The Unsecret Shopper Goes Shopping: Walmart Redux
Seven months ago four days from now, I wrote a Secret Shopper customer service review of a small mom and pop store in Des Moines that was struggling to keep its doors open. (Click here to read it.)
Due entirely to the massive exposure and subsequent public interest my insightful, resonant analysis generated for said insignificant and unknown merchandiser, it eked out enough revenue to keep its lights on and its payroll met.
Today, Walmart continues to limp along: 8,000 stores, 15 countries, $400 billion in annual sales, 2 million employees and they just bought the Sun. (Look for its smiley face - but not directly into it!)
What might appear equally spacey is intentionally taking another Secret Shopping orbit around Walmart's 150,000 square footage, at 73rd and University in Windsor Heights.
Why, young Storewalker?
First, there's what Joe Becker, Walmart's very kind, very thoughtful store manager told me at the time, in reaction to his store's less than stellar Secret Shopper review: (Click here to read more of his response.)
"We're not where we want to be yet - we're not where I want us to be," he said back in March. "Obviously our number one goal is to meet and greet every customer that comes through the door, which is so important because it's easier to keep the customers we have than to go find new ones."
Straight up, right on, Amen, whoo-whoo, ditto.
Joe said he was going to share the review with his employees.
"The key is to use this feedback to get better."
Cool training beans; that's the goal.
Joe also suggested that the huge remodeling project taking place at the time may have distracted employees, compromising their ability to provide proper customer service.
Makes perfect hammerin' sawin' sense.
One month later the re-do was fini; Walmart celebrated its "grand re-opening" on April 23rd, according to a corporate press release. (Read the rest of it by clicking here.)
The saws are silent; the hammers just sit there, waiting to hurt the next dude's thumb. Time for a review redux.
Will it be better than the last time through? There are things in favor of that last thing being yes: I've been inside this Walmart location over a dozen times since. I recognized many of the same faces from March as I perused. I went in dressed like a Walmart manager (on a humble blogger's salary.)
One thing to keep in mind: Walmart has no formal Secret Shopper program, according to Joe. "They used to do different things in specific areas, but I don't see it being used as a whole," he said at the time.
While some semblance of customer service training goes on inside this (and all) Walmart(s), verifying its veracity does not.
That's what your friendly neighborhood Unsecret Shopper is here to do: veracitize.
Here's how we'll score it:
One trip through - how will they do on the redux?
You've got the "to buy" list, I'll grab a basket. Let's go (re)shopping!
I walked through Walmart's entrance at 1:44pm and was ignored (as were two other people walking out) by Nick the greeter (hired to not let shoppers feel ignored) at 1:44:04.
Nick, not to state the obvious but you're the greeter; without a greeting, you're an ungreeting greeter and I can promise you they don't make as much money as those who do.
Don't miss the chance to smile, greet and engage customers - with emphasis on "greet." :)
A female employee whose name tag I didn't see but whose glasses and dark hair I did spot, ignored my hair, my glasses and me from 3 feet away in the candle aisle as I sniffed and she stocked, unhappily mumbling to herself as she did about something else she had to do.
0-2, I moved onto the paint counter, where Jesse got me into the win column with an unsmiling, closed-ended and too informal "Finding everything okay, man?" delivered while he looked at the floor. (A win's a win.)
I appreciated the gesture, Jesse. Now smile, look your customer in the eye as you say it and say it in an open-ended way: What can I help you with? That way feels like you really mean it - and I know you did. :)
Next up was Carol at the automotive repair desk, who was talking to a customer while looking down, which was probably just as well because she said, "We don't do that kind of repair work. You'll have to take it to a regular mechanic."
I assume she didn't mean a mechanic who has no trouble pooping.
I suspect Carol didn't know that she was implying that Walmart's mechanics aren't as skilled as those at other auto repair facilities. Granted, if they can't do the work, maybe they're not. It just sounded a little weird.
Dave, also behind the counter, watched me browse car batteries for several minutes without a "Hey stupid, remember, you drive a Prius."
I finally walked up to Nisha (sorry if I'm not spelling that correctly) who was working beside Carol and Dave and who greeted with an unsmiling but open-ended "What can I do for you?"
She did a nice job of coming out from behind the counter and showing me where a large container of oil was located (I made up a price I'd seen "in the newspaper," and they actually had it). She was friendly and engaging along the way, called me "hon" and looking me in the eye. Nice job, Nisha! Now toss in a smile at the beginning that you flashed towards the very end, and you'll be as electrifying as the batteries I didn't need, but with a greeting that I'll definitely want. :)
Nisha - who has lived in Iowa and worked at this Walmart for two years - did sorta take a step backwards after I told her she looked familiar (in order to ask her name, since her name tag was dangling from a cord around her neck and was turned away from me).
"I'm always over at Hy-Vee," she smiled. "Maybe that's where you've seen me. I'm cheating on Walmart but I always go to Hy-Vee."
