Hello shoppers... 


One of the nearest and dearest stores to our Iowa hearts is our very own Younkers, which was started in Keokuk in 1856 by Lipman, Samuel and Marcus Younker as a way for the three brothers to be able to afford to buy their kids a PlayStation .0001, which at the time was a coffee can with a rock inside it and still cost $1,250.99 in today's coin. 

It doesn't take watching a Nick at Nite rerun of Quantum Leap to know that the three Polish immigrants worked their dupas off, smiling, greeting, engaging, thanking and following up (my Five Pillars of Great Customer Service) to make a go of it. 

And go they did. 

From that one humble store opened 154 years ago sprang a retail mini-empire, encompassing 49 stores across 7 Midwestern states staffed by thousands of hard-working employees who help generate over half a billion dollars in annual retail sales for Younkers - which was bought by Proffits which also bought Saks which later sold Younkers which was bought by Bon-Ton in 2006, making Lipman, Samuel and Marcus multi-millionaires a century and a half too late. 

All that corporate shuffling tells us a little about the fickle nature of the business of general merchandising. What tells us more is our wallets, which we've opened for what Younkers sells about 4% more in the first eight months of 2010 than we did in the same period last year, which stunk - so you'll forgive retailers for not jumping up and down. 

To what extent employees help make any store's retail revenue needle go up and down - in my world, it's a lot - is the focus of today's Secret Shopper review of Younkers, at The Merle Hay Mall. 

This particular Younkers location holds sway over hearts and minds old enough to remember it as the site of the most deadly retail fire (ten employees perished) in Des Moines history: Sunday, November 5th, 1978.  

A devastated community recovered; the store was rebuilt and eventually relocated 17 feet to the west at its current and spacious 165,000 square foot digs. 

So how well would today's Younkers' employees uphold their end of the customer service promise that every company makes, either stated or implied, when they build their cribs and hang their shingles? 

That's what your friendly crib-checkin shingle-shoppin Unsecret Shopper wanted to find out. 

I secret shopped Younkers twice on a Tuesday, looking "Younkers spiffy" on my first, early-morning jaunt (since that's where I bought the "Jonathan" outfit) and "homeless beachcomber" on my second, evening foray.  



                    "Jonathan"                                     "Jonnie"    


My rating for each visit is based upon the following scale:


  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.    


Younkers' branding statement is: Come To The Right Place. 

The customer service question we want to answer is: How (W)right is it, once we get there? 


Staff interaction/Jonathan    



I entered Younkers south-side doors at 10:46am on a Tuesday morning that threatened rain, and would more than deliver. 

The thing I immediately noticed was that a nice oval-shaped sign hangs above every check-out counter register. It says, "At Your Service." 

Wow - great touch. Service away! 

I approached Sandy in Women's Apparel as she was living up to the promise of the sign above her head, delivering some nice friendliness to a female customer at a register counter. 

Sandy glanced up at me (awesome!) then looked back down (poopy!) without smiling, waving or acknowledging me. 

If you're going to look a shopper in the eye, Sandy, don't forget to toss in a smile (I know yours is gorgeous because I saw you flash it at someone else); otherwise, it feels like we're not important enough to get one. :) 

Mary, standing at another counter that I passed within 10 feet of, didn't get to the look/shopper/eye dealio because she was eyeballing her register. 

This is a big Buyosphere training point for employees who are often engaged in left-brain tasks: Head on a swivel, look 'em in the eye and smile. 

Like this, Mary!   

         (This is a paid model and not a member of The Buyosphere training staff.) 

Off in the not-too-distant distance and quickly closing, I heard a woman plaintively asking, "Help? Is there anybody who can help me? Hello? Anybody?" 

Come on, lady! Open-ended question! Get with the program! 

Her pleading continued as she approached me. I was hoping she wasn't a Secret Shopper - because her having to beg for a Younkers employee to help her was really going to look bad in her report.  

The woman - who was looking for a 3x robe - was quickly approached by Pat, who used a 1/2x greeting, asking the one question you can't ask of someone whose woeful cry for help is reverberating throughout your store. 

"Can I help you?" 

Nawwwww. She's fine! Just some old lady freakin out! 

It had gone from Walmart (click to read the review) to raTget (click to read the review) to American TV and Appliance (click to read the review, and cry) within 5 minutes and 500 retail feet. 

I'll come back to Pat's closed-ended question in a minute, since there are a few more coming.  

