Hello shoppers...



It's official: The Hoff, and shopping, are back.

Which means it's also time to head back to the Jordan Creek Mall, where your Unsecret Shopper first secretly shopped in late April.

The results of that review (of 28 stores) were mixed. The responses to the review were less ambiguous: readers wanted me dead. Many thought I brought a negative bias with me into the Mall. I wrote the review that way, but didn't shop it that way, if that makes sense.

Today's analysis is kinder and gentler (It's Christmas!), but no less secret shoppier (It's retail!). It includes 18 more stores, for a sub-total of 46. All that's left to review at JCM is a hot dog kiosk, the public restrooms and a janitor's closet. (Look for Part III in 2011!)

The Pillars of Great Customer Service will still apply, as do a lot of people, for very few retail jobs, which are demanding, low-paying and thankless.

The employees I met this time around deserve thanks, for being consistently polite, friendly and (usually) quick to engage - which is probably more important during the three make-or-break weeks before Christmas vs. the three sloooow weeks after April Fool's Day.

One piece of across-the-board advice to all employees, managers and owners of the stores I reviewed: understand the importance, and impact, of open-ended questions in retail. Cause, like, there weren't a lot of 'em asked.

I'll toss aside the mask rating system for this review, and instead simply describe my experiences at the stores. In Friday's Part 2 post (9 stores today, 9 stores tomorrow) I'll tell you which employees and stores did the best, and what can be improved, overall.

The review will not include restaurants, kiosks, hair salons, book stores, jewelry stores, anchor stores or janitor's closets. Everything else is fair game.

Somewhere in the distance, I hear the playing of 2,187 versions of the same 10 Christmas songs. I'll grab my mile-long list, you grab your plastic (Thanks - I'm a bit tapped out) and let's get Malled.

There was great soul music playing as I entered the store, which was staffed by four employees who let me browse two minutes and too long without being greeted. Then Leslie, with a huge smile, took care of Pillars 1 and 2 with a wonderfully warm, "Hi! How are you?"

I told her I was good, and she let me look for a while until engaging me again with the closed ended but pleasant, "Did you need any help, sir?"

Yes, I know you're a high-end Brooks Brothers clothier, Leslie, but the formality of "sir" really went out with "Thank you sir, may I have another?" And closed ended questions never went out because they've never been in.

I responded that I was just looking, to which she replied, "Did you need any assistance?" Okay, she's going to stick with me - awesome! Leslie knows that "just looking" means "just buying, but haven't found something I want to buy yet." Instead of another closed-ended question, Leslie, try "Well, what are you looking for - maybe I can help you find it."

I answered her question, not mine. I told her I was looking for a tie, at which point Leslie really shined.  

She took me to where the tie displays were at, explained the differences in the different styles and materials, talked about some tie specials going on, then invited me to continue to look around. Nice job! She could have also introduced herself by name at that point, gotten mine and used it, which would have kicked "sir" to the curb. But she was pleasant, and helpful.

The two male employees I saw, were quiet - a bit too quiet. They could and should have engaged me with a quick "hi" or two.

As for Leslie, she made great eye contact, was friendly and helpful and did a nice job, overall. Brooks Brothers has a nice sista working the floor.

Beth greeted me right away, but it was lost in the overhead music, which was too loud for my old fart ears.

I stepped towards her, and was able to make out, "How's the shopping going? Are you getting a lot done?"  Beth was great at engaging me in chit-chat, but could have smiled a bit more while doing so.

She then asked, "Is there anything in particular I can help you find?" Remember, Beth, I'm older than the oldest thing you own, unless it's Phyllis Diller. So assume that I'm a) Sergeant Schultz, and know nothing, and b) Prissy, and don't know nuthin 'bout birthin babies, or designer eyewear. That then eliminates the "yes" or "no" response that a closed-ended inquiry asks for.

Beth did a wonderful job explaining the in-store specials going on, and helpfully pointed out where the dude's glasses were, which I was having trouble locating, based upon the assumptions one can make from the outdated references used in the last paragraph.

Beth could have given a bit more eye contact and a lot more smiles and open-ended questions. But she also never made me feel like the nerdish, style-free me was over my skis while shopping at a very hip, stylish store, and that was very cool. Nice job, young lady.

I'm going to share some nice feedback, and some that's going to get me blasted. But, like Lee Strasberg says to Al Pacino in The Godfather II: "This is the business we have chosen, Michael."

First, the great. Todd, Teavana's assistant manager, was amazing at explaining the store's different tea pots, colors, designs and what they meant. I went in thinking tea was a limp Nestle's teabag in lukewarm water, and walked out wanting to move to China. Todd was absolutely tea-riffic. 

