Hello shoppers...


There are varying degrees of merchandise quality in the things we buy, be it food, cars, clothing or toothbrushes.

We can drop $23,000 on the same kind of toothbrush used in space by Buzz Aldrin, or we can use the edge of a butter knife to scrape away plaque and tartar, and call it good.

Those degrees of quality also exist in the places that sell the kitchen cutlery and aerospace engineered aparati we use to stave off gingivitis, and make our breath, minty fresh.

There are discount department stores,  like Walmart, and raTget, the one whose showroom sounds like the inside of an unplugged refrigerator. There are department stores, like Sears and JC Penney. There are the specialty department stores, like Footlocker and PetSmart.

Then there are the upscale specialty department stores, like Von Maur, which lives in rarefied retail air, along with Nordstroms, Neiman Marcus, Marshall Fields, Lord and Taylor and Bloomingdales.

Von Maur is also the only store in its category that lives nearby, in The Valley West Mall, and thus is the focus of today's Secret Shopper review. 

Von Maur had its humble beginnings in Davenport in 1872, as a 20 by 50 foot store front opened and owned by J.H.C. Petersen, who later sold it to the Van Maur family. Today, the stores are a smidgen larger, as is the number of stores, with 22 locations scattered across nine states, from Nebraska to Ohio.

Although that's probably not quite right. "22" is  the number of Von Maur stores, according to their home page. Their Wikipedia listing says there are 24, with one pending in Louisville, Kentucky, but their entry hasn't been updated in awhile. The casual observer might think that some locations have closed, based upon this discrepency, and from that, make inferences about the long-term health of the company. Yet back on Von Maur's web site, as you enter the "stores and events" portal, there are 25 listed. I also saw an online vendor document from another site, which listed 28 store locations. No big dealio dough, but big enough to their web master and marketing people, who may want to check these numbers, and make sure they're all talking to each other.

What we're talking about today, is what we should expect, in terms of customer service, from an upscale specialty department store.

Perhaps the fact that "customer service" is mentioned twice on Von Maur's website homepage, gives us a clue. One of the references includes this strong statement:

We believe our commitment to customer service, attractive and spacious shopping environments and outstanding selection differentiates us from our competitors.


Who is Von Maur's biggest competitor locally, besides perhaps Dillards and Kohls? Probably the same one that torments it nationally - the economy.

Upscale specialty department stores, in spite of their cachet, have been hit as hard by the downturn as any other retail category. So for Von Maur (and every other business) to weather the financial storm, it's important that they live up to the promise of their marketing, which includes a "commitment to customer service."

How committed are they?

To find out, I made the usual two Secret Shopper trips, daperly dressed in the late morning visit (sans jacket), looking ridiculous by early evening's return, below.

         "Jonathan"                "Jonnie"

The way we keep score:

  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.

As shoppers shopping at Von Maur, it's likely we hold their staff to a higher standard than the employees trolling the aisles at Walmart.

Yet no matter where we shop and what we pay for what we're shopping for, the actions of the employees who are entrusted and paid to help us along our retail journey, should be guided by the same four powerful pillars of great customer service, that are taught, trained, bellered about and referenced frequently in these blogging pages, by your friendly neighborhood Unsecret Shopper: smile, greet, engage and thank.

Let's head to the mall, and Von Maur, to see how those pillars hold up.

Staff Interaction/Jonathan


I walked through the East doors of Von Maur at 1:30pm on a cloudy muggy Monday afternoon, with the threat of rain hanging overhead.

20 feet from the entrance, I already felt welcomed, by the music playing from the overhead speakers - Van Morrison's beautifully seductive Moondance. The jazzy piano chords were being played in real time, by a real pianist, on a real piano, which really put a nice hop in my step as I entered.

Plus I really had to go to the bathroom, which I did - amazingly clean potty. 

Outta there, I immediately entered here, "here" being Men's Clothing, in the more formal wear. I browsed the large assortment of beautiful ties on display, until Scott, a very pleasant, well-dressed man, came up to me after a few minutes and asked, "Anything I can help you find?"

