Attention Kmart shoppers...


Nearly 120 years ago, Sebastian Kresge had a dream; he wanted to sell pots and pans door to door.

The Pennsylvania farm kid wasn't exactly a visionary - but okay.

By 1924, Kresge owned over 100 five and dime stores, was worth $375,000,000 and made me look stupid.

Yet it would take the retail visionary and philanthropist (He donated over $60 million to his non-profit Kresge Foundation) another 40 years to open the first store in what would become a world-wide chain whose claim to fame includes blue light specials and one-liners. ("I'm gonna let ya' in on a little secret, Ray - Kmart sucks." Rainman, 1988)

Today, Kmart is the fourth largest discount store chain in the world. (1. Walmart  2. raTget  3. Unsecret Shop R' Us

Yet while Kmart may play in the Big 3 sandbox, it's the unfortunate kid whose Mom (the economy) keeps calling it home (store closings) for dinner (bankruptcy), which Kmart declared, in 2002. That wiped out a third of Kmart's stores (now at 1,330) and a quarter of its employees.

One of Kmart's challenges (read: chronic problems) is that it feels like it's been around longer than its two major rivals; yet all three started in 1962.

Kmart has tried to reinvent itself - starting with the old logo...

...which it revised, in 1990...




...and last week.  


Kmart has tried merging with Sears, modernizing store interiors, introducing new product lines (like from Martha Stewart, which ended badly) and adding groceries, gas stations, cafes and car washes (in Iowa City).

Nothing's really worked. At heart it's still our granddad's Kmart - where he still buys Vitalis and Old Spice.

It's also still a place where we shoppers shop for a bargain, which means it's alive and kicking, even if it's wheezing and limping.  

Kmart has reported sales increases in each of the first three quarters of 2010: there may be life in her old bones yet.

Yet the number one bone that shoppers pick with Kmart and every other store has nothing to do with price, selection or location: It's customer service - which is where your bone pickin' buddy The Unsecret Shopper enters, with today's Secret Shopper review of Kmart at 7501 Hickman Road in Urbandale. (Click here to read a Secret Shopper review of one of Kmart's competitors.)

This is the largest of the three remaining Des Moines Kmarts, weighing in at 150,00+ square feet. That's a lot of space for a relatively small Kmart store workforce to cover, let alone do so with smiles and greetings and engaging attitudes and thank yous. (Hey! Whadayaknow! Those happen to be four of my Five Pillars of Great Customer Service! Click here to find out more, but without all the exclamation points!)

The question is: Would they?

I shopped the store twice on a Tuesday, early afternoon and late-night, dressed slightly up (without the tie) and way back down:



                    "Jonathan"                                     "Jonnie"   


I'll rate each visit to Kmart using the time and true tested (for six months and 15 reviews) method, below: 


  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.   


Sebastian Kresge had a dream: Let's see if the reality is puffy white retail clouds, or Freddy Krueger with a price scanner.


Staff interaction/Jonathan   



I entered Kmart's doors at 2:10pm on a pleasant Tuesday afternoon.

I hung a right, hugged the wall and wound up at the Pharmacy counter, where Peter got the smilin, greetin, engagin and glad-handlin going.

"Can I help you?"

Sure! I'm here to fill my own prescription. Can you help me over the counter?

You're a pharmacist, Peter. You spent the annual snow removal budget for Urbandale on your education, and went to school for as long as it takes to plow Hickman in a blizzard to learn more than I know (a couple weeks would have been enough) about chemicals and drugs and stuff. The very idea that I might not need your help, at the very moment that you have the opportunity to give it, should not, can not and must not enter into your very evolved brain.

Greet with open-ended questions only, young man. "What can I help you with?" And don't forget to smile! A phrouning Pharmacist phreaks me out. :)

It didn't get better with Cathy, who came out to point Peter in the direction of the Alli but didn't treat me like one, neither greeting nor smiling at me.

Left-brain tasks are important, Cathy, but don't forget the customer who you're tasking about. We're kinda important to this whole retail dealio. :)

I thanked Pete for showing me where the Alli was. He responded with "No problem," which may sound like "You're welcome" to the transmitter but feels like "You were right to think it may have been a problem for me to help you" to the receiver.

