Hello shoppers...


Businessdictionary.com defines "big box store" as:

"A large retail store whose physical layout resembles a large square or box when seen from above. A big-box store is characterized by a large amount of floor space (generally more than 50,000 square feet), a wide array of items available for sale, and its location in suburban areas. Big-box stores often can offer lower prices because they buy products in high volume. Also called supercenter, superstore, megacenter."

Urbandictionary.com has a slightly different view:

"A Big-Box Store is a large, free standing rectangular single floor store built on a concrete slab. They are incredibly wasteful and ugly to look at having no aesthetic value what so ever. Typically have very large parking lots with no trees."

And this one, from "Merle," my angry next-door neighbor:

"They're indescribable rat mazes. They should all be carpet-bombed. I get physically ill just thinking about going into one. Why would somebody waste perfectly good-"

Whoops! Look at the time! Got some Secret Shopping to do, Merle! Take care!

So that's what a big box store is.

Yet when you discover how most big box stores started, they sound anything but big, or boxy.

Read this description, for example, from Referenceforbusiness.com:

(This store) was founded in Keokuk, Iowa, in 1856 by three young Polish-born brothers. The general store was a base from which they strapped packs of merchandise on their backs that they carried into the neighboring countryside to farmers and others too busy or isolated to shop in town.
Recognize it? It's Younkers - which was once just a couple dudes scheleping around Iowa farm fields selling pots and pans.
In 1959, John ______began building post-frame buildings to finance his college education. By 1959, he found it necessary to hire extra crews, and to purchase more equipment to keep up with demand. After graduating from college in 1962, John purchased land in Eau Claire, Wisconsin and built an office and shop.
Just some starving college kid, trying to make extra pizza and tuition money, right? John Menard's idea now has 252 locations, 45,000 employees and $8 billion in annual revenue.
Small, personal retail ideas lose their intimacy, their one on one connection to consumers, as those ideas catch on, and grow. Everybody profits from their success: consumers get great products, the idea originators get rich (sometimes). But as stores, employees and retail space are added, the one-on-one connection is lost. That is why Merle hates big box stores.
Here's a third description, since everything comes in 3's, of another big box store's genesis, from their website:
Three acres of potatoes were the seed for the first ______store in 1902. Frederick _________, a German immigrant, used the $300 he earned from his first harvest of potatoes as the down payment on the first ________, a small hardware and general merchandise store in Sabin, Minnesota.
Does that sound like a 23-store, 4,000 employee sporting goods empire?
Welcome to Scheels - the world's largest all-sports retailer, and today's Secret Shopper focus.
Our local Scheels - which sounds a lot like "peels," as in potatoes, but that's just a coincidence, that Frederick Scheels might have laughed at - puts the "big" in "big box," occupying two stories and 179,000 square feet at The Jordan Creek Mall. Okay, so Merle wouldn't be caught dead there.


But lots of sporting enthusiasts would be, and are. During the first of my two Secret Shopper forays into Scheels, the place was jammed, which sounds like yams, which is my last potato pun (for this blog.)
The Unsecret Shopper question is: Do Scheels employees offer a warm, squishy customer service experience to their patrons? Does the company even want them to? Why am I asking you, like you would know? 
I found somebody who could - the company itself.  From Scheels website, six sentences after the potato field:
"Providing Scheels' customers with first-class customer service and the world's largest selection of sports, sportswear and footwear are the priorities throughout the organization."
That second part is a slam-dunk: Scheels scores. Let's see if the first part swishes, or clanks off the iron.
First, how stores score in The Unsecret Shopper's little game - The Secret Shopper Rating System:

  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.

Second, here's how I looked when I Secret Shopped Scheels, on two different occasions:

                    "Jonathan"                                                 "Jonnie"

Can a big box sports store the size of LeBron James' hat rack (just go with it) live up to the ideals of an ambitious spud-selling German, and deliver on the promise of his company's marketing: "First class customer service"?