I'll answer that in a minute, Scott, but first...let's stop the blog right there, shall we?

In a store such as Von Maur - and by "such as," I mean, "Retail setting where live piano music is played and $129 Tommy Bahama silk shirts are sold and Dorothy you ain't in Dollar General anymore,"  it seems completely reasonable and totally fair for a patron to unfairly expect an unreasonably higher level of customer service, commiserate with the higher prices and higher quality of the merchandise.

There is no more opportune time in our shopping experience to demonstrate a store's store commitment to matching the service with the stuff, than at the initial greeting. 

As it has been pointed out in these blogging pages von krank, ("ad nauseum" in German, sort of) closed-ended questions are verboten; questions like, "Alright over here?" "Anything I can help you find?" and "Can I help you?" are kryptonite to a shopper's super buying powers.

Anthony Hernandez, a Guerilla Marketing speaker and business coach based in San Francisco, wrote a nice piece called The Power Of Open-Ended Questions, in which he says that, by using open-ended questions, "it signals the customer that you actually want to help them instead of simply exchanging formalities." He also writes that open-ended questions "force your customers to think, which both embeds your business and your products and services in their brains, and gets them started down the want/need/afford path to a successful sale."

 So I was a bit disappointed to be engaged right off the bat with a big, fat closed-ended question, in what was otherwise a pretty phat interaction with Scott, who actually shared his name - "My name is Scott" - in a very classy way, and without me asking for it.

Unfortunately, Scott didn't ask for my name after he introduced himself, nor did he thank me as we parted - a few more missed opportunities.

An employee is right to think that sharing their name with a customer, especially the way Scott did with me, demonstrates that he/she is "at my service." An employee is righter to think that asking me for my name, shows that they care enough to want to learn it, and use it. The (W)rightest way for an employee to think, is to believe that a customer's name is more important to them, than their name is to the customer.

Other than the previous points pointed out, Scott was pointedly helpful and friendly - great smile!

From that point, instead of taking a linear path around the store, I flopped around, taking the 1:42 escalator from the 2nd floor men's clothing section to the 1st floor women's apparel area, called Bridge and Better Sportswear.

Whenever I Secret Shop (despite claims in previous reviews, by previous employees, to the contrary: "No wonder I didn't see ya! You was hidin, varmit!") I always search for an employee who is working on the floor, and walk towards them. I then begin looking at merchandise nearby, within their eye and earshot.

As Jacki(e) did her staff stuff by the Bridge/Better Sportswear women's clothing counter, I did my shopper stuff by the merchandise, browsing for 15 minutes unattended.

Finally, Jackie asked, from beside her desk 15 feet away instead of beside me 3 feet away, "Did you need help finding anything?"

Jackie was nice enough and pleasant as all get out, yet should have asked a nicer, more pleasant question, especially to a white-dress-shirt-and-tie-wearin-dude, standing beside dudette's clothing, squeakily sliding hangers along round racks, sifting through shirts, lifting them up, checking out colors, examining fabric, reading labels, and placing the articles of clothing back on the rack, for a quarter of an hour.

Yes, employees get busy, that's understood. But whoever heads the retail, has to have their head on a swivel, able to spot those patrons, especially those male patrons standing in an otherwise un-male world, with guilt to spend and money to burn.

Jackie was engaging and had a nice smile. She's just got to bring it sooner in the shopping experience, and closer to the shopper, wrapped in the bow of an open-ended question, something like, "Some girl is so lucky to have you shopping for her today - how can I help you find your special someone, something special?"

Corny? Sure. But people 'round these parts, and really, all parts, eat that corn up.

Just remember, Jackie, I'm a fat old bitter man, and you're a young, attractive, vivacious woman, so put both of us in your section going head to head, using cool lines on customers like the one I just shared, and it'll be like you're the Brazilian soccer team at the World Cup playing me, a team assembled from a Tuesday night crowd at Old Country Buffet, and our goalie has horrible gas from his fourth plate of room temperature meatloaf, tacos, spaghetti and cornbread.

