way. She literally stomped down her foot, pivoted on it and walked off without so much as a goodbye, thanks for shopping or drop dead, posturpedic-head.
I tried getting out of there, telling Mettow I was just killing time before the late movie started over at the Wynnsong Theater. Mettow wouldn't have it. She followed me for 89 steps (I stepped and measured it later): that's about 65-70 yards worth of store space. She literally would not stop following me.
Offensive. Desperate. Car crash. That's American!
I somehow lost her in big screen TV's, probably because she was scared off by the music that someone had absolutely CRANKED up in the home theater room.
I walked into the room - nobody was there. The staff staffing that area were just letting it blare. Stunning - and not just because the lead singer of whatever new rock band it was, stunk.
Walking back out, I began casually browsing big screen TV's, pretending I was oblivious (like the employees) to the jet engine behind me.
Scott (a different Scott than Scott in appliances) eventually came up to me and, above the din, asked, "Anything I can help you find?"
The volume knob, so I can turn up the grunge and not have to hear you ask me that closed-ended question.
Yet after that, Scott (after mercifully turning down the music) talked to me about features, skillfully asking me questions and attempting to hone in on which TV would be the best for me. He had great eye contact, and flashed an occasional grin which became an ear to ear smile, at one point.
Show that more often, and you'll double your sales in 12 months, Scott.
Two things Scott can do better: listen better to my price points (I told him $1,200-$1,500, yet he hammered on a $1,900 model) and to my needs (I told him I always watched movies in theaters and never at home, yet he kept trying to upsell me on Blue-Ray and Netflix capability).
I came upon Muhamed, working behind the camera counter. He was talking, loudly, to Ben, who stood 15-20 feet away. They talking about a joke or some other personal anecdote. I watched a few customers walk through the imaginary line between the two, without either of the employees acknowledging anyone.
I wanted to try the verbal gauntlet, too! I stopped halfway between the chatty Cathy's and turned towards Muhamed. It didn't even slow him down. Then, just as I turned to walk away, he let out a weak, "Anything I can help you with?"
I said "no," which prompted Muhamed to immediately begin yakking it up with Ben again. Didn't mean to interrupt your conversation, fellas!
I made my way back over to appliances, where Jeff, the guy who'd let everyone know he'd gotten jobbed out of a ten grand sale was pacing up and down the aisles on what was obviously a personal call on his cell phone. He talked about someone who had "spit up on the floor"
I held back my own urge to do a little up-chucking.
I decided I was going to let someone inside the store know about the truly bad customer service I'd seen, heard and experienced inside American over the past eight hours.
I came upon Dustin. Shockingly, his head was down and he wz txtng.
I stood there a moment, waiting for him to look up. When he didn't, I said, "hello?"
He looked up, startled. "What do you want?"
Finally - a question that wasn't closed-ended!
"I want the store manager," I said.
"Uh...let me see who is on duty tonight," he replied.
After several minutes, he came back and said, "Jeff's the manager on duty tonight. He's over there."
I didn't have to look. I knew which Jeff he meant. Ten grand Jeff. Spit-up Jeff.
I sprinted to my car, cranked up Foghat, got home in 5 minutes, jumped into bed, pulled the covers over my head and cried myself to sleep.
Marty was awesome. Scott (in TV's) was good. Ned, Astaire and Julie were very nice. Mettow was sweet, but insanely too aggressive.
Most of the rest of my experience at American was a customer service atomic bomb.
My sense is that many of the staff who perhaps once gave good customer service, have simply given up. There is a lack of strong leadership. The inmates are, for all intents and purposes, running the American asylum.
The store is losing business because of their poor service, period. Someone with a very large broom needs to give American a very good housecleaning...fast.
Otherwise, the customers who experience what I did will use the same technology that so many employees employed, to spread the bad word; they'll text to their friends on their cell phones, while they walk around the store.
After all - isn't that the American way?
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)
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