(The Unsecret Shopper is on vacation this week and will be back Monday, August 2nd. Meantime, enjoy his favorite Unsecret Shopper posts from the past seven months.)

Date post was posted: May 6, 2010

What I like about it: That I was (W)right

What I learned after writing it: Why bulls hate the color red

If you like this post, you'll love: Target Off-Target On Corporate Reaction To Secret Shopper Review

(To see the original post with reader comments, click this sentence.)

Hello shoppers...

During a February 22nd, 2010 company conference call, Gregg Steinhafel, Charman, CEO and President of Target stores, was asked to react to a just-released consumer confidence report, which had unexpectedly dropped.

"I think we're going to be in the kind

of environment where there is going

to be a lot of mixed signals. I think

we're going to see two steps forward,

one step back. We're going to see

results that we really like, and then

I think we're going to see a slight


The environment Gregg was really talking about (and I think he knew it) was inside his East Army Post road store - since he's pretty much described the Secret Shopper experience you're about to thumb through.

How did Gregg know it, 43 days ahead of time? I'm clue-free - the guy made $1,549,023 since you started reading this. He can afford to have scientists build him a dog that's twice as tall as he is (see pic) so a future-predicting machine probably came with the cement-mixer-sized bull terrier.

Either way, he was right on target.

Let me rephrase that - he was kinda sorta accurate about my first Secret Shopper trip through the store, in the morning. The second trip that afternoon? It's unlikely Mr. Steinhafel uses that sort of language in public.

One thing you need to know about this Target location, up-front - there was no music playing in the overhead PA system. I'm not even sure the store has a PA system - unless PA stands for "Pathetically Absent."

Let ole Jonnie tell ya what that lack of toe-tapping tuneage, does to the consumer experience inside a 100,000 square foot retail cave:

1. Any sound travels - which means customers can hear every employee to employee conversation, and that's bad, especially when you're dealing with a generally low wage-earning workforce, predominantly in their 20's and early 30's.

2. Any sound travels - which means customers can hear every customer to customer conversation, and that's bad, especially when you're dealing with patrons who have varying ideas of what's appropriate to say in public, and what's not.

3. Any sound travels - which means customers can hear every employee's tossed hanger,  slammed down box and moving of displays, which might sound normal when surrounded by other sounds, but sounds like grenades going off inside a gymnasium full of matching separates, Fergie CD's and health and beauty aids.

4. Any sound travels - which means customers can hear every radio call that comes over every employee's two-way in-store walkie-talkie (used in Target) and some of those conversations are like #2 - the number above, and what you thought I meant.

Target, like most big-box stores,  has high ceilings, tile floors and looong aisles, all of which act like an echo chamber. Which means you're going to read about multiple examples of 1-4, in the following review.

One last long, belaboring point about playing music inside retail settings.

When it comes to the places where we shop, consume and do our retail thing, we want, need and crave music, period.

Silence is for libraries, and I don't see anybody uploading the back label text from a box of Tide, onto their Kindle. Sound stimulates our endorphins, and research shows that excited endorphins spend 87% more than 'dorphs just lying around till Noon like your kids do on the weekends.

The proof of the above will be shown throughout this review. As will my ability to change clothes...

Jonathan                      Jonnie

...as it's the usual "Jonathan/Jonnie, dressed up/dressed down" thing, with two Secret Shopping trips to Target on 1111 East Army Post Road, adjacent to The Southridge Mall, both on the same day - early morning and late afternoon.

The store will be graded on the staff greeting, and staff interaction of each visit, and the combined overall, using the following scoring system:

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.

Thoreau wrote, almost certainly in a memo:

"Most men lead lives of quiet desperation, and go to the grave with the song still in them."

What's rarely quoted is what he wrote after that:

"So for the love of Pete, somebody crank up the tunes!"

Staff Greeting/Jonathan:

I pulled into the Target lot at 8:52am.

I slid out of the car, enjoying the Wednesday morning sun-kissed jaunt to the store's front door, with the accompaniment of happy birds, happy cars, happy planes, happy construction workers hammering happily, filling my senses, as John Denver sang, like a night in the forest.