What's going to get me in hot water is not that Todd greeted me with a closed-ended "Anything I can help you with?" and that he didn't smile until the very end of our conversation. It's that his breath was a little stale. Not bad, just noticeably stale - understandable after talking to customers all day, which causes dry mouth, which I learned from a conversation with Dr. Dennis O'Meara, a Des Moines dentist, last Saturday morning during The Unsecret Shopper Radio Show, in a segment that focused on the importance of having sweet retail breath, to drive sweeter retail sales.

No offense intended, Todd. Just use the info provided to your minty fresh breath advantage. Otherwise, nice store, pleasant ambience, and Todd is on the verge of being a customer service rock star. Or, as the Chinese say: "现代汉语词典/現代漢語詞典."

Martie blew my mind.

The former owner of the former Balloons Unlimited was, and is, one of the most engaging people I've ever met in retail.

Martie started out the conversation with a huge smile. "Have you ever slept on one of these beds?" It was closed-ended, but who cared? I wanted to lay down and go to sleep.

She used my name throughout our warm conversation, sprinkling in the occasional "hon" and "darling." She would ask me a question about how I slept the way I slept, then would talk about a feature on the bed I was lying on that enhanced it. She laughed at my lame jokes, told me a true story about Russ Van Dyke that I can't repeat but want to, and was about as engaging, nurturing and fun as a person can be, without being your grandma. AND she did it all while working with Scott, another customer, without making me feel like her attention was divided.

And she used the word penultimate when describing a bed.

I almost bought a bed, and I just bought a new one two weeks ago. Amazing.

There were a few peas under the mattress. Martie didn't introduce herself. She also had a tendency to look away from me at times, as she described features - not at the bed, just sort of off to the right, as she processed information. No biggies.

Aaron, the store manager - who is no slouch in the customer service department - is lucky to have her there, and I suspect he knows it. One tip for Aaron: he called me "sir" three times while I was in the showroom, even though Martie was saying my name over and over. "Sir" is a sign of respect until you know the person's name, plus it makes old dudes like me, feel older.

I suspect Martie, the bedultimate salesperson, will remind him, after she reads this.

(Listen for my conversation with Martie this Saturday morning on The Unsecret Shopper Radio Show, 8-9am on 1350, KRNT.)

I was immediately greeted by wonderful Christmas music over head, and by Whitney at eye level, who shared a nice smile along with a pleasant "Hi! Did you have any questions about anything?"

You were pleasant, Whitney, but remember: it's makeup, I'm a dude and I'm likely to have questions about everything. That's where obvious closed-ended questions feel poopy. Instead, try "What can I help you find today?"

A bit later, Jessica approached, also smiling, and asked if I was making a list (as I took notes on Whitney), then began explaining some of the makeup. She finished with "Let me know if you need any direction," and added, "We're here to help," which felt the way it feels when a cat jumps in your lap, and starts purring.   

Christy, the unsmiling store manager, broke up the trifecta.

Some people seem nice, just sitting there, doing nothing nice at all. Others (and I'm in this category) can tell a joke, face paint a kid's cheek, bake a cake and hand out cash, and we still seem mad.

Christy was sort of like that, minus the cake and stuff. It wasn't constant - you'd see her brighten a bit with a customer, at times - but the prevailing vibe was "I'm not terribly happy."

Whether that was true or not, Christy, there's one powerful way to counteract it: smile. :)

Otherwise, Whitney and Jessica did a wonderful job, trying to help out an old man who was waaaay out of his element.



This location opened four months ago (You may have seen their ads on cable) and has a very interesting - I'd call it almost mysterious - feel, like you are walking into a gold merchant's tent in the Sahara.

Jordan beckoned me. "Come on down and have a seat."

Cool! Plus it was the first greeting that wasn't a closed-ended question, and wasn't a question at all. Cooler!

We never got quite to coolest because Jordan didn't smile. But was pleasant while he talked about how their process works. (They buy your old gold.) He also didn't introduce himself or get my name, which, in this environment, would have been completely appropriate, and almost expected.  

He did a nice job of explaining how you bring your gold in, they weigh it, figure out its purity, see what the day's going gold market rate is and print you off a check.

Jordan probably could have asked me more questions about what kinds of gold pieces I had to pimp, perhaps gotten to know me a bit. Again, if you're selling ice cream, that's weird. But in the exotic world of gooooold, it's Goldfinger Shirley Bassey cool. Making that kind of personal connection with customers would not only be completely in line with the ambience already created,  it would also keep it from feeling like a pawn shop - which is the whole idea, I suspect.

Jordan, listen to this, and you'll be all over it.

Pam got the retail interaction rolling in short order, with, "Anything I can help you find?"

