Hello shoppers...

When a person became sick 10,000,000 years ago, they were treated for their illness by being hit with a rock until they stopped complaining. Since we were all simple farmers back then, and because nobody could come up with a better phrase, it was called "buying the farm."

A few years later, the first "farm"acy opened.

Eventually rocks were replaced with Darvon and Dentu-cream and strange favors of potato chips and 1-year photo labs, which got the attention of Charles Walgreen, who needed to make something cool happen because everybody in Chicago thought his last name was lame, even in 1901.

110 years and a lot of drug stores later, Chuck doesn't care what anybody thinks, because he's rich, and dead.

Walgreens, meanwhile, is very much alive, as the largest drugstore chain in the U.S.; its 7,500-ish locations in 50 states cash in on our unwellness to the tune of $60 plus billion annually. Yet Walgreens also offers consumer goods, which means it plays in a very large retail sandbox dominated by the fat kid whose first name is also Wal (no relation).

It would be interesting to know what percentages of Walgreen's shoppers are there for something other than and Nembutal and Nasonex. It would be more interesting to know the percentage of Walgreen's employees who will glad-handle a self-important blogger while he browses deodorant and contemplates Halloween candy. (Fruit roll-ups for the beggars, Reese's mini cups for the beggey.)

We'll go with that second one - in today's Secret Shopper review of Walgreens.

I visited 13 Des Moines area Walgreens  (over three days), thus the 2 part cereal-ized review. (Part 2 is Friday morning, over Cocoa Puffs.) I made stops at the pharmacy, photo developing and check-out counters of each store, plus walked within whispering distance of any employee working the aisles.

Convenience and selection rule Walgreen's crib; is there room in da' house for great customer service?

That's what your stuffy, achy, scratchy, sneezy, dopey Unsecret Shopper wants to find out.

I shopped 'em like this:

We score 'em like this:

  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.

We're looking for this:

Would we get this?

They're on every other street corner in the Metro, stay open 24 hours (most of them) and bank on the idea that sick shoppers shopping for Chloraseptic will also grab a bag of Doritos and a flash drive. So how much of Walgreen's transactional success is actionably powered by employees who smile, greet, engage and thank, four of those Six simple but powerful Pillars of Great Customer Service?

You look a little pale; I'll grab my keys, you ride shotgun (Don't forget your coat, ya nut!) and let us see if Walgreens will happily fill our prescription for great customer service.

(Stores are in the order they were shopped.)

Walgreens 6200 SE 14th

Phone greeting: "Thank you for calling Walgreens, this is Carolyn, how can I help you?" (Pleasant, but slow it down a bit and add a smile, Carolyn!)


This location did okay, although it didn't really start out that way, as Josh, at the photo counter, looked at me and thought that was enough.

As I tell all retail employees, Josh: Empty space can also ignore customers, and it works cheaper. Say hi and smile next time, okay? :)

Chris did better, giving a pleasant "Hi" through a slight smile; followed by the less pleasant "Did you need help finding something?"

Remember, Chris; you've been, to paraphrase Glen Campbell in Rhinestone Cowboy (before your time - roll with it), walkin these aisles so long; that means you know 'em better than we shoppers, who don't, which means we're helpless, which means you never ever ever in your long-legged employee life ask if we need help, because we almost certainly do.

Instead, try the kinder, gentler "What can I help you with?" That, with a "thank you" at the end and a smile throughout, will rock their world, young man. :)

Amanda knew what I just meant, greeting me with a big smile and even bigger "Hello!" in the aisle with hair coloring. Nice job!

I next headed to the pharmacy counter looking for Alli, the uber-expensive over-the-counter weight-loss med. Brittney smiled and engaged a fellow pharmacist but didn't show much enthusiasm for me or my desire to maintain a supermodel's figure, "greeting" me smile -free with the clunky, closed-ended "Can I help you?"

It is typical for employees to share their joy with co-workers and then pull the happy plug when they turn to help customers. It looks bad and feels worse to shoppers.

