Hello shoppers...

Stores that have names with first names in them, feel like they should have better customer service than stores that don't.

When we visit Johnny's Italian Steak House, Bob Brown Chevrolet, Suzette's Candies, Irene's Flowers, Jethro's BBQ, Bill's Whitewall, Christopher's Jewelry, Uncle Sam's Federal Childcare Center, Java Joe's, Big Earl's Goldmine and Bob's Country Bunker, we expect to meet Johnny, Bob, Suzette, Irene, Jethro, Bill, Christopher, Sam, Joe, Earl and Bob.

Whether we do or don't, doesn't matter. The fact that we think we can, and might, sends us into those places with a subconsciously higher expectation.

And that's why marketing consciously sucks.

At least it does for the employees who have to cash the checks that ad writers, write. (Find the genius who came up with Where there's a helpful smile in every aisle! and a long line of PO'd Hy-Vee employees will form, happy to give him his helpful smile - right in your aisle, dude.

Feeling that warm, fuzzy "I can't wait to meet John!" buzz on the way to Taco John's is more likely when we visit places we know are locally owned and homegrown, like Gino's Restaurant or Scotty's Body Shop - although if we actually saw the long-dead WWI hero Merle Hay, at Merle Hay Lanes, we'd likely toss ourselves into the pin setter.

We wouldn't do that at Trader Joe's, because they're not locally owned, they don't have bowling, and Joe Coulombe is alive and well and living in California.

Trader Joe's - the focus of today's Secret Shopper review - started out in 1958 as the less friendly-sounding Pronto Market convenience store chain. Joe, smartly, switched it in '67 to his namesake, added new products (80% of which now bear the store's name) and a sea-farin/Caribbean motif (the famous bell, wood planks). 

Today, Trader Joe's is owned by Aldi's (which is owned by Germans, in Germany) and has over 350 locations scattered across 28 states (not in Germany) which average 8,000-12,000 square feet in size. The stores generate some serious booty (Ask your parents about a meaning for this word other than the one you learned from rap videos): $8 billion in annual revenue, making Trader Joe's, according to the Joes who put together a 2008 Businessweek profile, the highest grossing per-square-foot grocery chain in the U.S.

How about customer service?

There, too, Trader Joe's rules the crowded CS seas - according to the 2010 Zogby/MSN Money Customer Service Hall of Fame Survey, which ranks Trader Joe's 2nd only to Amazon, and places it alongside customer service heavy hitters like Nordstrom's, Apple and FedEx.

That's as cool as the opening 16 measures of Caribbean Queen (the rest kinda stinks): But how is the customer service at our own Trader Joe's, at 6310 Mills Civic Parkway in West Des Moines?

That is what your land-lubbin, Unsecret Shopper set sail to find out.

I Secret Shopped Trader Joe's twice - on a Sunday late morning, looking like a South Seas pirate with a penchant for Cyclones; and on a Tuesday early afternoon, dressed like a high-end  attorney representing Yosemite Sam in a defamation suit against Bugs Bunny.

         "Jonnie"                 "Jonathan"


In both cases, I went in looking for smiles and greetings and engagement and thank-yous - the all-important Pillars of Great Customer Service. I'd especially expect lots of interaction and explaining of products and glad-handling from a) a store that just opened (on November 5th), b) a grocery store chain highly regarded for its great customer service, and c) a company which categorically plays in a very crowded sandbox category of food-providers: Dahls and Hy-Vee and Walmart and raTget and Walgreens and convenience stores.

Here's how I'll rate the two visits, mateys:


  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.    


One difference you'll notice with today's Secret Shopper review (and those that will follow it) is that you, very patient, sweet reader, will be able to finish it before you grow old and die. I've streamlined this one (which is still 2500 words - quit your giggling) down to who did great, what needs more polish and how it went overall.

I'll keep working on that streamlining thing. :)

A brand new store is launched to great local fanfare; let us see if it is smooth customer service sailing for Trader Joe's, or if rough seas scuttle it.