#2 of a few came almost immediately and from Sara, who asked "Need help finding anything?" as she came up to me. 

As has been stated a time or two amongst the weekly secret shopper reviews in this here bloggin dealio-dough, closed-ended questions (those that require a "yes" or "no" answer) asked by people paid and entrusted to help us, of shoppers wandering around an unfamiliar retail setting like a cow navigating an M.C. Escher drawing... 


                                                          (Now you know.)  

...are really not the optimum questions of engagement for people in retail to ask. 

They basically smell like the north end of that south-bound cow. 

Instead, Sara, try, "What can I help you with?" It sounds and feels (and smells) better, like you're really interested in my answer, which I know you really were because you approached me with a beautiful smile and pleasant manner.  

I was next engaged by Marcia in Bedding, who started our conversation with a clunky "Are you doing okay?" but then did a good job of explaining the different thread counts for different comforters, and even flashed a quick smile before she walked away. 

Nice job, Marcia! 

Lu was standing at the Bedding counter but didn't greet or acknowledge me as I stopped and browsed about 12 feet from her. 

Lu's face lit up when I engaged her, asking about Younkers' layaway program (which they don't have). That's groovy gravy, Lu, but the impetus is on you to start the convo - don't miss the opportunity, because you were wonderful after that!  

I moved into an area of Younkers which offers picture frames, candles and other knickknacks, stopping at a Willow Tree collectibles display to browse for a while, while Jean engaged two women at the check-out counter. 

Let me stop here and share this observation.  

In the entire time I spent inside Younkers that morning, I probably saw 50-60 customers. All of them were female, except my tie-wearing self.   

That suggests, at least in my mind, that I shoulda kinda sorta kinda stood out, if even just in a creepy way. (Read the secret shopper review of Jordan Creek Mall and Real Estate Agents.) 

But even if it had been a 50-50 gender mix, all of us, as shoppers, should stand out to employees. After all, we're moving, and the mannequins aren't, unless they're in a Twilight Zone classic.   

Granted, Jean was chatting and having a very nice time with two customers. No problem - you were great with those women, Jean! But after spending 6-7 minutes within 20 feet of you and doing a dozen laps around the display, I wanted some of that smiley, greetey Jean stuff, too, even if it's just a quick "I'll be right with you!"  

Catch me next time, okay? :) 

Deb did eventually approach me at the display, asking an unsmiling "Can I help you?" which felt even more closed-ended and joyless since I'd been waiting for some time. But she did a very nice job of explaining the collectibles, talking about some discounts if I'd open a Younkers charge card and pointing out some lesser priced figurines on the discontinued shelf. 

She also introduced herself: "My name is Debbie. Let me know if you need anything." Awesome job, Deb - except you didn't toss in a smile. Back to the awesomeness - you also did a nice job of describing the left-brain details, which are 25% of selling anything. 

Now don't forget the other 75%: sell me the joy of ownership, by expressing your own. :) 

"Hello! How are you today?" asked a smiling Mary as I walked back through some women's clothing displays. Nice! 

I moved onto the Jewelry counter, where Pat greeted with a nice "Hello" salutation, followed by a "Can I help you find anything?" dead fish upside my head. 

No, I'll help myself, thank you. Got a hammer? 

I told Pat I was looking for a gift for my girlfriend. She started explaining the features of the costume jewelry in front of us, which was fine. But I might have drug my guilty-conscience-cause-I-take-my-girlfriend-for-granted self over to the more expensive stuff and started pimping. Again, I'm dressed up pretty good, Pat and may be a man who can afford a $4,000 necklace. Why start me at the $40 earrings? You can always go down; it's much harder going up. 

Pat, like other Younkers employees, did a nice job of describing the product's benefits. But you can't let the gems you're selling smile more than you, Pat. Otherwise, it feels too transactional and not enough emotional - and emotion is what drives us dorks to buy your bedazzling wares for the female peeps we dig, more than any other wares in the store. 

Jo D walked past, saw me browsing and asked, "Help you find anything?" 

Next up: Judy, at the Cosmetics counter: "Help you find anything?" 

Fatima, also working the Cosmetics area, broke up the three of a kind with a simple, sweet "Hi!" through a beautiful smile. 

Toss in a nice open-ended question, Fatima and I would have dropped $500 on some Estee Lauder, and I'm still working on half a compact of Max Factor. 

Next I browsed some sunglasses, as Marilyn approached. 

"Can I help you?" she asked. 