Brittney, I KNOW you have a huge smile; I saw you using it before I got there. Now just let it linger as you engage me, and that way I'll feel like you're as happy to yak with me as you were with her, even if you weren't. :) Another way to help convey that is to avoid that closed-ended "Can I help you" question at a counter specifically designed and built to help helpless people who need help. Roll instead with an open-ended "What can I help you with?" and leave that beautiful smile right where it was, and you'll make me feel like you own the place, and not some fat cat corporate types in Illinois. :)

Trevor and Karolynn, at the check-out counter, followed Brittney's lead: they smiled and engaged each other, then shut 'er down as they silently rang up my candy bar. I was offered the price, a thank you from Karolynn after I thanked her, and that was that.

As I tell trainees, without smiling, greeting, engaging and thanking customers, you're working your way out of a job. It is not a threat; it is a compassionate reminder of the reality of these economic times. Trevor and Karolynn, you were pleasant enough; now strive to do more than stand and scan, and you'll endear yourselves to patrons, and guarantee yourselves a paycheck.

Overall: Amanda stole the customer service show.

Walgreens 7000 Douglas

Phone greeting: "Walgreens, this is Jenny. Can I help you?" (Very bright and cheerful, but the closed-ended question diminished the impact. Thank 'em for calling, Jenny, then ask what you can help them with, since they're obviously going to need help, otherwise they wouldn't be calling...right? :) )


Karen got the store off on the okay but could have been better foot as I approached her, saying a smile-less "hi" to the floor that was intended for me.

Yoo-hoo! I'm up here, Karen! :) If you look up, I promise that you will also smile, Karen, because there's a lot on this 45 year-old body to laugh about. :)

Stephen showed the slightest dollop of a 100% real whipped cream smile as he approached, through which he uttered a diet Cool-whip, "Finding everything okay?"

Sweeten every shopper's day, Stephen, by assuming they're not finding anything, and instead asking, "What can I help you find?" Uttering that through an ear-to-ear smile will have them going up to your store manager and saying, "I just HAD to tell you what a good job Stephen is doing..."

Robert said "Hello" and looked away; that diminished its authenticity, and made me wonder if I had a stray boog. Instead of flat-out asking, I instead went with, "What are your hours?" Robert enthusiastically rattled them off, but, interestingly, without actually facing me; he instead tilted his head and body at a 90 degree angle to mine, and recited their rather convenient hours of operation.

After Robert finished, he turned, looked at me, and smiled slightly.

Cool beans, Bobby - now do that smiley, head-turney thing while you're engaging me, and it'll feel like you're really engaging me. :)

Lisa missed me when I walked past her, twice, as she worked on some left-brain task (head on a swivel, Lisa - gotta greet those customers!) but smiled when I engaged her about where the Biore strips were (for the football player with a feminine side). She gave me one of the rare "you're welcome"'s in any of the Walgreens locations; now toss in your own "thank you," Lisa, and catch me from the very beginning.

Deanne, at the pharmacy counter, gave a pleasant "hi" and a slight smile, then took me to the Alli, and thanked me at the end. Nice job, Deanne!

At check-out, Roberta said, helpfully, "I can help you over here," then ran out of gas and good with a monotone and rapid-fire, "thankyouhaveagoodnight."

No other way to put it - that's called dropping the ball, Roberta. All the good will expressed by the employees before you will be completely wasted if the checker doesn't act like they give a rat's patooty. Conversely, if  a staff has under-performed up to that point, it's a checker's chance to save the day, and be a customer service hero.

You can be a hero, Roberta - believe it or not. Try the first one. :)

On my way out but back down an aisle first, I encountered a woman whose nametag I could not see but whose joy I could feel, as she smiled broadly and asked how I was doing. Whoever you were, you rock!

Overall: Deanne hit it out of the park, and Miss Anonymous followed with a triple off the wall. Way to represent, girls!