A closed-ended question is a habit that is hard to break (Ask the 1,000+ employees that I train each week, how hard it is) so I'd start working on it right away, Pam.

She did a really nice job of showing me outfits that my friend who I was there to buy a gift for, would like, and was very complimentary about the fact that I knew my friend's size (4).

I told her I was going to look around, and she welcomed me to. I asked for her name, which she gave, then very kindly asked for mine, and said it outloud. Very nice! Now be proactive and get their name first, and at the beginning, plus flash your beautiful smile sooner, and you'll sell more stuff, Pam.

I'd also have Amanda, the very pleasant store manager, turn down the music a click or two.

Overall, this is a nice store with staff who are doing some good things, and have plenty of room to grow and improve. Keep up the good work, ladies!


This store had a greeter, Alexis, who said, with a great smile and wonderful joy, "Welcome to Tommy Hilfiger!"

Hear that, Walmart???

Alexis followed it up with, "Is there anything I can  help you find?" which WM didn't need to hear because they own the copyright.

She told me to make sure I check out the clearance table with men's stuff on it, in the back. Great job, Alexis!

Next up was Matt, whose ear-to-ear smile and "Hi, how are you?" kept the friendly bus rolling. Later, it hit a pedestrian when Matt asked, "Anything I can help you with, by chance?" He did ask me my name, which was very cool, and would pay off later. 

I asked Brian if I could talk to Todd, the manager. (Sorry, guys, if I may your names turned around. If Brian is really the manager, then Todd, you can be the manager on the days Brian is gone. If I was (W)right, then Todd's the manager all the time, Brian, but you can be a manager at American TV and Appliance, where they need help.)

Either Brian or Todd asked me my name, to give to the manager, but either Brian or Todd, the manager, didn't use it when they came up from the back, sort of rendering the act meaningless.

If you ask for a customer's name for a manager to use, make sure you use it...or else you'll end up forgetting whose name belongs to who and look foolish, like I just did. :)

Both guys were very pleasant, whoever they were.

Matt put us all to shame when he said, "Have a great day, Jon!" as I left.

Matt, you're now manager. Of my company, too.

50 customers and 25 employees crammed into 9,000 square feet, have no reason to be that happy.

But they were.

It was controlled chaos - and beautiful to watch.

Cody started the Apple schmooze-fest with a smiling, "Hi! How are you?"

Next, Mitchell - who had been drinking whatever Cody had been drinking - said, happily, "Hi! What can I help you with?"

Ka-CHING! There was the 1st open-ended question of the day. Awesome job, Mitchell!

The 2nd came 2.4 nanoseconds later, when Jeanette said, with a smile, "Hi sir. How can I help you?"

I'd died and went to Heaven - where everybody used heavenly-white iPods/iPads/iPhones/iRefrigerators.

I wanted to go home and heave my PC through an iwindow.

Peter got a little naughty when he asked, "Finding everything?" But everything was forgiven when he responded to my "Yes" with, "What can I help you with?"

My mouth was agape. Pete just ran the old (open)end-around

Larry actually said nothing as I stood beside him, allowing me to rest from the barrage of uber-friendliness. But at 10 seconds, he couldn't hold back any longer. "Doing okay?" he smiled. "You look lost."

An army of smiling red shirt-wearing Apple employees was spread out across the store. Everywhere you looked, they were either engaging a customer, or looking for a customer to engage. It was one of the most impressive displays of high-quality customer service I've ever seen.

If there was any hint of mal(l)ware on that Apple store's customer service hard drive, it was when I asked Laura if I could talk to a manager.

"Can I ask what it's about?" she replied.

Sure. If you're the manager. Which you're not. So I'll ask him/her, when you get their Mac-daddy rear end over here.

Nothing feels more obtrusive to me than when an employee gets in my shopper business, when it's not their business. I mentioned this to Adam, the manager who came up to me. He defended Laura by telling me that she only asks the question so she can direct the customer's problem to the person who can solve it.

That's completely reasonable. But unless Laura says that, like, really fast, right on the heels of her question, then it's not going to fit in with the happy, help-ey vibe every Apple employee, including Laura, is working so hard to create.

Otherwise, the experience at Apple was about as good as it gets. Major kudos to the entire staff!

Just one question for Michelle, the store manager: These are actual people you've hired and trained, right? They're not, like, Ap-a-ma-tronic iRobots that you program to be that good...right? Right???? 

So we end Part 1 of The Jordan Creek Mall Secret Shopping excursion II, on a high note. What will Friday's review bring?

See you back here tomorrow - for reviews of AT&T, Radio Shack, Hallmark and six other stores.



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.       


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