There's shooting fish in a barrel. There's taking candy from a baby. There's finishing any sentence that begins, "Congress is so stupid..."
And there's secret shopping Wal-Mart.
There are 6,200 Wal-Mart facilities around the world, as of...make that 6201. Wait...6202. STOP BUILDING A MINUTE!
There are an additional 1,000 Wal-Marts in the planning stages (Hear that, bottom of the ocean floor?) and that doesn't count the ones the Walton family wants to build on the newly renamed Wal-Moon. (Wonder why NASA has been pushing a return mission?)
Even if Wal-Mart stopped building right this second and started blowing up stores, they'd still be the world's largest private employer, the country's largest grocery retailer and the biggest thing with the word "Wal" in it that's not surrounded by "Great" and "of China."
We all know why we shop at Wal-Mart - it's because of their toe-tappin PA music and gourmet in-store snack bars. The second biggest reason is that their stuff is cheap. Dirt cheap. In Mexico the Wal-Marts are called "El Crapo."
Okay they're called Wal-Mex - but the business model is no joke. Stuff everything human beings will ever buy in their entire life, into a building that looks like a K-mart just threw up, forget to put a bar code price on 75% of it, and you've got $400 billion in net sales in the recession year of 2009 and a retail empire that's turned 345 illiterate Arkansasians into 345 Walton family millionaire illiterates.
And you absolutely have not lived until you experience a Wal-Mart at Midnight on Christmas Eve - bring a camera, a cross and have your affairs in order.
I decided to visit a little sooner - as part of The Unsecret Shopper's weekly Secret Shopper evaluation of randomly selected local stores.
Before I get into the review, here's a little known fact - Sam Walton started working in retail in 1940, at a J.C. Penny in Des Moines.
Yep. We're to blame for this.
I shopped the Wal-Mart on 73rd Street in Windsor Heights, and went twice on the same Tuesday, at 10:30am and again at 3:40pm. The first time in I was dressed up, the second time, slob chic.
There was a third time, not pictured, in drag, an outfit I'll use later - see next week's Secret Shopping evaluation.
The Secret Shopper scoring system:
"Jonathan" is the guy in the suit. "Jonnie" is the guy who needs a piece of rope to keep his pants up. Both could stand to lose 20 pounds.
Will any of this make any difference? Roll the ugliness...
Wal-Mart uses the concept of a greeter - that is, someone specifically assigned the task of ignoring us as we sneak in feeling guilty cause we drove 5 miles out of our way to buy a 29 cent pen we could have bought for 36 cents at the small family owned store we can see from our driveway.
The greeter startled me - by saying "hi." She also asked me if I was returning something. I didn't think she meant the suit - sure enough, it was what I had in the plastic bag marked "Wal-Mart," something I'd purchased the previous week and then brought with me to immediately test my ability to survive a trip to...customer service. (That's as scary as I can write it with this cheap font software. Cue the Dark Shadows theme.)
No greeting the second time, though no fault of the greeter's - he was looking through a shopper's bag, making sure the receipt matched the item. It must have because there were no shots fired.
Customer Service Department/Jonathan:
As I approached the customer service counter, I could hear a customer complaining - this is the right place. The middle-aged man was upset because he couldn't find an employee back in sporting goods to unlock the display case so he could look at something worth more than $23.47.
Can't help ya - get your own blog.
I was next in line, and stepped up to Linda, who greeted me with silence - not "Why are you returning this?" Not "Are you coming back here later to trick me?" Instead she simply scanned my receipt and handed me my money back - but did manage "Have a nice day" as I walked away. That's worth a mask.
Customer Service Department/Jonnie:
Five hours later, the guy with the sporting goods issue has apparently been "politely escorted" to the basement. (Where do you think they get the cheap labor to make all this stuff?) Like Linda with Jonathan, Kellie said nothing to Jonnie, although did utter "thanks, honey" as I walked away. That was nice to hear.