Walgreens 4600 86th Street


Phone greeting: "This is Britt, how may I help you?" (Uh...is Chuck Walgreen in?)


"Help you find anything?" was Duane's opening salvo, with words pleasantly asked but ineffectually chosen. Duane, you can always help a customer find something. It's WHAT they can find that they need help with. So always always always and forever ask your question, based upon this indisputable fact: "What can I help you find?"

Of course, waaaay before that, you should smile first and greet with a salutation - the first two Pillars of Great Customer Service. Knock down the walls that exist between two people who have never met THEN begin to problem-solve for the customer. You were pleasant, Duane. Now be smarter, and better. :)

Renae, at the pharmacy counter, was less engaging than Duane; she offered up a tepid "hi" while she looked at her computer screen (Is that how you get computers to work faster?) then pointed in the direction of the Alli, and said the aisle number - without a thank you.

Don't wear yourself out, Renae! :)

She DID flash the most beautiful smile after I engaged her, which tells me you've got it in ya, young lady. Now use it sooner!

Brooke didn't see me as I walked past while she stared at a photo machine. No problem - left-brain tasks gotta get done. She then looked up at me as I walked past a second time, but still said nothing, which suggests that maybe the answer ain't in her brain.

It's not, Brooke - it's in your heart. (Stop your "corny" asides, readers!)

Your job is important, Brooke, but it's a learned skill, something you were taught and thus, something anyone can learn.

Your right-brain emotive, engaging, nurturing, compassionate, loving part is a talent, something that cannot be taught and that very few people have and even fewer choose to use.

Draw upon your talent, and trust your skills to work. You'll be a happier employee, engaging happier customers and creating a happier world that truly deserves it.

Marlene stocked a shelf in the aisle I moved down next; she didn't see me at first, then looked my way, then looked away, then looked at another customer who was nearby, then looked away. As Marlene ignored us in stereo, the customer finally grew tired of the silence, and asked her a question, at which point Marlene became very engaging.

You can't wait for that moment, Marlene. If you see a patron, say "hi" and ask them how you can help them; that simple question takes the heavy lifting out of their hands and puts it squarely in your capable ones, where it belongs.

I entered a check-out line staffed by Katelynn, who wasn't smiling at anyone, particularly the female customer who was talking on her cell phone while she slooowwly reached for her checkbook. After a few minutes of fumbling she said, "I have to go to the car," and walked away, leaving her items on the counter and a befuddled line of customers behind it.

An agonizingly slow 4 minutes later, Katelynn paged for "help at the check-out." 5 more minutes passed just as quickly as the first, and still without a sign of help, the female customer or a tsunami to at least make things interesting.

Katelynn paged again: "20 come to front," which we were all praying meant, "Somebody take these cans out to the woman in the parking lot and beat her with them."

She never returned.

Three days later Corbin came up, used his key to cancel the transaction and didn't apologize to anyone in the line that had now grown a dozen deep as he began to usher people towards another cash register.

Katelynn, off her game before the incident, was pretty much a wreck; she didn't greet or apologize, looked down the entire time and could only manage a tepid "thank you," said to my receipt.

Overall: Renae was the standout in an under-performing store.

Walgreens 3501 Ingersoll


Phone greeting: "Hi. Thank you for calling Walgreens. How can I help you?" (Nice friendly delivery but a bit too fast - and identify yourself by name. Otherwise, nice job!)


Things got developing at the photo lab counter, where Danny, unsmiling, said "Help you with something?" as I stared, helplessly, at the prices on the wall behind him. Danny did flash a small grin as I asked him about how likely would it be and how much would it cost to develop a very old roll of 35mm film.

"Probably some nice memories on there," he said, very thoughtfully. That's what I'm talking about, Danny! Engage! Engage! Engage! Now throw in a nice "Hi," a sweet "How are you?" and an open-ended "What can I help you with?" before the engagement, and you'll own your own photo lab.

I thanked Danny, to which he responded, "No problem." I get your slang drift, bro'. But add a bit more polish to your response with a simple, authentic "you're welcome."

