Hello shoppers...


"Dahl's Foods. Your hometown grocer since 1931."

So reads the statement, written graphically on every checkout monitor at every checkout register in every Dahl's store in Des Moines.  

It brings to mind graphic images - of a wooden barrel full of sweet-smelling apples sitting atop the wooden floor of a small town grocery store, a floor which creaks and moans and gives under the weight of a friendly old man who walks upon it, wearing Ben Franklin glasses and a green apron overtop of a white short-sleeved collared shirt. It's Little House On The Prairie. It's who we once were, and still yearn to be.

I think of blue cheese dressing.

There's a powerful childhood associative memory with Dahl's in my otherwise abandoned head, not because I remember going there as a kid but because my mother always stopped and shopped there on her way home from work. One night, when I was 12-ish, she arrived home and began unsacking 20 Jeno's Pizzas, 19 blocks of Velveeta, a barrel of ketchup, and what would become my own version of Vodka to an alcoholic - a glass jar of cold Marie's brand Blue Cheese Dressing.

This is the REAL stuff, the five bucks a jar kind, the kind that has to be refrigerated at the store, beside the Gino's, not like that two-buck cheap vinegary pseudo-dressing that tastes like library paste and is sold at room temperature in the same aisle as the glue. 

Nooooo, baby - this is liquid manna from...from whatever town in France where they make it.

From the minute I put the first fork-full of that deliciously creamy wonderfully blue cheesy nectar into my mouth, along with what I would eventually look upon as an "optional" delivery system, a piece of lettuce, I was totally, completely hooked, lock, stock and cheese barrel.

For the 30 years since that moment, whenever I hear or see the name "Dahl's," my mouth begins to water. I just drooled on the keyboard. And it doesn't matter that other grocery stores carry the Marie's brand. My emotional connection between the store, the flavor and the calorie/fat high, is as Pavlovian as thinking "Monkey Planet" when we hear "Chuck Heston."

So you can have your Laura Ingalls Wilder - when I hear "Dahl's," I think of a creamy jeannie inside a magical jar, filled with 1170 calories, 65 grams of fat, and a large reason why I used to weigh 320 pounds and had a heart attack when I was 35.

What else do we know about Dahl's, other than that I need therapy, and coumadin?

According to their terrific website, Dahl's Foods first opened in 1931, on Des Moines' East side, weighing in at a (Hinky) dinky 1,000 square feet. The first Dahl's Supermarket, likely larger, opened in 1948, at the corner of Beaver and Franklin.

80 years later there are a dozen Dahl's stores scattered throughout Des Moines and her suburbs, the newest one being the location on Ingersoll. (Just a quick FYI to Dahl's web site folks - on the "our history" page, there's an old black and white pic of W.T. Dahl as a kid, who would grow up to be the founder, with the caption, "W.T. Dahl looking at the field that will soon be the Ingersoll Dahl's." He can stop looking - it's been built. :) )

None of the Dahl's stores seems terribly large, certainly not compared to the monster stores of competitors, like Hy-Vee. Yet that seems to be the Dahl's vibe - keep it small, use accent lighting instead of wall to wall fluorescents, maintain a level of intimacy and give it, as they say in the branding statement, that "hometown" feeling.

Now onto the focus of today's Secret Shopper review - Sears.

Just kiddin.

The Dahl's location selected for this Secret Shopper review is at 50th and Ep True Parkway in West Des Moines. This store is smaller than, say, the large location in Johnston, but seems a big bigger than some of the older stores.

Regardless, there are not dozens of employee encounters in this review. There is, instead, a handful in each trip, which makes each of the encounters, in my evaluatory mind, even more important.

Following the established (Un)secret Shopper standard, there were dual trips taken, on the same day, in un-same apparel.

         "Jonathan"                "Jonnie"

Here's how we score, for those of you who want to play along at home:

  Horrific - a customer service nuclear bomb that's every owner's worst nightmare. The kind of service you call your friends to complain about.   

   Weak - a lot of work to be done, but there's hope.   

   Forgettable - not great, not bad. This is where most businesses end up.   

   Strong - some very good things are going on. Just needs some tweaking.   

   Stellar - first-rate, exceptional, off the hizzle. The kind of exemplary service you call your friends to brag about.