With a smile on my puss and the song of the outdoors in my heart, I stepped through the auto-open doors...and into the machine-filtered air of a retail mausoleum.

Can the inside of any store, compare with what God built? No, never. But a retailer can certainly minimize the difference, by elevating the experience inside, and that, in part, means music. Otherwise, that Target store, which is the oldest of the four locations in Des Moines, feels even older than it is.

You're going to find out why there is no music inside Target in just a moment, from the mouth of an employee.

First though, since Target, like many big-box stores (but not all) has no designated greeter, that task would be left to the first employee I came upon, who would say something to me.

After walking straight from the doors down, passing women's apparel and jewelry, hanging a right at men's apparel and wandering around for 10 minutes, past two groups of employees too busy chatting with each other to chat with me, I found my greeter in Sporting Goods - Virginia, who said "Hello" as soon as she saw me.

She also shared that she was from the Iowa Falls area and a few other pleasantries, then sent me off with a very nice "Have a nice day."

The greeting be done. Let the shopping begin.

Staff greeting/Jonnie:

You may have noticed a complete absence of masks - in an area normally associated with them.

That's because there was a complete absence of greeting - in a setting - a store - normally associated with them.

Yep. 5:16pm - seven hours and six pence since I'd left that morning - I re-entered, dressed like any middle-aged man with no sense of fashion. I might as well have been dressed like a puff of smoke.

The first time I was greeted was by Blaine, at the checkout counter - 55 minutes after I came into the store.

Wait til you hear what happened - coming up, in "Staff interaction/Jonnie."

Staff interaction/Jonathan:

Kathy in patio furniture would blow the lid off why the only sound shoppers could hear inside Target, was the "whirrrr" of air conditioning vents at work, and the "click-clack" and "schlip-schlop" of their own shoes against the nicely polished floor.

After she asked me, closed-endedly but friendly-edly, "Help you find anything?" I asked, "Isn't it really weird quiet in here?"

"Yeah," she replied, "They leave the music on til 8 o'clock in the morning, then they turn it off - they think it bothers the guests."

My mouth dropped - they could hear my jaw hit the floor, up in stationary.

In other words, I said, the employees get to rock out til the doors open, then the place goes quiet as a church mouse, and probably all because they had Rosemary Clooney beltin "Come On A My House" a tad loud on 1 day for 1 patron out of 1,000, and management over-reacted, like Van Halen had played live in the parking lot and they'd shattered window glass over at Petco?

Affirmative, she nodded - not to that question but to one much shorter but less amusing.

To quote Bugs Bunny, it just don't add up, Doc.

Be(elmer)fuddled, I moved on to the movies/music/home entertainment section, where the loud TV audio was welcome, and where the store's merchandise and staff stopped appearing like a weird, colorized version of a Charlie Chaplin flick - finally, some audio!

The silent treatment continued, however, in the form of Janice, who managed to ignore me as I spent four minutes searching for a CD, within arm's reach of where she was stocking merchandise.

Dalia in DVD's was different. She was the first employee to really bring a shine - lots of volume, passion and joy, as she greeted me with a wonderful smile and "Can I help you find anything?" Sure, wrong type of question, but right type of energy, plus wonderfully engaging as she recommended some titles that my non-existent nine year-old daughter would like. Great smile, Dalia!

Donna, also working in the DVD aisle and standing closer to me than Dalia, dropped the "hello" ball, which she should have said to me, even though Dalia had helped me, then moved on.

In retail, it takes a village - loud village, full of verbal villagers.

In the bath section, I met the first superstar - Dawn. "Are you finding everything okay?" wasn't a super open, but everything after that, was - friendly, great smile, very engaging - she seemed to truly want to help me.

The good vibes would come a crumblin down as I moved a few aisles away and heard someone loudly tossing things around - it turned out to be Nancy, "adjusting" an end display.