It's funny how the old ways are still the best. :)

Jennifer took me to the Alli (under lock and key - I TOLD you this stuff is expensive) which was great, but started asking me if there was anything else I needed help with, before she'd finished helping me with the first thing; that made it feel a bit rushed. Danny, from earlier, came up and unlocked the display, while Jennifer did a nice job of explaining the product, and finally smiled at the end. Nice job, Jennifer!

I browsed mascara (I was ready with an "it's for Halloween") for over a minute, no more than three feet from April, who finally noticed a testosterone-dripping he-man in her midst. She turned and said, "Anything I can help you find?"

April, you can't let a patron, especially a dude, stare helplessly at makeup products for 73 seconds without saying boo, then add verbal insult to delay injury by asking if they need help. Instead, ask what you can help me with, 71 seconds sooner.

April (who had just started there) came back with a nice, "Let me know if I can help you find anything." Good recovery, April. :)

Valerie, at the pharmacy desk, uttered the 2nd most beautiful set of six words in the English language (1st being "Somebody posted your bail, Mr. Wright"): "What can I help you with?"


But she wasn't done. Valerie then allowed a fantastic smile to invade her face and kept it there until she said, "Have a great day!" DING! DING! DING! You da pharmacist! You da pharmacist!

Way to work it, young lady. :)

Arberita (sorry if I misspelled your name) continued the glad-handling, with a very pleasant "hi" through an equally nice smile and then said a "thank you" at the end, while she looked me (W)right in the eye.

I floated out of the store.

Overall: Valerie showed every biz on Ingersoll Ave how it's done. Awesome job, Val!!! There was also some nice work by Danny, Jennifer, April and Arberita. You can tell this is a well-managed store. Great job across the board, y'all!

Walgreens 1660 22nd Street


Phone greeting: "Thank you for calling Walgreens. This is (indecipherable) how can I help you?" (You've got most of the right words but they were delivered monotone and rapid-fire, making it sound like you didn't really care about helping me, and were in a rush to not care about helping someone else.)


I started at the photo developing counter, where Jonathan (That's the way to spell it!) wore no smile but gave good eye contact as he asked the not as good, "Anything I can help you with?"

Remember, Jonathan: Anyone coming to your counter is only there for the sole purpose of seeking your assistance. Understand that, and from that understanding, ask the much more organic and appropriate "What can I help you with?" the next time, okay? :)

Jonathan did a good job explaining how little of a chance there was in recovering pics from my 20 year-old roll of film; now smile throughout that explanation, Jonathan, and you'll lessen the customer's disappointment (and embarrassment).

At the pharmacy counter, Jillian gave me a nice but unsmiling "hi" and a not so hot "Can I help you," delivered with all the genuineness one could expect from someone saying it to a computer monitor. Her gazed remained elsewhere as I explained I was looking for Alli, to which she responded by making eye contact with Karen, asked her to direct me where the Alli was at, then went back to her monitor.


Jillian, the last thing I'd ever want a pharmacist to do is to mistakenly use Zanex for a Viagra refill. (Okay, so, depending on who the 'scrip is for, it would be kinda funny.) Having said that, it's equally important that your customers get treated like human beings (which they are) otherwise you're making it easier for them to stay home and order their pills online, which threatens your brick and mortar store, your counter, your job, you and the rest of us, who believe that there's still a place for humanity in retail.

Share yours with someone other than a co-worker. 

Karen, having apparently taken engagement lessons from Jillian, pointed to the Alli aisle, said its number and said nothing else.

Ouch II.

This less than engaging attitude continued, as Kim walked past me without saying a word, but did stop when I asked her what time it was, and was nice enough to find out, and thank me.

My superpower having reared its ugly head (Darn this invisibility!) I was next ignored by Jeffrey in the candy aisle, who stocked it while I browsed it within 12, then 10, then 8 feet of him, until he made his way around the end of the aisle and around to the adjacent one, where he continued to stock.