Just learn those great lines, okay? :) 

I lined myself up with the children's clothing section and headed that way, in search of a pretty party dress for Matinka, my 6 year-old pretty partying daughter.

Again, I repeated the same search process used in Better Sportswear - squeak, look, squeak, look, lift, peruse, replace, lift, turn, examine, try on, decide not to, replace, move onto next display, repeat until arms are tired and brain's turned to mush.

I performed 15 minutes of clothes shopping aerobics while Michelle worked at the counter, then walked over to another employee at a Customer Service counter, and began chatting. It may have been important, but all I know is that I was alone for fifteen frightening minutes, surrounded by hundreds of size 3-5 shirts and dresses covered in sparkle and frillies and fuzzy bear transfers.

Finally, noticing the trembling middle-aged guy in her section, Michelle wandered back over and asked the technically open-ended but emotionally awkward question, "Hello - what do you want?"

World peace. A chicken in every pot. Zanex. A less weird question. Why do you ask?

In fairness to Michelle, she made her friendly enough inquiry - without a smile - with the voice inflection of someone asking, "What are you looking for, and how can I help you find it?" She just used different words, and way too late. 

A hard-browsing customer, any customer, left unattended in a little girl's clothing area for 900 seconds but who's counting, deserves a stronger, more thoughtful first shot over their consumer bow, from the store staff member doing the shooting.

Mary, that morning's pianist, pounded out a lively version of Steam Heat as I steamed over to Juniors, where Laurie (Lori) was nicely engaging after I'd browsed just a few minutes.

She smiled a great smile, and unleased an un-great question: "Are you finding everything alright?"

Onto Jewelry, where I stopped, dropped and peered into a glass case showcasing a fabulous David Yurman collection of chains, bracelets, earrings and brooches, until Jean approached and broached the silence with, "Looking for anything in particular?"

She did a wonderful job of showing me several necklaces from the display case, with attached, detachable citrine stones. Where Jean sorta dropped the rock was a) not writing down the style/code number of the stone I really liked, especially considering I said, repeatedly, that I had a terrible memory, and b) not asking me for my name, and then using it.

Jean was very pleasant. But the cost of the jewelry we were looking at was in excess of $2,500 - that buys enough gas for me to drive my Prius to Pluto and back, and will get you Hummer owners about halfway to Newton. High-end purchases demand high-end service, plus I stated, more than once, that I was in the market for a gift for my girlfriend's birthday, now. That should have triggered some extra steps from Jean, including a thank-you at the end, which I also didn't get.

The true gem of that morning's Secret Shopping session sparkled next, in men's sportswear, where Christine(a)'s incredibly charming and thick Greek accent coated every loud, proud, happy and engaging word that came tumbling out of her mouth.

"What can I help you with today?" "This shirt is beautiful and would look even more beautiful on you!" "Take your time, look around, browse, I'm here to help you!" Christine sounded like a gyro, tastes. She opened with an open-ended question, and exuded more chara than a guest appearance on The Merv Griffin Show by Anthony Quinn, who was actually born in Mexico but just go with it.

Having moved with her husband from Athens to the U.S. 42 years ago, Christine - with her contagious smile, infectious joy and engaging demeanor - is as delightful as you'd imagine, the living, breathing embodiment of my catch-phrase for business owners: Misthos haroumenos. Didasko epidexiotita.

Hire happy. Train skills. (I may have also written Broomstick pie. Lint butler.) 

In Accessories, another Christine wasn't quite as happy and engaging as her Zorba-fied namesake on the other side of the store, but she held her own, asking, with a smile, "Hi! Is there anything I can help you find?"

Towards the end of our brief convo, I asked Christine what her name was. As she said it, she also asked for me, and started to pick up her right arm, then stopped, nearly reaching out her hand to, I'm assuming, shake mine, not spray me with mace. That (the handshake) would have catapulted Christine into the customer service stratosphere.

Next time, Christine, don't hesitate, and don't second guess your instincts. JUST GO FOR IT! :)

My next stop was at Customer Service, where Brooke, who'd worked at the Windsor Heights Hy-Vee a year before her current stint with Von Maur, asked the one question...