Right then I heard happy, sweet Dawn call out, "I need some help" from where I'd left her - to her obviously perturbed co-worker, who bluntly replied, "I'll be there in a minute," then threw something aside.

After a few minutes, Nancy walked over to Dawn and I moved to where Nancy had been working. The end display was wire rungs, from which inexpensive framed sayings dangled, designed to be hung on a wall.

One still moved slightly, from having Nancy "adjust" it.  I kid you not - it read, "The time to be happy is now...HAPPINESS."

I stifled a guffaw - especially when I read the one beside it: "Laughter is life's best medicine...LAUGH."

I quickly moved on before I ended up spotting one dealing with irony.

Unfortunately, I could also hear Dawn's end of their conversation, and it was in "complaint" mode.

"There's nothing in the back room for this," "There's nothing in the back room for this," etc. I'm a patron - all I care about is what's in the front room.

And before you call me Radar Ears, I was 30 feet straight away and could still here her, plain as the extensive nose at the end of my head - an argument for overhead music, and better training, which we'll get to in "Overall."

It was time to actually get something to buy - the lucky product going home with The Unsecret Shopper was Crest, although the only way you could get the regular paste was to purchase two huge wrapped - together 6.4 ounce tubes, which means gingivitis will be kept at bay, with this one store visit, through 2017.

As I walked down the main aisle at the back end of the cash registers, Jeff nicely said, "Careful of the cord," with a smile, as I stepped over one stretched across the floor.

A group of workers who never smiled but cleaned like nobody's business, were wearing blue shirts with "Eurest Services Cleaning Crew" on the back.

They were doing a terrific job in keeping the area tidy - and while a man with a broom or a bottle of 409 in his hand is required by law to always look miserable, a smiley directive from store management would combine seemingly unrelated elements - "male," "cleaning," and "happy," into one Eurest cleaning superstar.

I did another lap around the store - and found Carolyn, who smiled and greeted me with a regretfully closed-ended but decidedly kind, "Hi! Can I help you find something?" then sent me on my way with a very classy "Enjoy the day."

In women's apparel, Marsha echoed Carolyn - "Can I help you find something?" Again, nice smile, very engaging, just not as strong a question as an open-ended, "What can I help you find?"

Up ahead of me, Cherub and Nancy, the "angry adjuster," met up and killed the happy vibe.

It started with Cherub, standing in menswear, literally yelling out to Nancy, as she began to walk away, "I don't like working in spring."

I'll give you $10 million if you can guess how the Angry Adjuster replied!

Yep - you win! Please call Gregg Steinhafel to claim your winnings!

Nancy saw Cherub's spring and raised her a few seasons...

"I don't like working in spring, or summer, or anytime. I don't like working period," she shouted back.

And have a pleasant day, Target shoppers!

Obviously, employees can't go around spraying their anger like a disgruntled skunk, not on the showroom floor. What that does to the morale of everyone - customers and employees alike - is devastating.

Josh and Pedro were having a less counter-retail conversation as I came upon them in the dog and cat food, yet I felt as if I'd interrupted them when Josh, startled by my sudden appearance, sorta jumped, and said, "Can I help you?"

Yeah - can you guys go chill Nancy out?

Lee was next, and a bit too chilled out, as she hung merchandise within 10 feet of where I looked at and handled stuff without saying boo. But after three trips from her cart to the rack and back to her cart, I moved a foot closer and she finally let out a smiling, friendly, "Good morning."

Head on a swivel - engage, engage, engage.

An aside here.

As stated earlier, each Target employee is equipped with a two-way in-store walkie-talkie, which constantly crackles with communication between staff, kinda like a retail police scanner. Another thing you'll hear is an automated voice, which is part of an automated "help" system of phones, scattered throughout the store.

The idea is that you, as a customer with a question, can pick up a phone at these customer service kiosks, say a cue at the prompt and within 60 seconds, have a staffer in front of you, ready to assist.

When a phone is picked up, an automated voice goes out over the walkie-talkies: "A customer request has been made in Seasonal," or "Nit-picky Unsecret Shopper in greeting cards." I suspect that the employee working in the area closest to that one, is trained to then walk over and help - or perhaps there's an assigned rover of some kind. Either way it's a clever idea. You'll read about my experience with it, in the afternoon session.