I was too tired to follow him; but I had a hunch...

30 seconds later, here came Jeffrey, around the corner and right at me. NOW I'd get a greeting...

"Excuse me."

...or not. At least I knew I was back to being a recognizable human form.

After standing beside Jeffrey another 60 ticks without being hi'd, how ya doin'd or smacked upside the head with a bag of Snickers, I finally gave up and engaged him about whether Reese's Mini Cups come in dark chocolate. (I knew the answer: perfection needeth no additional options.)

He told me he didn't think they did and then went back to stocking.

Things got decidedly better at check-out....

Actually I'm yankin your chain - they stayed bad, with an employee whose name started with an "A" (sorry I didn't see it). It wasn't Apathetic, but his verbal tone, body language and overall vibe certainly qualified. He mumbled "How you doin" with his head down, told the floor to have a good day and was wearing a very pretty cross on a long chain around his neck, which, while I'm personally very much in favor of the statement and the sentiment, was inappropriate for professional attire in the workplace.

Retail is a grind. Employees work long hours, on their feet, for low wages. The work is often mind-numbingly repetitive and usually thankless.

Yet I ask trainees this all the time: At what hourly rate will you smile at customers? What salary will it take before you feel like patrons are worth engaging? What benefit will your company have to give you, to buy your expression of thanks to the people who make your paycheck possible?

Misery is as much a habit as a mandate. For those who choose to be happy, or at least pursue it, their joyous journey is available to the world for free, thus making it priceless.

Overall: Jeffrey actually had the most energetic, engaging vibe - I think he just forgot to share it, or perhaps there's negative peer pressure in this store not to achieve. The store has a leadership vacuum, and is under-performing because of it.

Walgreens 12753 University Avenue

Phone greeting: "Thank you for calling your 24 hour Walgreens in Clive. This is Stephanie, how can I help you?" (Bright happy voice with a slow, controlled delivery; made it feel like she really meant it. Awesome job, Stephanie!)


I stood within 4 feet and eyeshot of Sarah for 30 seconds before she spoke up: "Finding everything okay?" she asked without a smile, but pleasantly enough.

First, the 10 second rule is dead; customers expect immediate engagement, and when that doesn't come, their endorphins begin to swim in the wrong direction (Introduction to Psychology, Iowa State University, 1984: D-). So get to me sooner, Sarah.

Second, if you're going to make a customer search for half a minute unattended, the last thing you want to break the ice with is a closed-ended question. It's bad on its own, twice as bad when delivered after a delay. Instead, ask, "What can I help you with?" That's what pros use, the pros that make the kind of money you want to make, Sarah. :)

Third, above all else, bring your smile to the party, Sarah. It by itself can make customers forgive you for the times you're not on your game.

Fair enough?

Wendy, a pharmacist, showed Sarah how it's done, greeting me with "Hi. How can I help you?" through a slight smile, that she super-sized a few seconds later. Way to go! You could have said "thank you" to add some polish at the end, Wendy, but you shared your joy which was obviously genuine, and it was beautiful to behold. Nice job, Wendy!

Onto the photo lab I roamed, where Carrie greeted with an unsmiling "Hello"...................then nothing; we stood there in the awkward vacuum created when an employee doesn't follow up the greeting with a nice big fat open-ended "What can I help you with?" for a few seconds, until I asked my question. 

Carrie was pleasant and made good eye contact, forgot a "thank you" but did give a nice "have a nice day," and really lit things up right before that when she flashed a HUGE smile in response to some dumb joke of mine. You've got all the pieces, young lady - now put 'em all together, and you'll have me buying rolls of film for cameras I don't even own. :)

I walked up to the check-out, where Leonard was just finishing up a conversation on the phone. He hung up and then began telling me what he'd been conversing about before he hung up. That probably goes into the "more information than I need to know" bin, Leonard, and should be substituted for a smile, a greeting, some engaging chit-chat and a thank you.