Strap on your pads, lace up your cleats, slip on your mask, add a colorful sash and let us see if Scheels' staff will PLAY BALL!

Staff interaction/Jonathan


I pulled into one of the few open parking lot slots, several hundred feet (this is a long way for an American to walk) from the North entrance to Scheels, at 1:32pm on a very warm, sunny Tuesday and stepped through the front doors as Jonathan, the businessman, with a thirst for sports and the money to quench it.

Jeanie, a cashier, and another woman working alongside her, noticed the athletic trillionaire entering their area and got the customer service ball rolling nicely, each greeting me with a big smile and friendly "Hello!"

As I hung a right, two employees walked past me and said "Hi" in stereo, through dueling smiles.

I walked up to the Scheels Bike and Service Shop counter, where Darrin - who I knew from a previous fatter life, as a wonderful in-shape trainer at Seven Flags - greeted me with a smile, then a look of recognition, then a string of compliments, then an invitation to browse. He'd only been with Scheels a year but was clearly digging the change of work scenery.

Todd, in Pro License Gear, kept the happy mojo going with a pleasant smile and "Hi!"

I was 6 for 6 for 6, and not the evil kind: 6 retail encounters, 6 greetings and 6 smiles. I was on a roll and looking for a baker's half-dozen.

The friendly home-cooking came to a halt, as Alicia, in Casual Shoes (wearing a nice pair, and working in that department) broke up the smiley/greetey string, with a glance my way, then away, without the now accustomed to employee grin, or salutation.

Across the hall at Athletic Shoes, Ashley and Matt sorta picked the ball back up, as Matt greeted with a smile-free "Hello" and Ashley asked, pleasantly but also without a grin, "How you doing here?"

Better - when I got to Youth Athletic, where April, from at least 15 away and well outside most company's "customer greeting circle," tossed the rule book aside like smelly sneakers, and said "Hi!" through the neatly exposed teeth of a beautifully radiant smile.

Ashley, who had already smiled and salutated, did so again, on her return loop past me.

Heidi, in Men's Athletic, missed a wonderful chance to grab the happy baton from Ashley, as she walked around me and past me, silently stocking clothes in the same area where I browsed.

Brenda and Joel smiled and greeted me with hearty hellos as I walked past each of them, twice, on my way to the escalator.

I took the always-fun-on-an-escalator ride up to the 2nd floor, allowing my expectations to rise as I thought back over the first 30 minutes of my visit to Scheels. 

I was astounded. And not in the way when you're slicing an onion and you suddenly feel a sharp pain, look down, see you've cut the tip of your finger off, and say out loud but as calmly as you can so you're wife doesn't completely freak out, even though you already are: "I think I just cut the tip of my finger off."

Up to this point, the customer service offered by Scheels employees was tip-top, among the best I'd ever experienced, period - even with the few minor missteps.

But I didn't get my hopes up. There was still an entire floor to go.

2nd verse, same as the first.

Randy was engaging another customer by the rustic artwork but still made eye contact with me, and smiled.

As I entered the bow hunting section, Lou walked up to me almost immediately, a smile on his face and a closed-ended question in his heart: "Anything I can help you find?" It was easy to forgive, however, as he then did an awesome job of engaging me, describing the store's layout to this "Scheels newbie" with a continued great smile and very pleasant attitude.

At the Fudge Factory (where the 16 varieties of fudge carry much, but not all of the customer service load) Rachel missed me as I first walked up to the counter, but turned in short order, smiled, said "Hi!" and asked me if I was going to a business meeting (because of the snazzy garments) and if I wanted a free sample (because I perpetually look hungry). After my "no" and "yes," Rachel continued her engaging ways, inviting me to "not be a stranger" and to "come on back."

Were they slipping hallucinogenics into the Scheels' employee water cooler? Didn't all of these happy people know they worked in retail, and were supposed to be miserable?