What I'm sensing at this point is a pattern that will continue. Many Wal-Mart employees are unresponsive when they first see me, but become more animated as I turn and walk away - kinda like the movie Toy Story and they're the toys. Or the country song that goes, "They always look better when they're leavin..."
I'd probably give this two and a half masks but I haven't figured out how to make half a mask so just close your right eye and hold the edge of your hand over your left. There.
Another pattern that was soon established came from Wal-Mart's hierarchy of managers, who stood out because they were better dressed, often carried clipboards or writing tablets, did more walking around the store and were also far less likely to engage me than regular employees. And by less likely I mean never. Not a peep from any of them, not once the entire day, suit or no suit.
I felt like I'd been sprayed with an invisible coating as I entered the store (which was vomit-scented since that's what the entrance smelled like, and has since 2002) that rendered me invisible to those earning more than 28K. God laughs at absolutes, so here's one for you, big guy - I can say with absolute certainty that the best-dressed employees said nutin, nada, zip, to me.
And remember, I was the one wearing the suit, and dressed better than any of them.
As I began the retail portion of my journey - turning right and walking counter-clockwise through the store - I was first engaged (besides the greeter) by some employees putting up new shelving and product, just past The Pharmacy Department. They offered friendly "Hi"'s and "Hello"'s that were most welcome.
Things got even friendlier in The Garden Department as Randy and Sheila warmly welcomed me with smiles, "How are you today?" and my arch nemesis, "Can I help you find anything?" That was easy to forgive - they both had great attitudes, which likely came in part from working in a naturally lit and nurturing environment - hard to sustain a frown when you're surrounded by the sights and smells of plants, hoses, grass seed bags and "interesting" yard ornaments.
Then (to quote Bill Murray, in Stripes) depression set it.
I maneuvered through The Tire and Lube Department, where two employees talked about the difficulty of scheduling other employees, until one noticed me and said, "Need help, sir?" No - sounds like you under-trained employees are having some troubles with under-trained employees.
Meandering through Sewing Stuff (probably called something else) and a nice "Good morning" from the Sewing Stuff staffer, I finally arrived at retail's holy grail - Home Electronics, and big screen TV's. I rubbed my hands together - IwannabuyIwannabuyIwannabuy...
And there I stood, hand-rubbing and wannabuying for 15 minutes, staring at the 10 TV's on the wall, beginning to memorize the Wal-Mart marketing video that played ad Wal-seum, while three employees stood around the cash register, gum-flappin at each other and not to me, about 60 feet away,which could have been 600 feet separated by a 1,000 foot tall billboard which read, "Don't worry - there's nobody shopping on the other side of this billboard!"
There's a reason retail stores put Home Electronics, and specifically big screen TV's, at the back of the store - and it's not so the stuff's closer to the loading dock. 52 inch flat screens are the biggest ticket items on the store's roster, the objets d'art us boys crave to d'ecorate our d'ude cribs, and d'nutin will stop us from emptying our man purses to have them - neither Infant Clothing nor Housewares nor Sewing Stuff shall stay us from the swift completion of our mancave walls.
But not actually having a human being engage us about plasma vs LCD, Samsung vs. Sony? Yep, that'll kill our "buy" buzz and have us mounting Trigger and trottin down the loadin dock faster than you can say "Best Buy."
At minute 16, Bill, an older gentleman in his late 50's, finally arrived - to rescue Jonathan, abandoned at retail sea...
"Help you with anything?"
...by tossing him a life-preserver made of cement. I'm Italian, that's OUR m.o., we're used to "concrete" and "deep water." But unless you can come back 14 minutes sooner, with a better question...fughetaboutit.
I moved onto Infant and Toddler Clothes, where the female staffer manged to ignore me through four slow laps around her standing position - no "hello," "goodbye" or "These clothes might be a little tight on you."