"Can I help you?"

...that someone working behind a customer service counter, can't ask a customer who has purposefully walked up to it, seeking help, otherwise, why would that person have intentionally come into an area where they can't browse merchandise because there isn't any, although maybe some confused patrons thing they're in Office Furniture, and start browsing desk chairs.

I don't really blame Brooke. Much of the responsibility for making sure a nice, healthy open-ended question is asked, at the one place in the store that insists on it, lies in the hands of the people assigned to train Brooke, and others in the store, on customer service skills.

Which brings me to a broader point.

Throughout both Secret Shopper visits that day, I asked two employees - Monica in Cosmetics, and Terri in Lingerie - if Von Maur has a secret shopper, and/or customer service training program. Each said "no" on the first, but said "yes" on the second, that when first hired, they received training, which included some review of proper customer service.

What were they taught? I asked.

Each woman struggled to remember. Monica said, "We're taught that the customer is always right, no matter what," and mentioned that all department managers have monthly reviews with their staff, which include discussions about customer service. Terri tried to recall, but couldn't remember specific customer service training points.

That doesn't mean they don't exist at Von Maur. But it did make me pause.

I paused next in Gifts, where I heard "I will be with you in a moment if you like" in a thick Russian accent, from Lena, who was engaging another customer but still engaged me. When it was my turn to be waited on, she followed in the big customer service footsteps of Christine, her transplanted European counterpart (Okay, Russia belongs to Asia, so sue me) and co-worker, with "What can I help you with?" 

Europe 2, America, 0

Lena, like Christine, smiled easily and was uber-friendly and extremely engaging, pointing out assorted gift items and exclaiming, "You like this! This one very cute!"

Lena, whose real name is Leana, told me, bemusedly, that she got rid of the "a" because "Nobody in America can say it right!" I spent the rest of our conversation proving her right, trying to properly pronounce her name as she'd demonstrated, LEahnuh, but instead demonstrating that I was part of the problem, not the reshenie.

"Maybe I move again, I change it again," she laughed, as I walked away.

Sure, whatever floats your lodka. Just DON'T change your way with people, Leana. You were fantastic! :)

On that note, and with the sweet notes emanating from the Grand that Mary played, trailing behind me out of the store and into the covered parking lot, I left Von Maur and walked back to my Prius, an hour and a half after I'd started.

Staff Interaction/Jonnie

Like MacArthur, who promised but didn't, and unlike McChrystal, who didn't promise and probably won't, I shall return and did, at 6:12pm, three hours after I'd made like a tree, and beat it.

Gail made like Liberace and tickled the ivories as Mary had, earlier that day, creating that same great, cool, relaxed, classy vibe that is Von Maur's wonderful trademark.

I made my first Secret Shopping mark, as I had during visit #1, in men's clothing, where Mary Lou walked past me once without saying anything but recovered nicely on a return trip past, stopping and asking, "Can I help you find anything?"  

Mary Lou shared that she'd been working at that Von Maur location for 31 years, and her friendly manner showed it. However, a smart, savvy retail veteran with that much experience under his/her belt, would really be expected to ask a stronger, open-ended question, especially at a higher-end retail store like Von Maur.

Von-wandering over into the dress suits and slacks area, I was quickly waited on by Dennis, who said, "Can I help you find a size," then helped me discover mine, patiently guiding my arms into jacket after jacket, until slipping on a 42 short that fit me like a glove, albeit a large one. He even took the extra step, without being asked, of writing down my coat size on the back of a card, with his name on the front. That's sooo smart, and a great touch.

He finished with an even better one.

"My name is Dennis - let me know if I can help you with anything," he said, then gave me this cute little salute, along with a wry smile - very endearing. Great job, Dennis!

A third-in-a-row closed ended question came from Mac(e)y, who quickly approached me in Better Sportswear and asked, "Find everything alright?"

No - could you tell me where Better Questions is?

Again, like almost every employee I met at Von Maur, Macy was kind, engaging and eager to help.  She also shared her name, unsolicited, ending our conversation with a wonderful, "My name is Macy - let me know if I can help you with anything." That's classy.