I felt like I was walking through Frederick Scheels' potato field, which was playing host to Woodstock III and full of happy (shopper) hippies.

Matt, posing as Marty Balin, appeared to have found somebody to love as he walked past, showing a face lit up with an ear to ear smile, from which a "Hi!" fell out. On his heels? Another employee, another grin, another greeting.  

The Stepford Scheels had come to West Des Moines. (Click me to understand the reference.) (Click me to feel ashamed that you don't.) I wanted to start biting employees to see if they were capable of frowning.

Greg, at the Nascar Simulator, didn't pop his greeting clutch right away but certainly engaged it way before my gears started grinding, with a slight smile and an even better explanation of how the automatronic car ride dealio worked.

Onto Camping Gear, where Rob passed by me the first time without greeting, but apparently felt the weight of such a horrific Scheels employee oversight on his heart, and caught me the 2nd time past with a less-than-stellar "Can I help you?" uttered through a more than adequate smile.

The first truly "normal" feeling retail experience occurred at The Scheels Gunsmith Shop counter, where I had the following exchange with an unfortunately apathetic-sounding, unsmiling Brent:

"Hi. Can I help you with anything?"

"I'm looking for a gift for my brother, but I don't really know anything about guns."

"Oh...you don't (you idiot)?" 

"No. Not really."

"Okay. Let me get you to someone who does." (Ah-hah! So you don't, either!)

Brent is a nice-enough young man, and what he said wouldn't have been offensive, if he'd just smiled as he said it, and sounded like he cared about what either one of us had to say. Especially in that building, during that hour - you were going up against rock stars on my visit, Brent. Don't forget to slip on your neon Spandex, shiny Stratocaster and heart-melting Smile, before you slip behind that counter.

Remember: Guns don't kill people. Unsmiling retail employees do. :)

In that same area, Jim showed the youngster how to do it, sounding off with a hearty "HI!" from 15 feet away, before I even started walking towards him.

Browsing the fisherman's tools, I encountered Tim, who was more focused on unhappily stocking than happily stalking, walking away after a few minutes without giving a smile or greeting.

I walked up to the Fishing Center counter, where Ben, from behind it, dangled a slight smile as bait, then threw dynamite into the customer service water with, "Finding everything alright?" Mike, also behind the counter and working intently on something, glanced up from it, at me, then right back down, without a smile or a salutation.

Fishing is a fun sport. Ben and Mike? Make sure the people who buy the fishing stuff are more important than the stuff, and that selling the fishing stuff, looks as fun as fishing, is.

At the 2nd floor checkout counter, Laurie made ringing up people's stuff look more fun than buying it, engaging with a very nice smile, and a "Hello!"

Tim walked past me for the third time, and this time, on his way to stocking full body duck bags (No, I don't know, either), did what he'd done the first two times, and ducked away, ignoring me.

Randy, who'd been unable to greet me earlier with his voice as he talked to a customer, but had done so with his eyes and smile, added audio this second time around, with a very pleasant "Hi!" and smile.

Another Randy, who wasn't quite the first Randy's emotional twin, said "hi" as he passed by but looked down and away as he said it, smile-free.

To keep myself in super-model shape, I headed downstairs to the treadmills, where I closely examined the different models for a few minutes until Matt approached, and asked, "Any questions on the different machines?"

I build these - so, no.

Forgive my well-developed sarcasticus maximus, but closed-ended questions are for order takers.  Open-ended questions are for professionals. Matt, you strike me as a pro. So bring your A game, and engage me with a friendly "Hi" and welcome, then keep the focus on me, since that's all that customers care about - ourselves: "You obviously work out - which machine do you like, and let's see if it's a good fit for your needs."