A quick apology, in advance, if I've misspelled an employee's name, or missed it entirely. I have bad eyes and those are small nametags - forgive the mistakes of children and the elderly, guilty as charged, twice.

As for the experience itself, the question must be asked - would Dahl's customer service live up to its promise, made by their marketing department, of being our hometown grocer?

Grab a cart with an uncooperative wheel, and roll along with me.

Staff Interaction/Jonathan

At 12:10pm on a Tuesday, I stepped through the first set of Dahl's entrance doors and into the breezeway, where the sight of three beautiful smiling faces blew me away - Max, Pam and Margie. I chatted away as they gladly listened, which is what a cardboard cutout typically does. (It would have been VERY cool to have the display set up to play audio of their voices, greeting customers.)

Their happy likenesses may be made of paper - Max and Pam make up the morning show on 93.3, KIOA, Margie is a spokesperson for Dahl's, their images part of a "Recipe Of The Week" promotion - but their collective grins make you smile, and that's the idea, to send customers into the store on happy footing.

My feet obeyed, joyfully propelling me through the second set of doors, which politely auto-opened, welcoming me into the store, to search for more smiles, of the fleshier kind.

The first human mouth that could have delivered it was attached to a woman who stood behind the Bakery counter. I spent a little over a minute checking out what looked like a very nice selection of baguette, but saying something, anything, just wasn't the Bakery lady's bag.

I slid over to Produce and stood beside Bear, who barely seemed to notice me as he stocked blueberries while I stalked apples for four silent minutes. As I'd given up on getting a greeting and began to walk away, he salvaged the third pillar of customer service - "engage" - with a tepid but welcome, "Find anything?"

Nice save.

It was onto the nicely displayed meats at the Butcher Counter, where Evan met me with a meaty "Hello" from behind the cutting table, then stepped forward and said, nicely but without a smile, "Help you find anything?"

The question of "Open vs. closed ended question?" has been talked, flapped, yapped, yammered, prattled and droned on about in these blog pages longer than a six-year-old arguing for 10 more minutes of iCarly. Suffice it to say, from a retail standpoint, closed-ended questions - those that require a "yes" or "no" answer - are okay, but not the best way to engage customers.


1. Asking "Can I help you" misses the obvious - customers always need help. We're helpless 6 year-olds but with better bladder control. Which means that asking if we need help is like asking someone whose hair is on fire, if they'd like it extinguished. "Put that out for ya?"

It's like the old saying goes - if ya gotta ask, you'll never know.

Instead, employees should always always always understand that every patron needs help, and their responsibility, as an employee is to help the patron, which leads easily into...

2. Asking what the customer needs help with - thus, the open-ended question, which seeks details from which an answer can be formulated.

"What can I help you with?"

Shoppers should never hear a closed - ended question from an employee in a retail setting, absolutely never, under any circumstances. Okay, God laughs at absolutes so sure there are probably rare moments that don't fit the template. But 99.992 and 1/5th of the time, open-ended is better - and is an easy element to train, for store managers, and to learn, for employees.

Here's one more analogy, which I should have started with.

Imagine that engaging a customer is like you watching a person carrying a basket full of penguins through your yard towards a closed-door entrance to a temp-controlled penguin playhouse that you've thoughtfully built, but if the person puts down the penguins to open the door, the birds will surely scatter and start eating your petunias and terrorizing your cat, whose name, ironically, is Petunia.

So why, you're probably wondering, isn't there a penguin-sized "dog door" that they can simply push open themselves? How should I know? Hey, you're the one who squandered $168,298.65 on 12 Galapagos penguins and a 500,000 BTU refrigeration system, when you could have really used a second garage.

Okay, so anyhoo, as the person approaches the door, struggling with the penguins-in-a-basket, munchin on Chicken-In-A-Biscuit, unable to even see the door because one sloppy bird keeps getting crumbs in their eyes, would you actually say, "Can I get that door for ya?"

Man - you would, wouldn't ya. You are a very...naughty...blog reader.

So that's a closed-ended question, and what I heard from the 20 or so Dahl's employees who engaged me, over two trips to the store, with my hands full of penguins.

Back to Evan behind the meat counter, who has probably been wondering where we went.