"I'm looking for a present for my girlfriend," I said. 

"Let me know if you need any help," she responded...and walked away. 

Uhh...didn't I just do that? 

At the Men's Fragrance counter, Peggy was having what sounded like a personal conversation on the phone, talking about the approaching storm. 

Spotting me, she moved the phone down, looked up and, smiling, asked, "Need some help?" 

Looks like you're busy - I'll come back! 

I told her I was just looking, at which point she put the phone back to her ear and continued talking, until two customers approached. 

"I'll have to call you back." 

No no, your call sounds important. Let 'em find their own Aqua Velva! 

I needed a shot of testosterone. I walked over to Men's Clothing, where Steve and Larry were talking as I approached, but immediately stopped and greeted me with big smiles and "Hi, how are you?"  

Cool beans! Dudes are representin! Gonna show the ladies how it's done! Ohhhh yeaaaaahhhh! 

I began browsing in Steve's section and spent 3-4 minutes looking at some very nice shirts, within Steve's eyeshot, while he worked on something else. 

He started to approach me - ohhhh yeaaaaaaahhhh! - then walked past, and to a customer at his check-out counter. 

Oh. Yeah. 

Larry, now back by his own check-out counter, asked that ole' Younkers standard, "Can I help you?" as I walked up to him. 

Then the total stud of that morning's visit emerged. 

Mary Ann, working alongside Larry, said the nicest, biggest, sweetest, most genuine "Hello! How are you?" through the most radiant ear-to-ear-to-nose-to-chin smile, that threatened to take up her entire face. 

We chatted a bit. How could I not? 

Mary Ann had worked at the Downtown Younkers store for 21 years, had been at the Merle May Mall location for 6, and obviously still lamented the closing of the first, even while it was obvious that she was incredibly happy to be working at the second - and just happy, period. 

You're the person I tell companies to hire, Mary Ann: Hire happy. Train skills. Awesome! 

I walked back to the Jewelry counter, where Michael had just stepped out and locked the short door into the center employee area behind him when he spotted some dumb (secret shopper) gem browser. He doubled back, re-entered his area and, unsmiling and head down, said, "Hi, how are you? Anything I can help you find today?" 

I understand that you may have been bummed about not being able to get where you were heading, Michael. But don't take me being there, personally. I just want to buy something pretty for my woman, from a man I can trust. I want him to be you, and for you to want to be him, too. :) 

I moved into a clothing area that looked like it might be for somewhat older women. There, Margaret - my back to her - said, pleasantly enough, from behind the counter, "Hello sir. Can I help you, sir?" 

Your greeting was very polite, Margaret. It would have had even more impact had you walked out and around, and delivered it face to face. Remember, I'm a dude who may have some money, shopping for my mom and lost in chick attire; glad-handle me a bit, alleviate my anxiety. And please drop the "sir." What should you replace it with? My name - ask for mine, use it, and toss in yours, if you really want to take "polite" to a whole 'nother level. :) 

Margaret did a nice job of trying to figure out what my mom might like. I pointed at some clothes in her section, and said they looked like stuff Mom wore. 

Instead of taking me towards them, she pointed the opposite way, over my head and at a point way down the aisle, and said, "That sounds like Alfred Dunner. It's down that way. That's what older women typically wear."  

Oh. You mean, like that stuff 15 feet away, that I just pointed at? 

The other problem with Margaret's response is that she didn't ask me how old my mom was. I could have been adopted (something my mother wished, on occasion). Mom could have been my step-mom, someone closer to my own age, even younger. Who knows? Margaret didn't, because she forgot to ask. 

I dutifully walked towards the general area where Margaret had pointed, then decided to go back and give her another chance. 

"What was the name of the designer you mentioned?" 

This got Margaret out from behind the counter and properly taking me to the Alfred Dunner line. 

No, she still didn't ask me if Mom wore a thong to work, or Depends. But this time Margaret was wonderfully engaging, pointing out different outfits, asking about colors I'd seen Mom wear and doing a great job of doing what she'd not done the first time. 

Awesome work, Margaret! 

On that awesome note, I left the Younkers store, at 12:06pm - an hour and 20 minutes after I'd started. 


Staff interaction/Jonnie  



Just over six hours later, I was back at the Younkers south entrance, at 6:44pm. 

Francine, in the women's clothing area, was pushing a cart full of merchandise as she approached me. 

Would she break the string of 12 consecutive closed-ended questions asked by Younkers staff earlier that day? 