Just a thought. :)

Overall: Wendi was the customer service stud. Nice job! This store has some good people with a lot of hidden energy and a ton of customer service potential. Store manager, tell them that and then turn 'em loose!

Walgreens 15601 University

Phone greeting: "Thank you for calling Walgreens. How may I help you?" (Good pace but delivered monotone, which removes the authenticity of the words. Add your name, and be happier when you answer - callers will love it!)


Stephen got the customer service train rollin with a big wet "Hello!" from behind the check-out counter, as I entered - the first and only checker to so greet me. Nice job, Stephen!

Back by the reading glasses rack, I walked past a woman without a nametag several times without getting so much as a head nod.

I gave up, and engaged her:

"Do you know what time it is?"

"I don't work for Walgreens. I work for the eyeglass company," she replied, with the warmth of a stethoscope fresh out of the freezer.

Oh. Do they only hire people who can't tell time?

Even if someone working in a store is a vendor, it doesn't give them license to act like a disrespectful erk-jay. Customers see everyone who works in a store as an employee of that store - seems reasonable, even if her response wasn't.

See if I buy my next pair of reading glasses (which would be my first pair) from you, lady!

Kristen, working behind the pharmacy counter, thawed me out with a warm "hi" and a wonderfully open-ended "How can I help you?" but sorta dropped the ball when she pointed to the aisle the Alli was in instead of taking me to it (there was no one in line behind me), then didn't thank me as she quickly turned away and went back to doing her pharmacist stuff.

Kristen, everything you do in that pharmacy is important, even heroic, and I get that. You also seemed like a very nice person, and so I know you'll get this: put that niceness on display in a big way by going the extra mile (30 feet), and make some clue-less dude feel spoiled. And if not that, at least thank him for coming to see you, as the one person he trusts enough in the whole place to ask where something is - something we all know that men are great at.

I next headed towards the cold medicines, where Brian offered a pleasant "hi" but not another word for the 2+ minutes I read labels while he stocked, six feet away.  I moved past him and to the other side, where he again said "hi" (which was great) but never pulled the trigger on a "What can I help you find?"

Finally I engaged him about where I might find toothbrush irradiators (something I saw on Spike TV's 10,000 Ways To Die). He pointed at the area behind me that offered the most promise for such a product, said they used to carry them, apologized nicely for no longer having them but didn't thank me or smile, at that point or any before it.

It's cool as the other side of the Crest tube that you don't have certain products, Brian; I can floss. But you can dull the patron pain associated with the lack of their instant gratification by thanking them at the end, and smiling at them throughout.

I moved onto the refrigerated racks full of dozens of brands and flavas of sodas, where my internal battle raged on for four minutes. (Sugary or calorie free? Decaf or fully leaded? The pretty yellow stuff or the cool looking blue goop?) Meanwhile, Jason, no more than 3 feet away, stocked silently. He walked past me later in another aisle without saying a word.

Engage me, Jason. Ask me how I'm doing, how's my search for the perfect soda going, have I tried the new triple caffeinated Mountain Dew III: Arrhythmia In A Can!? Don't miss the opportunity to get to know a customer who has chosen your store to shop in, rather than the 123 others between him and you that sell exactly what you do. A customer's a big deal, Jason; understand that, and act accordingly. Okay? :)

JoAnne, working the photo counter, "got" it; she engaged me with a huge smile and equally humongous "HI!" Her smile stayed in place as we exchanged some chit-chat about my roll of 20 year old film (of Bigfoot, body surfing) that had no shot at producing pics - but she'd sure give it a try.

She ended our conversation with a great smile and a "Have a great day!" and meant it.

On my way out the door, Stephen said, "have a good day." Back to back good wishes - great job, you two!

Overall: Joanne is a customer service rock star. Stephen is one in the making.

Think I've been unfair with my secret shopper review of Walgreens, or any other store? Let me have it.

Jonnie Wright is the President and CEO of The Buyosphere, a customer service training, marketing and recruiting company based in Des Moines, Iowa.









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