I doubled-back, now moving clock-wise and against the natural flow of ambivalent shopperatzi without punches being thrown, to Hardware, and paint products, where I stood and stared at very interesting fluffy rollers for seven minutes while an employee engaged another, no more than 12 feet away and again by the cash register, about the belt sander he'd purchased for ten bucks. (I assumed not at Wal-Mart.)
Here's the teachable moment so far, Wal-Mart employees - head on a swivel, head on a swivel, head always on a swivel and always look for customers who are looking, because that means buying - your swiveley head and smiley face can have a profound effect on how much dough we drop in your department, how often we come back and how often we write blogs and tweets and Facebook posts and late night TV show host jokes and movie script lines, blasting you.
I headed towards Women's Clothing - not buying, just browsing - and walked a shoulder's width past a male department manager who looked me in the eye but was apparently too focused on the store to engage someone shopping in it.
Same dealio with Diane in Women's Clothing, whose name tag I got close enough to read through my Mr. Magoo eyes and who apparently thought that a man walking three complete circuits through her department wasn't grounds for at least an internal query: hmmm...wonder if he's one of those olympic mall walkers sidelined by injury and slowly working himself back into shape, or...naw, certainly he's not shopping for clothes! That's stupid, Diane - get hold of yourself! Get back to folding clothes and stop your stupid speculating!
It got better at The Jewelry Counter. Just kiddin. While I stood 15 feet from the counter, staring intently at 14 carat gold-plated hoop earrings (3 pairs, $14.99) like some clueless knuckle-dragger who didn't know what to buy his wife for our 25th wedding anniversary and could really use some help deciding on which set of the "I can't believe it's not butter" equivalent of gold-plating haphazardly sprayed on plastic hoops I should get her to turn her ear green, two female employees - one in her 20's, one in her late 40's - stood behind and in front of the jewelry counter and talked to each other.
Then I heard a very loud voice - I glanced up and saw a customer over at the check-out counter. He was accompanied by someone else, and obviously had a learning disability - he yelled his name over and over to the cashier,while his companion gently encouraged him to lower his voice.
At that point the younger of the two jewelry staffers said to the other, "They couldn't pay me enough to work at the counter. They could pay me $20 an hour and I wouldn't do it. I don't see how people do it."
She went on to describe her "retarded" cousin, and how he didn't have "it" as bad as the gentleman at the check-out counter did.
I suppressed the urge to walk up to her, read her name tag, and start screaming it at the top of my lungs. It was time to buy something and hit the road.
On the way, a female employee, who I'd passed two previous times and who had apparently became suspicious, said "Can I help you find something?" A male staffer looked me in the eye, smiled and said "Hi!" I thanked them in my heart, grabbed a box of Goldfish crackers and got in line.
The woman greeted me warmly - not the cashier but the customer in front of me who, noting that I only had the crackers, kindly said, "You go ahead, I've got more stuff." I insisted she go first, and while she did I heard the cashier, Kim, and another employee have this exchange:
"Do you want to do a cashier interview?"
"Can I do it after my break?" (both laugh) Her tone to me implied that she didn't want to do the interview and that the quality of candidates was less than stellar.
Why don't you hire the customer in front of me? I'll vouch for her.
Then it was my turn to check out. Kim the check-out person said nothing to me, except "ninety-eight," the cost of my Goldfish. Nor did Justin, a customer service manager, who preceded the scanning of my crackers with a cash-drop for Kim - even though his face was within three feet of my own and he looked me in the eye.
On my way out - 62 minutes after I'd entered - the greeter (a pinch hitter) said nothing as I walked past. No problem - the store had spoken for itself.
The evaluation of my second, slovenly dressed trip through the store is short and the opposite of sweet.
First the good and who earned a mask.
Kellie in customer service said "thanks honey" but nothing else. A female employee in the Garden Center kept representin, with a nice big "hi!" A woman in a group of three employees that I walked past said "Hello." And then there was Jeff - I'll get to him in a moment.