Keep your attention on the consumer, not the stuff, and you'll sell not just more of it, but all of it. Then you'll be opening up a competing sporting goods store across the street, called Matt's. :)

Last stop: The Scheels Customer Service Counter, where Sara(h) said "hello" but without a smile, but THANKFULLY avoided the dreaded "Can I help you?" question that has plagued almost every Customer Service counter in every Secret Shopper review. For that omission, Sarah, I'm giving you bonus points, which you can redeem for a beautiful smile, which will certainly come across your face when you read this. :)

The clock on my Blackberry said 2:45pm as I skidaddled out of Scheel's front door, 68 minutes after I'd entered. Phase I of my (Un) Secret Shopper trip through Scheels was done.

True, it may have fallen off a bit at the end. But still, that Secret Shopping hour at Scheels was one of the strongest I've ever experienced, in any retail setting. Kudos to the training program, and congratulations to the managers and staff!

Will the applause and accolades continue, for the late shift?

Staff interaction/Jonnie

At 7:16pm, four and a half hours after I'd first stepped through Scheels' doors, I stepped again, this time dressed as Jonnie, the penniless dork.

Austin, working the front checkout counter, almost let me pass without a hi, but snuck one in, without chasing it with a smile, before I was out of range. The young man working in the adjacent counter apparently figured I'd had enough glad-handling, and kept to himself.

I strolled over to the Customer Service desk to inquire about the store's hours. There, Colin broke the ice with a smileless "hi," then robotically rattled off Scheels' open times.  

Cory, at the bicycle service counter, opened with a pleasant enough but totally redundant, "Anything I can help you with?" in an area specifically designed for those who need it.

When I explained that I'd bent my back wheel and lower frame, backing into something, Cory said, "That can get pretty expensive."

That's your judgment, Cory, and you're entitled to it - you just shouldn't express it. Why?

First, it pits you against the company you work for, and that's never a good idea. The price you charge for anything in your store is reasonable, and can be justified, by the quality and/or convenience of it.

Second, unless a retail employee knows a customer's income, credit rating, or bookie, there's no way they can, or should make a judgment as to whether a product or service they offer, is expensive, cheap or otherwise. How can a stranger know what a stranger's tolerance for financial pain is?

They can't of course.  

Third, always ask an open question, especially when you're working behind a Customer Service-type counter.

I'm being hard on you, Cory, because you're a cyclist, so I know you can take it. :) There's no need to ask if a helpless customer needs help. Assume we do, and ask the next logical question: "What can I help you with?" If we don't - if we're just leaning on your counter because we're tired of standing - we'll let you know, and still appreciate the fact that you engaged us.

You had great eye contact, and truly acted like you wanted to help me. You were patient with me and my lack of bike know-how. You were kind and engaging. Now just plug in the other stuff, Cory, and you'll be a Customer Service rock star.

200 feet into the store, I'd seen exactly one Scheels employee on the floor. Counter that with the overwhelming (wo)man power experienced during the first visit and it created a much more typical "I'm wandering around this big box store unattended" vibe.

As long as the employees, who are there are raising their game to the level of the employees who were there, it is as cool as the other side of the sweat sock.

Kelly, who engaged me next, in Women's Swimwear, jumped past that lofty mark set earlier in the day, like Bob Beamon.

She greeted me with a HUGE smile, a "Hi! How are you?" followed by a "What can I help you find?" like she really meant it, because I know she did. I responded that I was new to the store and working my way around its breathtaking immenseness.

Kelly next asked what I consider to be one of the Holy Grails of Customer Service Engagement. "Where are you from?"

That's called making a connection. Suddenly, our roles as seller and buyer are secondary. We are, instead, just two people working on becoming friends. That's how company loyalty is created.

Kelly and I continued our chit-chatting. I found out she is from Des Moines, and has worked at Scheels for three years. She said, "Do NOT leave here until go upstairs and get a free sample at the Fudge Store!" I told her she didn't have to tell me twice. We both laughed, continuing to knock down the walls that exist between two people who've just met.

At the end of our conversation, she thanked me for stopping in, smiled (yeah, like she'd ever stopped) and told me to have a great day. Wow. WowWowWowWowWowWowWow.  