That's probably it.
Over by the fabric, an older woman whose name I didn't get asked me the clunky "Can I help you find something" but said it even though my back towards her, which I loved. She made me feel even more engaged after I asked her where the blankets were, by physically taking me to them - a pretty good schlep. I'm so sorry I didn't see your name tag, but thank you for being so sweet and thoughtful!
That great customer service moment was punched in the stomach by the 20 minutes of being ignored by the big screen TV's.
Alice blew me off first, walking past me without acknowledgement as I checked out one of the 35 televisions on display. Jasmina watched me walk past in front of her a half-dozen times as I browsed the same flat screens, apparently deciding that the video games she was stocking were more important than the customer she was ignoring. Leslie didn't want to break up the string and didn't, glancing at me as I approached her at the counter then immediately looking back down. Hilarie completed the four-in-a-row, looking down as she approached, glancing up as she was almost on top of me then deftly stepping aside without deftly saying something to someone she nearly ran over.
I decided to give Leslie another chance, mainly because everyone else had split. I checked out pre-paid phones while she worked about 10 feet away on an end display. I moved closer, rummaging through packages, reading the back of boxes aloud like I was sitting at the breakfast table reading the south end of a north bound box of Cheerios; still no Cheerio! from the decidedly less-than-cheery-looking Leslie.
Drastic measures time: I slid across and right beside her, checking out the phones she'd just placed on the wire rack. For 30 bizarre seconds she still remained silent, even reaching around me at one point to secure a phone in a box to a wire on the wall. (Maybe this customer will go away if I don't say anything.)
Finally, perhaps noticing that I was close enough to her for us to be considered married in Missouri, Leslie said, pointing at a display phone above the row of boxed ones: "That's what they look like." It wasn't exactly Hi! How are you? I'd love to tell you about that phone you've been admiring - great choice! but it beat being looked through like a just-cleaned window.
Leslie, my guess is that you have a most extraordinary smile and engaging manner; but until you actually use it, I'm just guessing. So use it next time and make me (W)right. Okay? :)
I moved onto cameras and began checking one out when Serge engaged me in short order.
"Impressive, isn't it," he said with a delightful soft-sell old-school charm. "Oh, they've come so far - let me show you something else."
He led me around to a nicer Canon Powershot, which didn't cooperate in allowing him to demonstrate some feature on it. No big deal and not your fault, Serge, but it did kinda let the air out of the moment.
The remaining oxygen was sucked out of it by John, who sat a stack of CD's down hard on a nearby counter, glanced at me with an even harder scowl, then got back to the act of being PO'd and letting everyone know it.
We all get frustrated on occasion, especially at work, John. It must be a great challenge to work at a store as busy as Walmart, where employees rarely have a moment on the floor when they're not being watched by customers.
It's possible I could have misinterpreted your demeanor, John. So to avoid any misunderstandings in the future, please put a smile on your face as best you can, and above all else, be easy with merchandise; anything less makes customers think you're angry, either with them or with the store, and either way it feels the same.
Back to Serge...
He began talking about "zoning" (prompted by my question of why a manager-type had walked past and said, "Serge - watch your zone."), which is the stocking and organizing of a particular department in the store so it looks clean and neat and presentable to shoppers.
Serge mentioned that zoning in his TV/home electronics section was ongoing, while other sections did it at 2, 6 and 9pm. He then said that he spends "up to five or ten minutes with each customer who is looking at TV's."
Did you give my 10 minutes to someone else?
"It's the most profitable department in the store," he continued. "We can make up to $150 profit on a television."
Except on the one that I didn't buy earlier.
At that point Serge turned and walked over to help another customer - just like that.
Is this part of my 10 minutes?
Let me emphasize that Serge was a very nice man, very charming. But he made the conversation primarily about himself and the store (which was, admittedly, interesting) and not about the customer (which was, admittedly, depressing, since he never asked whether I was looking for a camera, a TV or a nuclear bomb) and that's not going to help profits.
I loved the stories, Serge. Now ask me to share a few of my own. :)
I encountered the first smile of the day, compliments of Kelly, who, from 15 feet away and without any good reason to, flashed a slight grin at me as I caught her eye. She really showed off her pearly whites when I asked her for the time, and even said "you're welcome" (and meant it) after I thanked her. Awesome job, Kelly!
By the DVD racks, Myles said, "Hi sir, how are you?" while he looked at the floor, diminishing the sincerity of the words by about 90%.
As I browsed DVD's for the next 6 minutes, it was deja-poo all over again as Serge, Bill and Myles talked to each other, stocked the nearby shelves, walked behind me, reached around me (literally brushing past my shoulder, twice) and somehow managed to totally ignore me.
How in the name of Casper, The Friendly Ghost are three employees so unfriendly?