Earning the absence of masks - twelve employees, standing in three side by side by side merchandise rows, four in a row, who I had to literally squeeze past to get through...one said "excuse me" and moved out of the way. 11 more were silent. I felt like a bowling ball heading for the middle of the pins but somehow ending up in the gutter.
Later there were clusters of three employees here, four employees there, three more here, one alone there. I purposefully walked towards them, towards any employee I saw - I would stop, look at merchandise, stand a moment waiting for a response, a word, a smile - when I received none, I moved on.
As I walked past, through and around employees, they dutifully stocked, straightened and scanned merchandise, dusted shelves and swept floors, answered pages, sometimes grinned, even laughed on occasion but only with co-workers, and came to life, like kids who hear the approaching ice cream truck as they filed out of a back office commons area around 4pm, sans blue smock - it was quittin time, and time to share their unbridled joy with the occupants of any world, other than the one they were leaving.
I walked within normal human communicating distance - between one and ten feet - of 31 Wal-Mart employees. 28 of them didn't address me, smile at me or respond as if I had shape, form or mass. I had finally invented invisibility - time to go win bets in bars.
But first, I'd make a final stop, in vacuums - where the dirty customer service world around me would be suddenly sucked away, bagged, disposed of and replaced by clean, happy wall to wall joy - in the form of Jeff.
Jeff was my Wal-Mart employee #32 - the number of Jim Brown, Magic Johnson and Sandy Koufax. And Jeff was about to score a game-winning touchdown, hit a three at the buzzer and toss the final strike of a no-hitter.
It didn't start out that way.
I walked past Jeff, stopped, looked at vacuums, got no response and began to walk away - when Jeff finally said, "What can I help you with?"
An opened ended question - did I hear him right?
I said I was looking for a vacuum for my apartment. He said his name was Jeff, asked me mine and shook my hand. My jaw dropped. He asked other questions - how thick was the carpet, what was my price range. He said they went all the way up to $599. You kiddin? These should be back by the big screen TV's.
Show me the high-end, baby.
And he did - a Dyson. He pulled it down off the shelf, talked knowledgeably about its features, mentioned he'd just sat in on a training session on the vacuum and obviously had remembered what he'd been shown. He handed me a brochure and asked me if I had any other questions. Yeah - what are you doing here and how I get you out the vomit-scented entryway and to your car without alerting the guards?
We continued talking. Jeff told me he was from Laurens, had only been working for Wal-Mart four months and obviously had the still joyful spirit to show for it.
Then I did something I rarely do - I came up out of the rabbit hole. I handed Jeff my card, told him I was a customer service evaluator, that I'd been secret shopping his store, that I wanted to thank him for his extraordinary level of customer service and that I was going to also acknowledge it in an upcoming blog, and on my radio show.
He thanked me profusely. We shook hands, and I floated out of the building, barely noticing when the ambivalent customer service counter host tossed me my buck back for the returned Goldfish.
These four masks are for Jeff. While the Wal-Mart employees who did greet me or acknowledge me on some level deserve kudos, it was Jeff who defied the peer pressure that exists inside Wal-Mart to disengage from consumers, allowing the kindness of his spirit and warmth of his heart to shine through.
The customer service issues at Wal-Mart are chronic and supported with built-in excuses. Employees don't make enough money. Managers work too many hours. Customers don't expect good customer service, just cheap prices.
I've said it once and will say it again - at what hourly wage has a smile been paid for? What's the income threshold for a "Hi"? What salary must employees earn before their humanity is engaged? And don't believe for one moment that shoppers don't deserve top-notch customer service - smiling, greeting, engaging. We do - every time, all the time. Period.
Jeff's already there. Young man, I hope you continue to evolve, to allow yourself to be happy and to share it with consumers who seek it, need it and deserve it.
They've earned your best, #32. Go get 'em :)
Jonnie Wright is a customer service evaluator and trainer, marketing strategist and radio show host. "The Unsecret Shopper Radio Show" airs Saturday mornings 8-9am on 1350 KRNT. You can email Jonnie at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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