He was extraordinarily helpful in trying to hunt down some Chilean Sea Bass (a penguin favorite), rummaging through frozen fish stacks in a sub-freezing food locker that would have made Mr. Freeze toss on a shoulder shawl. Then, Voila! Evan hit pay-fish, triumphantly hauling out a couple chilly pounds of Chile's finest.

His wonderful effort to satisfy was off the fishzzle, the "hello" greeting was great - now just change your question to open-ended, Evan, and don't forget to smile! :) And to put on your nametag! :)

Which was also missing from the Dahl's smock of Zach(k), the tall young sports-playing Urbandale High grad up ahead, stocking bacon, who greeted with a nice "How ya doin" as I walked past.

Onto the frozen food section I skated, to one of those cool old-school floor freezers that you bend down into, which is what my old bones did, allowing me to examine cartons of Edy's vanilla and AE's Van and Bon-Bon while a different Zach stocked the same ice cream section, six feet to my right.

Unfortunately Zach kept to himself and didn't say anything for the nearly five minutes it took me to slowwwly circum-frig-i-gate the entire floor freezer, back to where Zach was working, where nothing but frozen freezer treats and cold silence continued, between us.

I finally turned and began to walk away from the ice cream island when Zach said, from behind me, "Any particular flavor I can help you find?"

Again, like Bear in Produce, good save before I could make a clean getaway. But that question really needed to be asked 10 seconds after I got there, not 3 seconds before I left.

These are all small, simple things, stupidly simple, really, but also simply true, and important.

The grocery biz - like the car biz, clothing biz, and any biz - is not about groceries, but about people. Consumers can get food anywhere. They come here, to Dahl's at 50th and E.P. True Parkway, because they want, wish and pray they'll get something more.

That "more" is smiles, eye contact, greetings, friendly banter, the sharing of stories, love, nurturing, joy, all the things that make us feel connected to each other. If the employees at Dahl's or any retailer, can't, won't or don't offer these emotions to customers, the store loses the most vital connection to that customer. Without it, there is no need for human beings to work in stores, and without human beings, we might as well order crackers for our penguins from home, and have them delivered.

I moved back to the refrigerated bacon, hot dogs and sausages area, where I searched for something in pork-ti-cu-lar for several minutes while Urbandale Zach stocked the case, a pig's length to my right, this time silently. The earlier "hello" was great, Zach, just don't forget to offer to help out a brutha who doesn't appear to know his Little Smokies from his Ballpark Franks.

I next walked into the Pharmacy where I found a prescription for customer service disaster.

I saw several employees standing in the antacid/tummy ache aisle, so decided to spend some time contemplating the benefits of Pepto-Bismol vs. Alka-Seltzer. While Tom, the non-foods manager, worked in that same aisle and walked past me several times, he said nothing to me. Same thing for Ron, the pharmacist, who occasionally came out from behind the counter, then went back behind and watched me, watching the gas-control medications.  

I picked up bottles and boxes of Imodium AD and Gas-X, examined ingredients on the labels of chewable Tums and liquid Pepcid. I'd occasionally look around, then go back to looking, which is how it went for 17 brutal minutes, without being talked to, engaged or acknowledged, until popping the top on a pack of Rolaids sounded like a good idea.

People make mistakes, even long-time veterans of retail. Still, employees, and especially managers, can't lose sight of a customer in plain sight. That should not have happened, and will probably be less likely to in the future, as this review is read by Tom and Ron, who will probably need a couple of Tums after skimming through this part. :)

A trip to the Deli would quell my upset stomach, along with a big quart of three-potato potato salad, a wonderfully rich, cheesy potatoey concoction I'd pleasantly discovered while living in the Northeast part of the U.S., equally pleased to find back home, at Dahl's.

Heather greeted from behind the selection of salads almost immediately, with a small smile and a "Can I help you?"

Yes you can, Heather - use a better question from between the lips of a bigger smile, which I know you've got because you flashed it when I made a stupid joke about Dahl's no longer offering their delicious three-potato potato salad. "Do you have it in 2-tater?

Retail is all about presentation. It's performance art, when done at its best. If it were just about the stuff we buy, we'd buy everything online, which we're doing more of, in large part because we're not getting the performance and the presentation from staff that we believe we deserve, as shoppers.