Now take it to a higher level, Macy - ask me my name, as you give me yours, then use it, and that'll rock my world.

"My name is Macy, what's yours?...Well please let me know if I can help you with anything, Jonnie."

Doesn't that entire sentence sound like it belongs at Von Maur?

I returned to the little girl's clothing area, back to the same racks of clothes I'd browsed earlier in the day, for 15 minutes, before being helped by the one woman working in the section.

This time, it was different. There were two women working in the section, and it took nearly 20 frustrating minutes before one of them, Nancy, approached me.

"Need help?" she asked, clunkily. Ouch.

To her credit, Nancy did something that no one else did, during the nearly three hours I spent inside Von Maur that day. When I asked for her name, she told me, then asked me for mine, and said it back to me, as we parted.

Nice recovery, Nancy. It doesn't make up for the long wait, but you can build on it - and I suspect you will. :)

As I passed by a customer, I heard an employee engage her with, "Looking for anything special?" Ouch II. And I wasn't even the one being ouched.

The reasons why that is such a horrible question to ask a patron, include a) because customers, by the nature of the fact that they are, indeed, spending money in a store, are, indeed, special, therefore anything they are searching for, by default, is equally special; b) because if an employee asks that question, they are then assuming that the customer, in fact, may not be looking for something special and may in fact be in search of crap, which is offensive to the customer; and finally, c) EVERYTHING EMPLOYEES SELL AT THE STORE WHERE THEY WORK, IS SPECIAL. That's more true at Von Maur than at VonMart, but the attitude that goes with it, should be true for every retail employee, everywhere, always and forever, amen.

The day's longest wait to be waited on awaited me in Moderate Sportswear, where, over an 18 minute period, Sharon walked past and within 6-10 feet of me - not once, not twice, not thrice, but fourice times - without greeting me, acknowledging me or saying, "Could you at least say hi, you stuck-up shopper?"

Uff da.

Then, when my personal cloaking device apparently ran out of Uranium to power it, I suddenly appeared, to which Sharon responded, "Need help finding something?"


Sharon was very pleasant, and shared a nice smile. But to say it took too long for me to get those wonderful parts of her, particularly considering I was close enough to her on four separate drive-bys, that we would have been considered legally married if the store had been in Missouri, is the day's understatement.  

Forgive me, Sharon, I'm being snide, but that experience was just plain brutal. You've got to engage me faster, especially under those conditions - and if you read this, or, unfortunately but more likely, if someone above you reads this, and then reads you the you-know-what, I know you'll work very hard to not let that happen again, especially considering that everything else you said and did, after your question, was just tremendous - thank you for that. :)

There was another long but totally understandable 15 minute wait for service in men's casual wear, as I browsed the very nice Tommy Bahama section while Katina waited on a customer. What wasn't quite as understandable was how she engaged me after she was free.

"Doing okay here?"

That's what a server at Denny's asks a customer after their Grand Slam Breakfast has been served, but before they've finished their Hearty Wheat Pancakes. (Please, no substitutions.)

That's not the question a Von Maur employee should be asking a Von Maur customer who has been patiently browsing the same basic area of clothing in their section for that long a period of time, and never out of their eyeball range.

It was worse in Juniors.

I looked, perused, browsed, examined and did everything to those very pretty dresses but slip one over my head and start singing Girls Just Want To Have Fun. Yet the two women working the counter, Kasey (Casey) and the other whose name I didn't get, didn't say a word to me, and that included several trips by Kasey to the dressing room area, which took her right past me, within 10-12 feet.

Again, this is a man, standing where only women, dare to tread. In other words, that just can't happen.

At the 17 minute mark, Kasey finally came over to me and asked, "Find everything okay?"

To Kasey's credit, after she found me, she certainly knew what to do with me, as she smiled, asked great questions and was wonderfully charming. But it really was too late, as most shoppers would have been out the door and headed to Dillards. One more thing in Kasey's defense - I heard a snippet of a conversation between her and the other employee at the counter. Someone said to someone, "Have you met everyone yet?" This would suggest that either Kasey, or the other woman, was a new hire, and was still feeling their way around the store. That's certainly a good excuse, but not one that any customer would care about, after waiting that long to be engaged.