Another observation - the left side of the store - that is, sportswear, hosiery, jewelry, maternity, plus sizes - appears to be consistently less staffed than sections on the right - home entertainment, music/movies, toys, sporting goods. It seemed that way in both Secret Shopping sessions.

Is it because there is more foot traffic in those areas, or because they think female shoppers are more self-reliant? Or have I just gone bonkers from the quiet? I could be off like a cheap clock about the whole perception, but it is an interesting part of the overall store set-up.

On my way to the check-out counter I came upon the threesome of Jeff The Cord Guy, Nancy The Angry Adjuster and an unknown guy without a nickname, standing together off to the side of the aisle, chatting away, with Jeff sipping from a styrofoam cup.

There's nothing wrong with three employees standing, chatting, drinking and "leaning on shovels," - if they work for the DOT.

But in retail, it's Show Business - if employees are on the floor, then they're in the public eye and on-stage and that means they don't stand around and chit-chat with co-workers.  Not when you're a company that's so concerned about having enough warm bodies to cover your retail space, that you install automated paging phones for patrons.

Just a thought.

Nancy - a different one - checked me out at the checkout counter, greeting me with a nice "Hi, how are you?" although it would have been 1,000 times more powerful with a smile thrown in. She did manage a small grin and a "Thank you, have a nice day," which was nice.

And with that, I walked from the counter, towards the exit, through the auto-opening doors and away from the cloying retail silence - into the synapse-snapping noise and energy of the outdoors.

My ears opened their doors and welcomed in their old friend - sound.

That was a wrap - trip #1 was in the books. How would Jonnie fare in Trip #2?

Staff Interaction/Jonnie:

It is not my desire to embarrass or humiliate people.

But spending nearly an hour walking around inside a Target, and never once, not once, receiving a "Hi," "How are you?" or even a "You suck" from a staff member, is embarrassing - for me as a professional Secret Shopper, and for the hard-working employees and managers of Target on East Army Post Road.

The first employee I came in contact with, was Katie, in Jewelry.

While I stood at the counter for seven minutes and looked at, held up and checked out watches, Katie, never more than 10 feet away from me and sometimes as close as three, completely ignored me - while she, too, looked at watches and merchandise at the counter, worried around the stuff without worrying about the customer buying the stuff.

That can't happen. And it would happen again.

Over in menswear, I put a black belt that would be my purchase, into the shopping basket, and continued browsing. Doug, who was in a hurry and didn't see me as he came around the corner, gave me a polite "Excuse me" as he kept on walking, but nothing else. No problem.

Yet that would literally be the only time an employee engaged me first.

Continuing to look at men's clothing and specifically at an end display of Jerzee Long Sleeved Cotton T's, I saw Macy out of the corner of my eye - who could see me and did see me from her vantage point at the entry-way to the fitting rooms, yet didn't greet me for the four and a half minutes I stood, without moving, browsing those shirts, until I had the micro fiber content and city of manufacture from the label, memorized.

One thing to the defense of all the employees working the floor at that time - I counted less than a dozen of them, not including the cashiers. To say that store was slightly under-staffed by management is to say that Manhattan was slightly under-priced by the Indians. ($24 in beads and blankets for the whole thing? Done!)

Yet that means it's that much more important for the staff that is on the floor, to greet and engage every customer they see.

The Answer Phone to the rescue!

These are the automated help phones that are located throughout the store. Beside them is written, "Can't find it? Can't lift it? Just pick up the phone for help."

I stood in the toy department, searching for a black mask for my still non-existent nine year-old daughter, so she could pretend she was a big mean Unsecret Shopper, just like her daddy!

I picked up the receiver - would they beat the 60-second promise? Would I be greeted with an insane, closed-ended question?

Within 42 seconds, Jon (cool name) showed up - and asked the question an employee can't ask, after a customer has specifically requested help because they need help, using a help phone.