The five pillars of customer service have never been more important than they are today, to the survival of brick and mortar stores: Smile. Greet. Engage. Thank. Follow-up.

I wanted to give the Pharmacy another chance to deliver on the five pillars, so I returned, but this time bypassed the Pepto and walked right up to the counter-o, making eye contact with Ron the pharmacist, who immediately delivered a smile-less but pleasant "Hello."

As a supermodel who frequently graces the covers of Trailertrash Magazine and Penguin Quarterly, I value the importance of maintaining my girlish figure, which is why I asked Ron about Alli, the over the counter weight-loss medication formerly known as the prescription-only Xenical (which I've used, along with Meridian, Phen-phen, Redux and repeated shots to the head with a hammer until I let go of the double-cheeseburger).

He led me away from the Pharmacy towards another counter area. During our brief convo along the way, Ron said, referring to the Alli, "It's very expensive."

I don't want to toss Ron under the bus again because he's already got tire tracks on his head. But an employee probably doesn't want to tell a customer that something they sell is pricey, since a) what's expensive to the employee may not be to the customer, and b) the idea is to sell stuff, not not sell stuff.

This goes back to a previous Secret Shopper review I wrote about Best Buy, in which I mentioned that employees should never talk smack about the things they sell, whether that smack is about quality, reliability or price. Everything a store sells is great, with some things being greater than others and always at a great price. Retail is always Oz and never Kansas.  

Ron is a pro and I know he'll remind himself of what he already knows in this regard.

Walking through the greeting card aisle, I saw Tom the non-foods manager again, adjusting a display light. He turned and saw me as I walked past but didn't greet or engage. Again, Tom's been around the retail block - in fact I'd seen him be very endearing to some older customers, who I suspect were long-time patrons of that particular Dahl's.

Not everyone is. Every customer, no matter how long they've been shopping that store, had a first time visit, just as mine was. And so the oldest of old school axioms applies - treat everybody like they're regulars and many of them will become just that.

It was time to head to the front and ring up items. I stepped up to a checkout line, where Bob said "Hello" "How are you" "Five twenty-three" and "Thank you have a nice day" without a smile, and without looking at me or even in my direction.  

Try something at home. Try saying, "Thank you have a nice day" into a mirror without smiling, and see if you look like you mean it.

Reflecting back, neither did Bob. In fact, as I watched him ring up my stuff wearing a brace on his right wrist, I figured he'd probably punched in a higher amount of all combined cash register totals throughout his grocery store career than the current U.S. debt, and I understand that's getting up there.

Yet Bob, and every cashier everywhere, owes a debt of gratitude to the patrons who buy the stuff that they ring up, for it's that Ka-CHING! sound that signals the collection of the moo-lah that ultimately ends up in their paychecks.

That seems worthy of a glance, and a smile - don't you think, Bobby? :)

There was one last test - a trip to the customer service desk.

There was no one staffing it initially. But within a few minutes, Tom (not the non-foods manager) quick-stepped towards me, smiling and greeting me with a very warm "Hello" as he scooted past and back around the counter, to help me.

That was only the second smile I'd seen that morning, and the first one given to me without any reason other than I was a human being, and deserved one.

Tom's smile didn't stop at his mouth. He had a joyful energy and a wonderful willingness to help that came out in his eyes, gestures and words - awesome job, Tom!

On that happy note, the Secret Shopping Elvis left the Dahl's auditorium at 1:12pm, an hour and two minutes after he'd entered.

What would a second, early evening Secret Shopper pass through the Dahl's aisles, uncover?

Staff Interaction/Jonnie

The second Secret Shopping scamper through Dahl's at 50th and E.P. True, begun at 5:48pm, four and a half hours after the first trip through had ended, was ended faster because there were fewer employees working that later shift.

It was also a better experience - much better, thanks to a fewer-in-numbers but greater-in-happy staff that engaged along the way.

I started at the Deli, searching for the elusive three-potato potato salad. Kelli, standing behind the counter, smiling and engaging as big as a three-ring circus MC, knew exactly what I was talking about, and was as funny and fun loving as she was empathetic.