Kelly needs to be given praise and a raise, by her smart managers as Scheels, because otherwise, some very smart company is going to hire her away, and a very large hole will be created. In a retail land of (1st visit) giants, Kelly stands tallest. I can't say enough good things about you, young lady. You're a Superstar! And you're already in my training module for next week. :) 

My euphoria wore off quickly in Casual Shoes, where Chris and Katie chatted with each other and ignored me, for the five minutes I looked at shoes, picked them up, examined their construction, checked out their price tag and put them back down.

To make sure I hadn't accidently turned on my cloaking device, I walked up to them and asked what time it was. One of them responded - then immediately turned back to the other, and continued talking.

That was a disaster.

It didn't get much better in Athletic Shoes, where I browsed even longer, unattended. They were, admittedly, under-staffed, as what looked like four salespeople, attempted to help 20 shoppers.

I finally turned around to leave, and there was Jeff, who had been standing behind me. He quickly said, without a smile, "Finding everything alright? Got any questions at all?"

Yes. Where's Kelly?

Missy got the Customer Service train back on its tracks, offering me a nice "Hello" and a smile, as I walked past her, and the fitting rooms.

It was onto the soccer bags, where I glanced, felt, examined and unzipped a half-dozen bags for a half-dozen minutes, while Anna silently stood, 10-15 feet away, stocking the same side of the shelf. When I broke the silence and asked for the time, Anna's face lit up with the most beautiful smile, and she was kind and engaging.

It's easier to score on a free kick, Anna. Now do it next time in the flow of play, cause I know you can.

Joel offered an unsmiling "hello" as he walked by. I'm sure you meant it - it just didn't feel like it, not without your very nice grin, which I saw later. Add it, and sooner! :)

Bailee, working behind a counter, engaged another employee while I browsed in the area, then continued to allow me to look around, unattended, after her co-worker had walked off.  I focused on a section of Iowa/Iowa state merchandise and then moved towards her counter area. Upon arriving, I glanced behind me and noted, somewhat comedically, that Bailee and I had now switched places, with me at the counter and her at the Clone/Hawk stuff.

And then she walked off.

Bailee, you've got a great smile. But no patron can know that unless you share it, and your joy, with them.

A different Matt flew by without saying a word. As I attempted to engage him, I understood why his pants were on fire and he was looking for a birdbath: he was checking on something for someone on the phone.

No problem. I chilled. In just a few minutes, he walked over and, without a smile, said the four words that give Customer Service Trainers, brain tumors: "Can I help you?"

Naw. I just noticed you were on the phone earlier, and wanted to see if it was for me.

Josh walked past, without a smile or acknowledgement. He was wearing a long-sleeved white shirt, as were some, but not all, employees. I don't know for sure, but those that were more dressed up, seemed to be wearing more hardware, like walkie talkies and such, which leads me to believe that they're higher up the Scheels totem pole.

If that's so, Josh - and even if it's not - you've got to say hi to a customer, because you're setting a tone for other employees, and if you don't do it...

Carl, at the Scheels Gunsmith Shop counter, didn't smile at the people he was waiting on, or at me, when it was my turn. Carl, if it doesn't look like you're having fun working there, then it's easy to think that it won't be terribly fun buying there - and that's the first step on the road to buying my next gun elsewhere.

Why even let me think that's an option? Smile! :)

Thinking I might want a nice motor for my fishing boat, I walked to that area, and began looking at the very nice selection of motors, in racks, while Sean, 5-10 feet away from me in that same motor area, silently worked on getting a video to start, without ever starting a conversation.

That's cool. Videos have to run, in order for customers to see them. But there's no retail process, duty, chore, action or responsibility that's more important, or that ever takes precedence - other than putting out a fire, especially if I'm the one burning - than waiting on a customer. There just isn't.

Engage me, Sean. The video isn't going anywhere. And that way, I won't, either.