"Welcome to Younkers! My name is Francine. Thank you so much for stopping and shopping with us today. Please tell me your name, and how I can be of service." 

Just kiddin. Actually she said, "Hello, sir. Is there anything in particular you're looking for?" 

That would be considered amazing customer service at some retail stores, Francine. Two of them that come to mind have "mart" in their name. But your beautiful Younkers store demands more (actually, so do the Mart's) so make sure you go with something open-ended, and please, I beseech ye, drop the "sir," even though you come from a time when that seemed appropriate. Now it just feels stuffy, formal and an impediment to really getting to know your shoppers - who will really enjoy getting to know you. Promise. :) 

I walked over to women's outdoor jackets and began browsing them. Jenn was around 20 feet away, stocking a display. And there we each stayed, for over 15 minutes, with me browsing, looking, taking coats off racks, examining labels, putting them back, making more noise, to quote Foghorn Leghorn, than a skeleton throwin a fit on a hot tin roof - unattended. 

That can't happen, Jenn. You've got to put down your left brain task and walk the 6 steps over to me and help me, as a man who clearly needs it. 

When I finally gave up and walked past Jenn, I asked her for the time (to read her nametag). 

"Six fifty-thee," she said, without a smile and then turned away, writing the opening lines for the script to the sequel, That can't happen II

I'm easy pickens, Jenn; I'm a dude in a store whose clientele must be 80% female. I'm the guy you sell a lot of stuff to, so the next four women who really are "just looking," just don't matter as much. You have it in you - I can see it. You just need permission to let your natural joy and engaging manner come out and play. 

Granted. Now go knock customer's socks off - then sell them some new pairs. :) 

I walked over to the women's bras, where 5 minutes passed before Michelle came over and said, "If there's anything you need, just let me know." 

Is this a trick question? 

Michelle, you seemed nice. I saw you flash a huge smile at another customer. Now bring that with you when you engage me, and actually engage me. Then I won't feel quite so stupid staring at cup sizes. :) 

I asked Michelle if Younkers offers layaway. 

"No. A lot of stores have restarted doing that, or are starting - Walmart, Target. But not us." 

Okay. Soooo, like, where's the nearest Walmart? 

You can tell me you don't do it, Michelle. But I'd keep who does do it, to yourself.   

Bev came up to me in Bedding and, without a smile, asked my 2nd least-favorite question: "Can I help you with anything?" (First least? Can I see your license, registration and insurance?)  

I also asked her the layaway question. She handled it pretty well, but could have asked me what I wanted to layaway and why, then problem-solved. 

In training I always stress to employees to ask the extra question. It will almost always shed light on something an employee didn't know and may give them a better solution to the customer's problem. 

Back at the Willow Tree collectibles, I spent 12 minutes checking out the display while Gary stood at the check-out counter, ignoring me (and two other customers who walked past him) but engaging the register. 

You're traveling down Jenn's road, Gary, into a neighborhood that she'll be abandoning after she reads this review. You may want to consider relocating. 

Ignoring a customer is a good way to lose them, along with revenue, market share, the store and your job. You may be a wonderfully engaging guy - but without showing it, it's a guess, and I hate having to guess about something that's so important. 

Next time (and every time after that) take the guesswork out for your patrons; engage them

The long wait times until waited on continued at the Jewelry counter, where Maeta (pronounced with a long "a"), working 10 feet from me, allowed me to browse for 7 minutes before stepping towards me and asking, smile-free, "Can I help you?" 

Only if I can pretend you didn't just ask me that.  

She finished with a gorgeous smile and tons of polish: "My name is Maeta and I'm here to help you, just let me know." Very nice. Now start it as good as you ended it, Maeta! 

As I moved on to purses, that night's customer service stand-out appeared, in the form of Monica. 

Granted, she (and every single solitary employee who engaged me in my combined three hours of secret shopping) started out with a tumor-advancing "Anything I can help you find?" 

But after that initial misstep, Monica was a rock star. 

She flashed a wonderful smile and didn't skimp on it throughout our conversation. She asked questions, showed features, asked more questions, showed more features and really tried to hone in on what kind of purse my mom might like as a gift. She was charming and nurturing, poised and thorough, someone who truly seemed to care about finding exactly what I wanted and would ask as many questions as it took to uncover it. 

No wonder. Monica - who started at Younkers in July - also works in Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller's office, as an investigator. 