"Ohhh we used to carry that and I loved it. We've got this 'fully loaded' potato salad - here, ya gotta try it - it's a little dry for me, although I'd cream this one up for ya if I could. I told them to keep carrying that three-potato salad...I tell 'em and tell 'em and tell 'em but it's like talking to a wall."

When Ohana's Steak House says, "Come enjoy dinner AND a show," they're talking about Kelli, who has been serving up heaping spoonfuls of dinna and customer attention at that Dahl's location for 15 years, with a quick stint at the Ankeny store.

Refreshing, dynamic, a total delight, Kelli is the living embodiment of the ideal employee, attentive, nurturing, caring, loving, engaged, just like Grandma, who I referenced as a template in a sometime-back post. If I had 20 clones of Kelli, we'd storm the nearest Target store, crank up the tunes and show Sonja Pothen how to really run it.

Back in the Butcher Shop, Kelli's joy was apparently infectious, as Evan, who recognized me from earlier in the day, smiled and said, "Can I get you anything?" Awesome on the return trip through, Evan!

I hung a left and watched, as Bear, from Produce, not produce a grin or a greeting as he walked past within four feet, pushing a bucket and a mop.

What's that, you say? What's to be happy and engaging about when one is about to spend the last hour of a 12 hour shift, schlopping warm water and bleach onto a white tile floor, covered with blueberry stains, zucchini remnants and shopper hoof-prints?

Ay, there's the (mop-head) rub. And the perfect time TO reach out and smile and engage and laugh with a customer, when that customer is least expecting an employee to do so.

That's when it looks less like you're getting customer service, and feels more like you're engaged by a great person, obviously working hard but still taking time to be nice, not because they gotta, but because they wanna. Hard-working employee + random act of employee kindness = long-term customer loyalty.

Joel - who may have been a manager - demonstrated this perfectly next, as he came rolling out of the back room stock area, pushing an empty hand cart.

"Hello," he said with a slight smile as he turned and rolled by. "Look out - don't want to run you over," he smiled, larger, moving past, and down the aisle.

Hard-working employee + random act of employee kindness = long-term customer loyalty. Great job, Joel!

Something observed and noted during this 2nd tour of Secret Shopping duty - Dahl's, quite smartly but unnoticed until this point by your self-proclaimed uber-observant Secret Shopper, numbers their non-food aisles with letters, which, unlike numbers, you can't count with. So at this store, there are aisles 1-7, things we can eat, and aisles A-H, things only a giraffe would eat. One other interesting thing - the frozen food aisle isn't numbered OR lettered. My best stupid guess is that, while the items themselves are edible, who'd want to eat 'em frozen? So they left it blank.

Now you know.

It was time to revisit the scene of that morning's customer service debacle, the Pharmacy...AND THE ANTACID AISLE.

Tum, Ta Tum Tum TUMS!!!

I'd brought a box of magazines, Stephen King's It, my crochet needles and six wads of yarn, a DVD player and the entire Godfather trilogy, ingredients to make S'mores, a 3,000 piece picture puzzle of a basket of penguins, six weeks worth of canned provisions but no can opener, a pop tent (for in the "pop" aisle - duh!) eight stakes that would go through linoleum and concrete, I'd use one of the cans as a hammer, and had given 5003 Ep True Parkway as a forwarding address. Now, it was time to begin the looooong, dark journey into antacid browsing.

Less than 10 seconds later, it figured...

"Can I help you find anything?"

It was Gwen, another pharmacist, who was anything but just "another" anything. Instead she was fantastic, greeting me almost immediately upon seeing me looking for stomach relief, from behind the pharmacy counter and from between smiling lips.

I had to let the fruit-flavored chewable Maalox tablets out of the childproof bottle. I told her I was secret shopping the store, and had a less than stellar experience earlier that day, with Tom and Ron.

She was genuinely surprised, and said that's not how those two usually roll. We also talked, along with Cindy, a student pharmacist from Drake, about Dahl's customer service training, of which there is some, said both women, at the beginning, when employees are first hired. There is, however, no ongoing training or secret shoppers, that they're aware of.

Gwen even chastised herself for not coming out from behind the counter and helping me, something, she said, they're trained to do. I'm absolutely sure she'll do that next time - and also, use an open-ended question instead of that clunkly old outdated closed-ended thang.  