I'm clubbing you because you were clubbed for eight years in pharmaceutical college and can take it, Peter. :)

"No problem" is what your best friend says but doesn't really mean when you thank him for lending you ten bucks. "You're welcome - thank YOU for shopping with us at Kmart! What else can I help you with?" is what a retail professional says to a customer he/she wants to keep.

Keep a customer, keep revenue flowing into Kmart, keep the store open, keep your job.

Back in the main aisle I encountered Ron, who smiled and said a very nice "Hi!" as he walked past. Awesome job, Ron!

I moved on to Home Electronics, where I literally spent 17 loooong minutes browsing a nice selection of Big Screen TV's within 12 feet and easy eyeshot of an employee who pleasantly ignored me while he stocked a shelf.

Nope - don't worry about me. I build these things.

The employee was Ron. Not so awesome job, Ron!

I finally broke the ice, turning towards him and asking, "Do you have LED's?"

"No," he replied, unsmiling, "No, we don't," and returned to stocking. Not so awesome job II!

After a bit more browsing I walked out of the Home Electronics section and past Ron, who was at the checkout counter. He looked up at me, said nothing and looked back down.

Not so awesome job pi!

You're a nice guy, Ron. But it's a week before the start of the NFL regular season. I'm the only customer in your section, staring at boy toys for football fanatics. We're both standing inside a store owned by a company that's already declared bankruptcy once. Kmart's attorneys have probably already printed up a second set of bankruptcy forms they got off of, just in case sales don't improve. Is there any reasonable, rational excuse or explanation why someone who has been in sales as long as you have would blow me off for nearly 20 minutes, answer my question like you didn't want to be bothered, then go back to blowing me off? Do you want to have to apply at American TV and Appliance? (Click to read their Secret Shopper review.)

I'm being hard on you because that was hard on me. I hope it helps.

Next stop: riding lawn mowers - more boy toys. I loudly sat down, stood up and sat back down on each model's squeaky but comfy chair while Ginger silently worked nearby, with an unobstructed view of me and my squeaking.

Just as I contemplated making lawnmower sounds to get her attention, she approached me and looked me in the eye - Yeaaa here she comes! - then looked down and quickly walked past - Booo there she goes! - on her way towards the Lawn and Garden entrance.

I jumped off the Craftsman and followed her. The lack of squeaking must have tipped her off: She finally turned around and towards me and asked, without a smile: "Can I help you?"


Ginger did a really nice job of answering my questions about the mower, and an equally nice job of trying to find someone who could get me a sheet with more info on one of the lawn mowers.

Not her fault - but ten minutes later, I was still waiting.

While I did (sitting on the mower) Chris came into the area, carrying a small stack of shelving. She walked within 10 feet of me, glanced my way then away and spent a few minutes balancing the shelves in her hand on a larger stack on the floor - all in the old school silent retail tradition established by Ron and Ginger.

While Chris ignored me, I noticed the words "Sales Coach" written on her name tag, below her name: so THAT'S where Ron and Ginger learned it!

I walked up to her and asked her for the time, which she gave me - then went back to balancing shelves.

Chris, seriously - you don't want to be the living embodiment of the saying, "Those that can't do..." I already get enough of that from blog readers.

I'm sitting on the mower; the only stronger buying signal would have been to start it up and trim some linoleum. Drop the left-brain shelf-stacking and please sell me the $1,100 mower.

A man approached me a few minutes later, to do just that.

"Here's the manual," he said, handing it to me without a greeting, smile, handshake or punch in the face.

No problem (according to Peter)! I'm sure this 45-page small-print booklet you've just handed me will sell me, whoever you are, since you are the only employee in the store who isn't wearing a nametag; probably just some crazy part-timer!

Except he was Ken Peake, the store manager.

Just to review: I've been waiting for over 15 minutes to get more information on the mower than what's listed on the sheet attached to it...

...when a guy without a nametag but with a Store Manager title hands me this...

...without giving me this...

You were pleasant enough, Ken - maybe even as pleasant as this dude, when you want to be.

But you're the emotional leader of your store, Ken. The employees look to you for cues and clues about how to engage the customers they see every day. If you don't provide it, then you're creating a vacuum that they will fill with whatever they choose or nothing at all.