I hereby find you guilty of being a customer service stud, Monica, and sentence you to appear in this corny courtroom metaphor. Case closed! :) 

While I'm presiding over these Secret Shopper hearings, I'd also like to throw the book at Deb, who hoofed it right past me without a peep, nearly brushing my shoulder as she walked up to another employee, who she then introduced herself to, shared a laugh with and even shook her hand. 

Deb is the store manager for Younkers. 

There's being snubbed; and then there's being snubbed. Deb, you did that second one, the one that's italisized and bolded, to make it look really really icky and bad and junk. 

As you tell, teach and train your staff to glad-handle your Younkers customers, Deb, you'll do less of each and get more results if you first do it yourself, and set by example. Because you can be the great and powerful Oz all day long, Deb; but if you turn out to be just some middle-aged fat dude turning a broken wheel and moving cheap levers behind a flimsy curtain, your credibility will go up in smoke, and you'll be transported to (Garden City) Kansas, where the Younkers is twice as old and the pay is half as much. 

Okay, so there are no Younkers in Kansas. But you get the idea! 

Another Deb, who is actually a Debra, followed in her namesake's footsteps as she walked up to me, looked me in the eye then looked away and ignored me as she walked past, in the Cosmetics area. 

See, Deb! They're following your lead! And you thought they weren't paying attention! :) 

I decided to browse a bit in Women's Shoes. While I stared at Sketchers for six minutes, Felicia and Thomas, who could easily see me, acted as if I was invisible while they had an interesting conversation about the merits of Goldfish crackers vs. other snacks, and where they purchase them, Costco or Sam's Club. 

Sound like great places to shop!  

Felicia finally approached me, said "Hi, how are you" through a slight smile, then moved on to another customer. 

Hey! Where's my closed-ended question?? 

Felicia and Thomas? I know you both have a wonderful joy and passion because I heard you communicate with it about a subject that we all feel passionate about: snack crackers. Now follow the sage advice of Irene Cara's lyrics, and take your passion and make it happen, for your customers, by plugging into their passion, to run and work out and work off all the Goldfish they stuff their faces with. 

Natalia, working in Men's Clothing, engaged me after I'd browsed Polo shirts for a few minutes, with, "Help you find anything?" 

I told her I was just looking (for an open-ended question). We both moved on. 

I walked past John, who was working in another men's clothing section. The first time, he was engaged with a customer; the second time, he was not. Both times yielded similar results: no acknowledgement from John. Okie-dokey. 

As I continued to browse, John walked past me, ignoring me a third time as he carried an article of clothing towards what looked like a customer. 

"Hey sweets..." he began, showing the clothing to the woman. 

It was Natalia. 

Maybe she's John's wife. Maybe "sweets" is her middle name. Maybe I'll get an open-ended question before I walk out of Younkers. 

How sweets that would be. 

Ending all speculation, I walked out of the store at 7:58pm, an hour and 12 minutes after I'd entered, for the second and final time. 


First, the great news.  

There are customer service heroes working inside Younkers at the Merle Hay Mall. Mary Ann and Monica are two of them. They are both naturally outgoing, engaging happy people who seem to have a real passion for helping others. Younker's customer base - and the store itself - can greatly benefit from having more of both of you, working in more visible positions.   

Thank you so much for being so good at what you do. It was a genuine treat to meet both of you! 

There are also many great Younkers employees doing good work: smiling and greeting, using their great product knowledge, being wonderfully engaging. These skilled staff members just need to learn how to put it all together and then raise their game up a few notches. 

Are there some bad retail habits that need to be kicked? Yep. Get rid of those nasty closed-ended questions. Leave no customer behind to fend for themself in the retail woods. Make employee frowns illegal, punishable by a one-hour Secret Shopping visit at American TV and Appliance.   

Most important, take ownership of your store's success, and do it with pride, for every Iowan; just as each one of us is proud to call Younkers, our own. 


Dahl's Foods customer service quiz question - complete this sentence: "Head on a swivel, _____  _____  _____  _____  _____, and _____." 


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.       


Ways to contact Jonnie:


Click to be taken to Jonnie's Facebook page    

Click to be taken to Jonnie's Twitter page    

Click to be taken to Jonnie's blog    

Click to email Jonnie (jonnie@thebuyosphere.com)    

Phone: 515-480-4190

Open The Buyosphere Toolbox to get FREE exclusive access to proven tools that will help you generate higher shop sales and profits - delivered weekly, right to your inbox!