Staff Interaction/Jonnie - Sunday at 11:30am



Grace, in the olive oil section. She smiled as I approached, asked what she could help me with, took the time to explain what was in each aisle, talked about specials, asked if she could help me find anything, told me to let her know if I had any questions, encouraged me to try some samples at the sampling table, talked about the store's launching and how much she enjoyed working there, thanked me for coming in, wished me a wonderful day, and smiled, non-stop, the entire time we talked. Grace could not have been more charming, happy and helpful - an absolute customer service rock star! 

Jorge Ann, at the entranceShe was everywhere - greeting, engaging, thanking, almost like the store's official glad-handling happy chick. And there were a lot of customers to glad-handle that Sunday late-morning. Jorge Ann has a great energy, which really plays well in that small, intimate shopping environment.

Neta, sampling Arangini bites at the "Tempting Culinary Arts" counter. She was good at asking the "Do you want to try..." question in different ways, to different customers - no easy feat. She also did a wonderful job explaining what was in the bites. Two tips - smile more, Neta, to match your wonderfully engaging manner, and don't call old guys like me, sir - it makes us feel older than we already are. :)

Vince, stocking in the produce aisle. He greeted me pleasantly each time I came within his eyeshot and exchanged some friendly chit-chat with me, and others. Vince is one of those people with a naturally friendly vibe. Like Neta, Vince can smile more, and also, drop the "sir," dude, especially in that store, where employees where jeans and t-shirts, pop music plays overhead and laid-back informality rules.


More smiles, greetings and engagement by staff. There were a lot of very busy employees in the store that day, who were very busy being busy with stocking, fronting and being busy. That led to many missed opportunities to smile at customers, say "hi," and be friendly - a lot of what I call "denying a customer's reality." Andi in the wine aisle literally reached over-top of my cart to place a Chateau Meric Medoc sign by some bottles without saying a word to me. Roderick stacked bananas and watched me look at them, two feet away, without a peep. Anna silently stocked bread as I checked out loaves on either side of her. Zach fronted boxes of cereals on either side of me, then in front of me, without saying anything - but did engage Vince a second later with a laugh and a dig about being a Cyclone fan. Tim, Carrie, Luke, Mara and Chris all made eye contact with me as we walked past each other, and all looked down and away, without a smile. Sean, at the check-out counter, said a pleasant but unsmiling "Hi, how are you?" while looking at the register, then wished me a great day, this time with eye contact, but still with no smile. When there were questions asked, they were of the closed-ended, "Finding everything alright?/Can I help you?" variety, which is especially unwarranted in a store where no one knows where anything is, and everyone needs help.


Trader Joe's is new to us, and different from the other places we're used to shopping at, for groceries - that's part of its allure. It looks different (Caribbean motif, narrow aisles, sharp turns and small, cramped and sardine-ish claustrophobic feeling on this day), sounds different (lots of cool Paul McCartney and The Fixx and OMD and other 80's pop music artists playing during this visit), smells different (wonderful combo of spruce, cinnamon and Sicilian cooking), tastes different (brands and foods that you will not recognize - you're going to feel excited at the chance to discover new things and hopelessly lost in the miasma of the unknown, at times) and feels different. There was a fresh vibe and excited energy emanating from some employees, but not all. You did see some very happy engagement and familiarity from staff, with other staff. That's typical for retail - but also makes the customer feel like they're getting day old bread, not fresh from the bakery. On this day, most of the staff were uber-focused on tasks, which meant they too often missed opportunities to engage customers. Employees were pleasant, but didn't always seem happy, and there's a difference.

The bottom line: If you visit Trader Joe's at busy times, don't expect to get glad-handled.

Staff Interaction/Jonathan - Tuesday at 2:25pm


Katy, at check-out. She greeted with a huge grin and an even bigger, "Hi! How are you?" She engaged in chit-chat about winter being here (too soon), thanked me as I left, wished me a good day and invited me back. Awesome job, Katy!

Jen, at check-out. She couldn't stop smiling - it was so much fun to watch. The grin never left her face, as she engaged customer after customer.

Megan, at check-out. Like Jen and Katy, she was glad-handling every customer she rang up, with an ear-to-ear smile.

A blond-haired woman, at check-out. Sorry for not getting her name - she was working the register closest to the exit door, and baby, she was working it. She was smiling, engaging, glad-handling, thanking and making the last employee interaction for customers - like Megan and Jen and Katy alongside her - the most memorable.  