This has nothing to do with the sign or the manual or the stupid mower. It has to do with your joy and your love and your empathy and your desire to help and engage and nurture and spoil your customers, who will be your loyal friends if you treat them accordingly.

Otherwise, they're going to go see the guy wearing the hideous blue smock.

I decided to see if I'd have better customer service luck in the Toy Department. Almost immediately I did, as Brian smiled and gave me a nice "hi" as he stocked in an aisle.

I slid around, entered the same aisle from the other side and browsed the G.I. Joe action figures for seven minutes without further engagement from Brian. He did say a pleasant "How are you?" right before I walked out of the area, but did so while looking at the shelf and not at me.

You've got a wonderfully engaging manner, Brian! Just don't forget to look your customer in the eye while you're using it - and use it more often. :)

It was onto children's clothing, and diapers, where Tina did a great job making sure the shelves were full of Pampers and Huggies without pampering, hugging (metaphorically speaking) or even acknowledging the middle-aged man who spent four minutes browsing the di-pees so close to her that her elbow brushed past my shoulder.

Tina - who used to work at Penny's in the Valley West Mall - flashed the most engaging smile when I finally engaged her. That's as cool as the other side of the training pants, Tina, but it's gotta be the other way around. Remember, you could have clobbered me with a 20 pack of Luvs (or a quick "hi") I was so close to you - and this blog reading audience would have applauded - so don't miss your chance to smile and greet and engage next time. 

After you read this, I know you won't. :) 

My newly-discovered superpower of invisibility continued unabated in the little boy's clothes, where for six painful minutes I browsed pajamas, while three feet away Mirel denied I existed but acknowledged the sweatshirts he was folding.

When I told him he looked familiar, Mirel said, "I don't think so," then continued folding. Guess not!

The customer service stud muffin of the day's first visit - and the one who saved it from being a complete CS disaster - was Karen, who smiled and said a very warm "Hi! How are you today?" as I approached her, still 20 feet away from her position at the checkout counter. She also called me "hon," which made my endorphins snap faster than a bowl of Rice Krispies, and sprinkled 'em with a sugar-sweet "Have a nice day!" as I left.

Awesome job, Karen! Way to go!!

And with that, I went - out the door and on my way at 3:32pm, fork in me done, and done in, an hour and twenty-two minutes after I started. 


Staff interaction/Jonnie 



There were two overriding themes throughout my second Secret Shopper trip to Kmart, which began later that same Tuesday at 9pm, an hour before close:

1. Small staff + huge store + late night = creepy.

2. The night shift blew (light special) the day shift out of the customer service water.

The good times and great oldies started with Will in Big Screen TV's. While it's true he didn't engage me and I had to engage him, and that he started things off with the dreadfully closed-ended "Can I help you?", it's equally fact-based that he was covering an enormous amount of retail area, roughly the size of Chet Culver's freezer, and so can be forgiven for not finding me.

Just junk the CEQ, dude.  

Once we connected, Will was a customer service superstar. He non-stop smiled, answered my questions about lines of resolution and the drawbacks and bennies of Plasma, related his own experiences with different models, asked a few questions of his own and engaged me like a friend who wanted to help, not an order-taker who wanted to get home.

You absolutely rock - nice going, Will!

John dropped the ball a bit - okay, a lot - as I browsed kitchen linen right beside him for four minutes while he worked on merchandise and not me.

He started to move away when I stopped him and asked him a question about what the heck a table runner is. He had an answer (decorative) along with a great smile and wonderful laugh.

Initiate the engagement, John, and bring along your wonderful sense of humor - customers will laugh. Promise. :)

Finding employees was no laughing matter - it was hard, as Kmart short-staffs at night, which is what all smart companies do when trying to survive, especially in this economy. W

What the crew lacked in numbers, they generally made up for in friendliness.

Nitin, for example, called out "How are you?" to me while I was some distance away. Great job! Nitin had worked at Younkers last year before joining the Kmart on Hickman team, and was more than holding his own with his uber-friendly manner, warm smile and honest desire to help. He did ask a clunkly closed-ended "Help you find anything?" but recovered with a thoughtful "Just let me know if you need help finding anything." I even heard him say "Have a nice break" to a co-worker who was just going on one. Great work, Nitin!