It was onto the fishing area, where Mitch and Dane were engaged in a conversation at the counter. I approached, and began browsing poles, about 10-12 feet away from where they stood.

For six minutes, I grabbed the poles. I looked at their features. I read their prices. I did everything I could think of to send buying signals, other than taking one out of the rack and over to the counter, and saying, "I'd like to buy this." But apparently, Mitch and Dane's conversation was more interesting than waiting on some dumb ole' customer.

I finally walked right up to them, at which time Dane said, "Anything I can help you with?"

There went another tumor.

To Dane's credit, he did show me where the gift cards were, which is what I told him I needed help with. To his uncredit, he pointed at where the gift card kiosk was, instead of taking me there, and only came over because I was stumbling around and couldn't find it.

That can't happen, guys. I've lost weight, but I'm still visible. Enjoy telling fish stories to each other, but don't forget to include me. Otherwise, I will, indeed, be the one that got away. :)

Nick, by the football gloves, flashed a quick smile as I approached, then really let it spread across his face as I told him that this was my first time at Scheels, and that I didn't know where anything was. He laughed pleasantly and said that it was a huge store and could be confusing.

I turned back to look at the gloves, thinking he might then ask if I needed help. After a few seconds of silence, I glanced back. Nick, apparently satisfied that I had everything under control, had walked away, and was nowhere to be seen.

Approaching the Nascar Simulator, I made eye contact with Barry, who flashed a huge smile. Awesome!

Then I stood at the counter for 3-4 minutes, unattended, while Barry watched a driver navigate repeated left turns, and rub paint. (Remember: rubbin's racin.) He also looked at the pretty girl in the pink t-shirt who was waiting for her significant other, who I'm guessing was the one driving. He (Barry, not the dude driving) even glanced at me once or twice.

Finally, thinking that I might not just want to watch, but participate, Barry verbally acknowledged me: "Help you with anything?"

Again, Barry had the biggest and most engaging of smiles. It just needed a friendly invitation to race coming out of it. I'm a Prius owner, Barry. We don't drive over 43 mph, so we can brag to our friends that we squeezed another .01 mpg out of what's already a gas-sipper to begin with. Invite us to step on it, and we'll be all over it!

Back at The Fudge Factory counter, Stephanie and another employee engaged each other instead of me, for several minutes, until the other employee left, which then freed Stephanie up to very nicely offer me a free sample.

I highly recommend the peanut butter fudge, which is heavenly.

Sweet tooth satiated, I decided to call it a Secret Shopping day/night and headed towards the door, but not without getting a pleasant but smile-free "Thank you" as a nice parting gift from Dylan, who stood at one of the checkout registers.

At 8:26, the second Secret Shopping visit to Scheels was done, 70 minutes after it had started.

My two Secret Shopper visits to Scheels could not have been more different.

The early afternoon visit was extraordinary. The late evening trip was abysmal. The first time through was full of smiles and greetings and joy. The last time through was rife with closed-ended questions, frowns and denial of shopper reality. The initial experience felt like I was part of a loving family. The final one left me begging to be put up for adoption.

No two Secret Shopping visits to the same store have ever been so different. No two experiences offered such a clear consumer choice. No two moments better personify the Dickens line: It was the best of times. It was the worst of times."

The amazing customer service training going on at Scheels, deserves our admiration, as do all the hard-working employees who must execute it. Retail is, in most cases, a hard, dirty, thankless job, made especially difficult when working in a large, big-box store.

As good as Scheels can be, and was, there is also room for improvement, across the board. It is, of course, never perfect - that's the nature of retail, and everything else that involves human beings. I genuinely hope that this review honors the good, acknowledges the areas that need help, and sheds light on both.

More than anything, however, I hope that Kelly - the smiling, engaging superstar standout in an already strong group - also gets the recognition she deserves, as being one of the finest retail employees I've ever encountered.

You'd make Frederick Scheels proud, kid. :)



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:

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Phone: 515-480-4190 


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