And before you say, "No, Jonnie Poopy Pants, most shoppers would have walked up to the counter and asked for help instead of walking out the door," let me say, shopagorically, that that sentiment is the very thing that loses more stores, more business, especially in a recession, whose flood waters are technically receding but it sure feels like it could rain.

Depending on customers to make the first move, is retail suicide. Period.

I moved onto Jewelry, where Brent, a junior at Drake, let me browse a click or two too long, and then, instead of coming over and right up to me, said, from further back and behind a sort of semi-partition, "Doing okay?"

Come on, dude, get your Bulldog bark on and get up in my face. Serve up an open-ended question delivered with an ear to ear smile that will make your fellow blue bleeders reading this, proud of the way you're retail representin Bulldog Nation.

Shelley, who didn't work in Gifts but was stocking there, said, after a few minutes, "Need help with anything?"

I made a crack about needing a can of oil, to lubricate the belt on the nearby escalator, which was squeaking loudly, constantly, and irritatingly, as it turned on its non-stop loop.

"They fixed that," she replied, nearly having to speak over the squeak, "but it keeps doing it." I'm sure someone has tried to address the problem, but that's one that needs fixed, pronto, especially as it tends to take the pleasing vibe being created by Mary and Gail (and probably others) on the piano, and turn it into prolonged moments of face-scrunching guitar feedback at an Insane Clown Posse gig at the Val-Air Ballroom.  

Terri, in Lingerie, asked the first opened-ended question of my 2nd secret shopping trip through the store that day: "What can I help you find?" Terri was also incredibly warm and friendly, engaging on a wonderfully nurturing level, a real customer service pro. Great job, Terri!

My final exchange occurred with Nicole, in the Expressions/Designer section, who greeted nicely but wrong-questioney enough, with,"Finding everything alright?"

At 7:58pm, almost an hour and 45 minutes after I'd entered Von Maur, the only thing left to find was my Prius, and the exit, signaling the end of another Secret Shopper visit.



Von Maur's greatest enemy may be itself.

When you create a retail setting as strikingly beautiful as that inside the store, with its bright, open, airy design, high-polished floors, plush accents and trademark live piano accompanying shoppers as they shop for high quality merchandise, you're setting an implied customer service bar that is extremely high. Yet to their credit, what's implicit in the store's surroundings is explicitly embraced by Von Maur's management, in their up-front "commitment to customer service."

In the case of this Valley West location, on this one particular day, the results from that commitment, fell a bit short of what was promised. Time spent waiting to be waited on was too long, too often. When employees did engage, whether within 15 minutes or 15 seconds, they consistently used closed-ended questions. There were few thank-yous, and not enough smiles.

Yet there were some good customer service moments with Scott, Christine, Dennis, Macy and Kasey, and a very good one with Terri, plus two that were uber-fantastic, compliments of the incredibly engaging Christine, from Greece, and the wonderfully delightful Leana, from Russia.

Whoda thought that these "stodgy" Europeans could teach us so much about smiling, greeting, laughing and playing, all in the name of great customer service. :)

What Terri, Christine and Leana can also teach every employee, is what they also had in common, that they each used open-ended questions - the only employees, out of 19 who engaged me, who did.

The great news is that what to ask, is one of the most trainable aspects of customer service.

The better news is that, on the whole, the entire staff at Von Maur knew how to ask.

They were consistently pleasant and engaging, and seemed truly interested in serving. That's something that really can't be trained. It instead comes from hiring happy people, upon which the most successful companies are built.

And from what I experienced, Von Maur has that strong foundation in place, to which much can be added, with a staff that seemed to always have a smile in their hearts, even if it didn't always make it up to their face.

Maybe their joyful spirit has something to do with being surrounded by all that uplifting, live piano music.

Yet it plays the other way, too. 

The music, when played, may make you happy. But for those that already are, it never stops.

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. Email Jonnie at jonniewright@thebuyosphere.com.



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