There was a fly in the groovy night shift ointment - in the form of Ken Peake, the Store Manager.

He walked past me, head down, organizing stacks of clothes as he moved onto whatever left-brain task awaited him.


Want to get a sense of employee happiness? Watch the person at the top. If that person smiles and takes time to engage and glad-handle customers and employees alike, odds are those groups will give it right back, and I'll be singing their praises instead of calling them out, like I am Ken.

A voice came over the PA system: "Attention Kmart shoppers - it's now 9:30. The Layaway Department will close in fifteen minutes. We ask you to take any items back to Layaway, where an associate will be there to help you."

I was there in less than a minute. There was no one at the desk - the area was barren.

Now was there a button to press that alerted the entire store that "Assistance is needed in Layaway."? Sure. Did I press it and get helped, within 2 minutes? Sure twice. But when a company tells us shoppers that "an associate will be there to help you," there should be one there to help us. That seems reasonable - live up to the promise of your marketing.

When Brenda showed up to help me at the Layaway desk, the first words out of her mouth were, "Can I take a payment for you?" She was very pleasant, very nice, but probably needed to warm me up with a quick "hi" first, followed by something not quite so closed-ended-ey. Brenda also flashed a great smile, talked about her 20 year career at the Southridge Younkers and thanked me at the end. Nice work, Brenda!

I walked along the front side of the checkout counter area, where I watched Cody completely turn his back on a customer while the computer took its time calculating her purchased items, and spitting out a receipt. That's probably not the optimum way to send out a customer, Cody. Try turning the other way, and see if that leads to something more interesting - like a friendly conversation, and your continued employment.

Moving back through the Home Electronics section, I noticed some of the overhead lights suddenly go off. Then a voice came on the PA: Attention Kmart shoppers - it's 9:45. The store will be closing in fifteen minutes."...and we're gonna start shuttin 'er down now so we can save electricity - why don't you hit the road, so we can all go home early?

Before they could unplug the C/A, turn on the motion detectors and bolt the doors, I stopped by Customer Service. I asked Connie - who smiled and was very engaging - if Ken was the overall store manager (not being totally certain, at this point). She smiled, pointed up and said, "Yes, it's Ken - that's why we put his picture up."

10 feet above her finger - suspended from the high Kmart ceiling in a location where the only way you'd notice it is if you slipped and fell on your back - was a VERY small pic of Ken Pleake, along with what is presumably the store's phone number...

Perhaps this was hung up high so older shoppers could easily see it, as they're more prone to falling. Perhaps this was suspended from the rafters in anticipation of the future evolution of human beings, who will certainly stand over seven feet tall, on average, by 2317.

Perhaps Kmart should consider following their own good rules of retail and bring it down to eye-level, where customers can actually see it, and thus know the name of the dude who runs the store.

Which I stepped out of at 9:53pm, less than an hour after I'd started.

The post-customer service mortem on Kmart isn't so oK.

There was a lot of denying of reality, especially during the day but also after sundown. There was also an abundance of closed-ended questions, antethema to healthy retail and profitability. Employees may be smiling, but it's certainly not while they're on the floor, with any great consistency. And customers are probably feeling lost and abandoned at times, especially at night, when staffing is light.

Yet there are some wonderful customer service stories happening inside this Kmart, that need to be acknowledged.

Brian did some nice work, as did Brenda. Karen was endearing and genuine. Nitin was engaging and personable. And Will blew my socks off. Thank you, all five of you, for bringing something special to my Secret Shopping experience at Kmart.

As for the rest, you also possess those same special talents: the question is, will you find them in yourselves, and work together to use them to help your company survive during the downturn, and thrive after it? It can be done - you CAN do it.  But you've got to believe you can, and then act on your belief - the same belief that Sebastian Kresge had when he started Kmart nearly 50 years ago.

Sounds like a great way to really get the attention of Kmart shoppers.


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.      


Ways to contact Jonnie:


Click to be taken to Jonnie's Facebook page   

Click to be taken to Jonnie's Twitter page   

Click to be taken to Jonnie's blog   

Click to email Jonnie (   

Phone: 515-480-4190

Open The Buyosphere Toolbox to get FREE exclusive access to proven tools that will help you generate higher shop sales and profits - delivered weekly, right to your inbox!