Thanks for yours and Cindy's kindness and warmth - you were wonderful!

There was no one at customer service, so I moved over to the counter where you can both pay your utility bills and buy lottery tickets.

Hmmm...keep the lights on, or try for a shot at 50 million bucks? "Give me 100 Powerball quick-picks..."

Diana smiled warmly, and said, smiling throughout, "Hello" "Thank you" and "Good luck" as I bought only five Powerball tix, for what as you're reading this would now be last night's drawing, so if this is the last Unsecret Shopper blog post posted, you know why, because you'd never hear, "...and I'm going to stay at my job and continue to work..." uttered from these lips, nor from the lips of any sane PB winner, into the mic attached to the podium at Iowa Lottery headquarters.

To the soap aisle I next roamed, where a very young Caitlan shuffled by without saying a word. Watch the experienced people around you, Caitlan - watch them smile, and greet, and engage, and emulate them, because they are doing it as it should be done, and as you should be, too. Let this night staff be your wonderful mentors, so you can learn how to do it right, understand that it's not only proper to reach out and smile at and verbally engage customers, but that it's okay to be happy at work, and not just with co-workers but with everyone, everywhere, because everyone everywhere deserves to see and feel your happiness, especially you.

Time to hit the check-out counter, where Acacia (what a beautiful name!) said, "I can help you over here" but forgot to say hello when I got there, or anything else, until I started to engage the junior at Valley, which is when the most beautiful smile you've ever seen, lit up her face, and the rest of the store. You were kind, sweet and happy when you were engaged - just be your kind, sweet, happy self a little sooner, on your own, Acacia, and you'll rock it. :)

At 6:27 - 40 minutes after I'd started the trip, and 6 hours after I'd begun the journey, the Secret Shopper review of Dahl's was in the books.



There are a few quick non-personnel things to address first.

1. There was the outdated caption on the web site photo, mentioned earlier.

2. When I called the store at 7:45pm one night to verify an employee's name, the phone rang six times, and then the unmistakable fax machine sound hit my ears. Don't know if that's by design or accident, but if no one can answer the phone during business hours, an answering machine, with location, hours, branding, etc, seems a better choice.

3. Speaking of names, there's an inconsistency in employees wearing their nametags, or visibly displaying them. Since employees are apparently required to wear them, they're working for a company that clearly values the importance of humanizing their staff, to their customers. Everybody wear those nametags, where all of us shoppers can see them.

Now, onto the overall - which was a tale of two entirely different shopping experiences.

The noontime trip through Dahl's was somewhat disappointing. Employees consistently waited until the last-minute to engage, or didn't engage at all. Evan and Zach were exceptions and each did a nice job, but they were also inconsistent at times. Tom the non-foods manager, Ron the pharmacist and Bob the cashier, three likely grocery store wars veterans, just weren't on their game that morning. As a normal first-time shopper, I'd not be terribly inclined to give them a second chance.

As a caring, empathetic Unsecret Shopper, of course I will. :)

The total flat-out customer service stud-muffin from the early staff was smiling, engaging Tom, in customer service, who brought his A game. You deserve the recognition and the thanks, Tom - just a great job.

The Secret Shopper jaunt from later in the evening was award winning, nearly top to bottom. Starting with the ultra-engaging Kelli, through a revitalized Evan, awesome Joel, incredible Gwen, sweet Cindy, wonderful Diana and good and will be great Acacia, the evening superstar staff lineup was a pleasure to talk to, laugh with and be engaged by - take a bow, gang, you deserve much applause.

While there was an obvious difference in the quality of employee interaction, it wasn't a difference that need be ongoing, or chronic. In fact, with acknowledgement of the issues, training on improving and diligence and oversight on the higher standard then established, customers at this Dahl's could learn to enjoy being spoiled by smiling, greeting, engaging happy staff, day and night.

That would help Dahl's live up to the emotional promise of "Your hometown grocer since 1931," and make the cardboard cutout of a smiling Max, Pam and Margie, at the entrance, a wonderful foreshadowing of what's in store, at this Dahl's store. :)

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 jonniewright@thebuyosphere.com.

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