There are three places in the Universe so visually stunning and emotionally transformative, they require no level of customer service to be enjoyed: The Grand Canyon, The Moon and Madonna's closet.
A wanna-be fourth is Homemakers Furniture in Des Moines - the location of this week's Secret Shopper evaluation.
A visit to HM is like walking into a furnished airship hangar. It is as vast and beautiful a store as I've ever seen - over 215,000 square feet, according to their web site. Mail delivered there must have its choice of several zip codes. None of the people who work there, are fat - how could you be. I did two laps inside the entire store and am still gassed.
Besides me, I brought along another trained Secret Shopper, a woman - blond, attractive, looking younger than her 42 years and dressed well, in business casual. I am brunette, resemble a tired Paul Giamatti and am dressed in trailer trash frayed Iowa State hoodie and sagging jeans.
The contrast in attire and appearance is by design - would we be treated differently in the same store shopping at the same time?
I entered first, she came in five minutes later and we each went our separate ways - as separate as the experiences we were about to have.
First, a quick refresher on my ratings system, which is based upon what I teach employees in customer service training:
(The following ratings are based upon what I experienced, with observations from the other evaluator, sprinkled throughout.)
The Homemakers greeter was stellar, shouting out a big, bright, warm "HI!" as I entered and setting the stage for what I anticipated would be a non-stop hand-shaking kissy-face love-fest display from the rest of the staff. Ironically, the other evaluator wasn't greeted at all - she needn't have worried. As for me...
The next time another employee acknowledged me was 15 minutes and a fifth of the store later. (approximately the square footage of Altoona) Along the way I was ignored by a salesperson who passed within a foot of me as he walked by, and by three other sales people who I walked past as they were gathered around a cash register singing along to "Rock The Boat" as it blared over the store's loud speakers.
That can't happen. In a retail setting the size of Homemakers, a shopper can not be turned loose to be ignored by the people entrusted to act as store tour guides - four, to this point - no matter what he's wearing.
As for the other evaluator, she was showered with attention within the first 100 feet she traveled, receiving "Hi!" and "How are you?" from the three salespeople she passed along the way.
Staff interaction I:
When I got to the home theater section, I paused and began sending out buying cues, sitting my tired bones down in a very comfy recliner and watching a big screen TV - although I held out little hope of being helped since there wasn't another human being within eyeshot. Would I have to start tossing $100 bills on the floor? Would anyone notice me?
Anyone did. As I sat in the chair, a salesperson appeared and started walking towards me. Ah-ha! Paydirt! I wouldn't have to throw money on the floor after all!
Wow - he's psychic!
Turns out he was also someone who recognized me - which is what brought him over in the first place. John was a former co-worker in another life - we made small talk, caught up. I also believe that, even if John hadn't recognized me, he would have been just as engaging and warm to me as he was being now.
The other evaluator also showed her buying cues, and was helped quickly - by John.
Staff interaction II:
I made the mistake of leaving the warmth and comfort of John and stepping back into the shopping wilderness of Homemakers once again. Between the home theater section I left and the 2nd floor where I headed, I passed within a foot of another sales person - silence.
Then, after meandering around the upper level for 10 minutes, a big friendly voice yelled out, "How are you?"
It was Mike, a smiling, friendly salesperson - who, instead of asking me how he could help me, immediately began to describe how his cat had unplugged his sump pump and also occasionally turned down his water heater by rubbing against the temperature valve. The cat sounded awesome - would he be willing to bring in the cat and have it fill out a Homemakers customer service department application form?
Mike actually began walking away as he was wrapping up his story - apparently he had to rush off to go do something important but did have time to finish his critter anecdote - when he quickly added, as an afterthought, "Somebody took care of you, right?"
Yeah. Yeah, I'm good.
Meanwhile, the other evaluator was being directed towards the cookie kiosk, and greeted by each salesperson she passed on her way there.
Staff interaction III:
With a fresh animal story to share on my Facebook page, I traveled down the down escalator intent on doing another lap around the store's first floor - this time in the opposite direction, giving those employees I had passed the first time, a second chance.
Different direction, SOS.
I passed within 12 feet of a group of three salespeople gathered around a cash register - not a word from any of them directed towards me, although they were having a lively conversation about the melting snow. A female salesperson who had already ignored me once, was kind enough to do so again as she walked past. I walked directly to the side of a woman punching numbers into a computer - no acknowledgement.
Then I came upon two more women standing around another computer. They were talking to each other and so were too busy to say anything to me. I decided to give them another chance - I turned around, walked back, stopped and stood about ten feet away. Apparently that made one of the women uncomfortable - she looked up from her computer screen, turned towards me and said "Hi...can I help you find anything?" (See question #4, "Take The Customer Service Pop Quiz.")
Then three more salespeople and two more non-responses, including an employee who literally passed me heading the same way I was and another intently huddled over a register.
But a third salesperson, who'd already silently walked past me once, came out of the bathroom and, apparently thinking I might actually be shopping and not just training for the triathlon, followed me for a bit before catching up to me and saying, "Anything I can get for you? Something I can help you with?" Nic had a million dollar smile, was dapper dressed and extremely charming. I responded, more accurately than he knew, that I was wondering aimlessly around the store. "Well," he said, "Let me point you in the direction of the cookies. That's what's got me to stay here."
My evaluator had long ago polished hers off and was heading out the door, greeted along the way by every salesperson she came upon.
The restrooms were squeaky clean, as was the entire store - do these janitors hire out for smaller jobs, like apartments of bloggers?
The final numbers were stunning. My evaluator spent 35 minutes in Homemakers and was verbally engaged by all nine staff she encountered. I spent 50 minutes in the store, at the same time she was there, walking the same path she did, and came within talking distance of at least 19 employees, four of whom engaged me - the rest completely blew me off.
Except for the guy in the customer service department. As I walked up to the counter he sat behind, he said, "Can I help you?"
You're speaking to me. That's enough for now.
Homemakers is not a store. It's a mind-blowing furniture circus. Yet every circus, no matter how visually stunning, needs an MC - someone to warmly welcome its audience, moderate what's happening and help viewers make sense out of the three-ring chaos.
If I had been better dressed, I suspect I would have received more, and better, attention. That's one of the points of secret shopping - to identify employee biases towards specific consumer groups. None of Homemakers' employees did this with malice. In fact most of their staff obviously possess the ability to be happy, engaging and outgoing - now they just need to share it.
Homemakers has built a furniture shrine to the American dream. Let them not forget that you can afford the dream without looking the part.
Look for another retail store evaluation next Thursday.
Jonnie Wright is a customer service evaluator and trainer, marketing strategist and ad writer. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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