I'm calling Katy, Jen, Megan and Blondie, The Fantastic Four.

Jana, sampling chicken tacos at the Tempting Culinary Arts counter. Jana was The Gap friendly - I would have bought a pair of khakis from her, had she had a pair to pimp. Each time she asked a customer, "Would you like to taste a mini-taco?" her voice pitched up, and loud, in the most happy way. Two tips - first, Jana needs to smile while she's being so insanely friendly, and second, don't use the exact same "Would you like to taste a mini-taco?" pitch on every patron.



More employee acknowledgement of customers. There was, like the first time through, more denying of reality than you'd like to see in a store known for great customer service. Melody faced items, then walked past me and six other patrons without greeting us. Kevin made eye contact with me and other customers as we approached, looked down and away, then looked straight back up when the coast was clear. Tim fronted beside me and walked past me again later without a peep and with a bit of a frown on his face. I did three tight cart laps around a very unsmiling Tommy and Kevin, unacknowledged, as they stood in the meat area, having a somewhat unpleasant conversation about food being out of code, and not letting that happen. I stopped and asked for the time, which Tommy, a slight smile appearing, gave me. I glanced at Kevin, who looked down and away, more unfriendly than before. The pleasant store odor was also shattered, as one of them smelled very strongly of cigarettes. at which point.


A smaller crowd plus fewer staff equaled more time to relax and just shop and explore, which was nice. The music - country this trip - was a bit loud, and this is from someone who believes in the power of torking the retail tunes. Employees were pleasant and a bit more likely to engage this trip, but still hurried, which made you feel almost guilty to ask for help. I'd recommend that workers follow the Marines' motto: slow equals fast. Otherwise, staff are going to miss important opportunities to engage patrons.

There is also a sectioned-off employee area up by the "Captain's bell," which is rung once to inform the "crew" that another checkout register needs to be opened, twice to signal  that assistance is needed up front and thrice to tell the manager that it be them that's needed (four times to signal that a Secret Shopper won't stop playing with the bell). I watched 3, 4 and 5 employees gather at a time, in this area - chatting, laughing, engaging and hanging out. Nothing wrong with that. Except that when you're a customer wandering around the place like a pirate with his eye patch on the wrong eye, you start thinking: I'm lost as sea while you scallywags play cards and drink rum - how about a little help over here?  

The bottom line: The cashiers rule!

What we learned...

1. That Trader Joe's in WDM has some major-league, happy-flag-carrying employees who have whole-heartedly bought into their engaging, friendly culture.

2. That TJ is going through customer service growing pains that most patrons don't notice and won't care about, because they're totally into the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of "new store," "new products" and "new vibe."

3. That these growing pains won't always not matter.

4. That these growing pains may continue, since the company doesn't offer customer service training - which was told to me by Jana, the hap-happy sampler, who said that they "just hire happy people!" (W)right on, Jana. I subscribe to that philosophy: you can't untrain unhappy, so start with happy. That helps create a happy culture in your store - which Trade Joe's has.

For now (said the doubting TomJonnieas).

The hardest part is maintaining that happy feeling, 3, 6, 12 months from now, when the newness is gone, replaced by...well, oldness.

5. That "offering great customer service," for a chain store, is the mandated expectation of the hard-working, local "boots on the ground" employees, but is often looked upon as not much more than a marketing slogan by the corporate peeps at the top. That's one of the reasons why Alison Mochizvki, a spokesperson for Trader Joe's, allowed Steve Batchelor, the local Trader Joe's "captain" (store director) to be interviewed by local media in early November, but rejected my request for an interview for this review, and for The Unsecret Shopper Radio Show, this Saturday morning, 8-9am on 1350, KRNT.

"We don't let store managers do interviews, nor do we do them at the corporate level, other than the week of the grand opening," she said.

That didn't feel very customer servicey - but okay.

Then Alison said, "Off the record - can you tell me if there were problems?"

They clam up while I spill my guts? That didn't feel very customer servicey II.

I told her I don't do interviews after grand openings.


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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Phone: 515-480-4190

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