"Can I help you find anything?"

Well...I was looking for a help phone, so I could call for help and get someone who could help. Could you help me find one?

Jon, you've just set back the cool spelling of our name, 1,000 years.

Doug, the "excuse me" guy, apparently thought I'd used up my greeting chits, waltzing past me without a peep as I stood, staring at flat screen TV's.

I would pace in front of 24 televisions for 22 minutes, watching a Target ad over and over, without being helped, assisted, greeted or moved because somebody thought I was a display.

I did a second lap around the inside of the store - and came upon Katie again, where I'd left her, in front of the watches display.

I'd give her another chance. I went right back to the same place I'd stood for seven minutes, and stood again, for another five minutes - still, not a word from her lips.

Enough fun - I was getting ready to move on, but Katie walked first, slipping past me and literally brushing the basket I was carrying, with her hand. No big deal - any of us would utter a quick apology and move on.

Think she said, "Excuse me," "Whoops, sorry!" or "That belt won't be nearly big enough for you."? Nope. Silence.

That can't happen, part II.

I next spent 13 minutes browsing bicycles and being ignored by Doug, again, who moved in and out of the area.

Meanwhile, a couple browsing toys in an aisle across from me, had the following conversation, easily heard.

Her: Oh that price is too high.

Him: I'd rather go to Toys R' Us than buy that piece of crap.

Sure you don't wanna play music, Target?

Onto the magazine aisle I went, where Teresa - who works for a magazine distribution company and doesn't work for Target but acts like she belongs with the afternoon crew - completely ignored me as I stared at the magazines she was putting on the shelf, literally reaching around me to do so.

It was time to blow this non-responsive taco stand.

I moved on to the checkout counter - where Audrey, who had walked across from Customer Service, held up a piece of merchandise and loudly uttered an un-customer-service-like thing, to a cashier.

"So this isn't any good, or what?"

After apparently not receiving a response to her liking, Audrey angrily tossed said item into a cart, and rolled away.

Joy! Joy! Happy! Happy! Joy! Joy!

Which brings us back to Blaine.

"Hi, how are you?" he smiled as I put my probably-too-small belt on the counter.

I've been better, son. Like, when I ran head first through a glass door in pre-school.

Blaine said thank you, asked me to have a nice day and, taking 7 VERY fast steps towards the door, I walked out - and began to sprint towards my Prius.

I needed a drink. A lot of drinks. And I don't drink.



Where to start.

The employees who did their job - that is, greeted, engaged and smiled on some level - like Virgina, Blaine, Kathy, Dalia, Dawn and Carolyn, were standouts. Lose the closed-ended questions, and you have the chance to be retail rock stars.

As for all the employees and the overall store - The 800 pound problem gorilla in the (quiet) corner of Target's room is really three gorillas, rolled into one angry conservative talk show host:

1. Get music playing in the store

2. Get better customer service training for your employees

3. Get more employees working the afternoon shift

The music is a quick fix that can provide cover while management and employees work on solving other issues - those will require time, training and tenderness.

Employee anger, vented openly, should be addressed immediately.

Listening to an employee complain about work is akin to visiting Duane Ellett and Floppy on their WHO TV-13 set as a kid, starting to tell the felt puppet, the "Why'd the man put the car in the oven" gag, and having Floppy suddenly attack you, with a mouth full of rusty nails.

It doesn't hurt our joy of shopping - it obliterates it.

The under-staffing issue is a chronic one for stores of Target's size. Yet managers can't simply allow customers to wander around in section after section, without seeing a red Target employee shirt - which was frequently the case on my afternoon Secret Shopper visit.

Ultimately, none of these are expensive remedies. All would pay immediate dividends. Music on the PA, especially, can mask sooo many of those employee "man behind the curtain" moments, when all you want customers to see and hear is The Wizard.

In fact, just think - if music really does have charms to soothe the savage beast, then a Rosemary Clooney ditty or two, can probably chill certain employees right out.

Seems right on target, no? :)

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:

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Phone: 515-480-4190

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