Guys, I know I've lost a lot of weight, but please! I'm right there. Say hi to me. Ask me what I'm looking for. Thank me for shopping in your (very profitable) section.
The flat-out truth is that by denying a customer's reality - by not engaging them as a human being who is no more than a CD case-width from you, you're making it easy for Walmart to bring in robots and computers and scanners and technology and eliminate your positions. You're working your way out of jobs. It's truly not a threat; it's simply the reality of 21st Century retail.
That reality continued as I checked out bags of potato chips for nearly two minutes while Najil silently did the same immediately beside me, doing a fabulous job of turning all the food face forward ala Julia Roberts in Sleeping With The Enemy.
Crystal made up for Najil's ambivalence by unambivalently stopping beside me and asking, "You look lost - do you need help?" through a slight smile and while carrying a ladder. Without the ladder, great. With it, awesome. Awesome job, Crystal!
Annie, in the men's shoe aisle, said a quick but unsmiling "hello" as I browsed and she stocked, then said nothing else for the three minutes we breathed each other's air. She was eventually joined by Margo, who probably figured Annie had asked what she could do for me and so didn't repeat it.
Chuck, obviously a manager, walked by quickly but still saw fit to flash a very nice smile my direction and for no particular reason, before he was out of eyeshot.
Bev was talking to Cathy, Deana (forgive me if that's spelled wrong) and Brandi and so missed the fact that a grown man was looking at grown women tops, literally three feet from where they were kibitzing.
I moved on to browse the men's underwear aisle, where two women were having a conversation three feet away and in the same aisle about which one zoned better. Is this a No Greet zone?
Branie folded women's tops wearing a huge frown, but turned it into a wonderful smile when I engaged her. Now lose that first thing and use that second thing, okay? :)
Jelani provided one of the biggest surprises of the night, behind the Customer Service desk:
"How can I help you?"
Awesome! The second open-ended question of the night, and at the one counter where it makes the most sense! Now don't forget to smile when you say it, young man and you'll be doing that customer service sign above your head, proud.
It was time to buy my stuff and hit the road. Sherrill, the cashier said a quick "hello" at the beginning and an even quicker "thanks" at the end, addressing each one to her feet; hey, where's mine?
The floor gets way too many greetings, Sherrill. Look 'em in the eye and smile. They'll likely return the favor. :)
The last interaction of the day was with Jadranka, a new greeter who had me singing a familiar tune: "You Won't See Me." (I prefer Anne Murray's remake over the Beatles original.) I brushed past her unsmiling face, ungreeted and unacknowledged, then stepped back and asked her the time, to which she responded with the largest most beautiful smile I'd seen all day.
Try that at the beginning, Jadranka and you'll be greeting people into your own store. :)
At 3:20pm, an hour and a half after I'd started, I stuck a fork in myself, and headed home.
Adding up the numbers, here's how the two Secret Shopper visits compare, using the Pillars of Great Customer Service:
Walmart in March: (2 trips through)
51 employees encountered
8 greetings (salutation/open-ended question)
3 engagements (problem solving/chit-chat)
Walmart on Tuesday: (one trip through)
28 employees encountered
6 greetings (salutation/open-ended question)
2 engagements (problem solving/chit-chat)
I suspect store manager Joe Becker won't be terribly thrilled with these results.
Yet you can see marginal improvement in the area of greetings; more per employee capita. The other numbers were basically static. There were also some customer service standouts, like the older woman who took me to the blankets, and Crystal, the ladder-toting helper.
Yet for those positive positive customer service moments at Walmart, there was still a chronic amount of denying of reality and lack of basic human displays of kindness. Whether that's because of a broken customer service training program, or a corporate culture that stresses stacking it high and watching it fly over smiling and saying "hi," and "bye," it's hard to say.
Either way, it feels the same to shoppers.
In the end, very little appears to have really changed in the past half a year plus, in terms of the quality of customer service being offered at the Walmart on 73rd Street in Windsor Heights. That doesn't make the managers and employees bad, just typical.
Human behavior typically does not change easily - it takes time. We are tough nuts to crack, we humans, with our habits and rituals and stuff. But without diligence, commitment, focus, accountability and a belief that there's something in it for the ones who are being asked to change, there will be none.
That very topic will be discussed in depth this Saturday morning 8-9am on The Unsecret Shopper Radio Show on 1350 KRNT, as I talk with a local psychologist about whether or not we can truly change, and if so, how?
What won't change is Walmart's business philosophy of emphasizing cheap prices and low wages - they appear to be doing fairly well with it.
Yet imagine what would happen if they made an equally strong commitment to improve the quality of their customer service. Imagine who they'd put out of business then. We'd have Walmart Hospitals, Walmart Auto Dealers, Walmart Theaters, Walmart Housing Projects, Walmart Customer Service Trainers...
Keep denying our reality, y'all.
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.
Click to email Jonnie (firstname.lastname@example.org)