There are many of life’s moments that we cherish forever.
Our wedding day. The birth of a child. A visit with the slurring water-bed salesman who smells like stale Kools and vinegar.
In honor of that last one, The (Un) secret Shopper is (un) proud to present some (un) memorable shopping moments – with a decided focus on restaurant visits – as submitted by you, gentle reader. These are our seminal experiences of retail nadir, impervious to commentators’ knee-jerk analysis, scarring those who survived them like Chernobyl with a cash register.
And just like the fortunate ones who managed to flee, staying steps ahead of the Russian reactor’s deadly radioactive cloud, you will think, as you read each terrifying account, that there but for the grace of God shop you - except you’re almost out of 2%, Aunt Freda’s birthday is in three weeks, and don’t…you…really…need…new…flip-flops?
Fodder, alas, for The Shopping Hall Of Shame III.
Casey’s: It’s Not All Good.
A patron entered a local Casey’s General Store, searching for a quick bite for lunch before returning to work.
He walked towards the food warmer, where a tempting array of pizza slices and sandwiches greeted him – as did an unexpected foul odor. Turning to his right, he noticed a group of employees with their backs to him, standing around the condiment table, laughing.
Dismissing the odor and wanting the chow, he quickly grabbed a ham and cheese, bypassing his usual mustard and ketchup at the still-crowded condiment table on his way to the check-out counter.
He arrived at the register, hoping to quickly pay for his sandwich, but instead found no staff at the counter. Glancing back over to the condiment table, he saw three Casey’s employees – and the source of their intense attention, and merriment.
Lying directly on the table – without a towel – was a baby, naked except for a diaper which one of the employees had removed and was proudly displaying its contents to the others, while another woman began wiping a rag between the baby’s legs.
Noticing the man, the woman stopped, laid the rag on the table, and began walking towards the man, to ring up his sandwich.
Thinking he could stand to skip lunch that day, the man put down the ham and cheese, and quickly left.
Burger King: Come On In, We’re Closed
A man was heading home after his late shift at Firestone when he pulled into a Burger King to grab a sandwich.
He had no idea if the restaurant was open but noted the interior and drive-thru lights were on. Getting out of his car, he walked up to the door and pushed on it – it opened, and he walked in.
He paused – the restaurant looked extremely clean. There was no food in the warmers, no customers and no employees that he could see.
“Hello?” he called out.
A young girl, clad in a Burger King shirt, appeared from the kitchen.
“Hi! Somebody will be right with you.”
The man stepped up to the counter – apparently they were open. Great! He would order a Whopper With Cheese value meal and enjoy it in the restaurant, then head home.
He leaned on the counter and watched as the young girl walked to the back of the Burger King kitchen and disappeared out of view.
He looked around. The fry warmer, counter, floor – all looked freshly cleaned. Would they still make him a sandwich?
He then heard voices in the back, and a door open and close. Then the only sound was the music that played over the PA. Then that was turned off – there was some rustling in the back, then the door opened and closed again.
The man stood at the counter and waited, befuddled. What in the world was going on?
After a minute or so of complete silence, the man called out again. “Hello!” He began walking towards the kitchen when suddenly a deafening alarm sound blared, shaking the building.
Startled initially, the man quickly surmised that the staff had somehow closed the restaurant without knowing he was in there.
Not wanting to wait around to see what would happen next, the man quickly walked out of the restaurant door he’d originally entered, glanced around to see if anyone else was nearby, then sprinted towards his car.
As he was about to open the door, a police cruiser quickly pulled into the parking lot, screeching to a halt behind his car. The officer jumped out, yelled “Freeze!” and ordered the man to lay on the ground, spread-eagled, which he did.
After being taken to the Des Moines Police Department and booked into a holding cell, the man was released over an hour later – after the owner was finally located.
(Note: The young girl who greeted him was new, and thought he was making a delivery.)
Country Kitchen: Come Home To The Not So Good Stuff
After a long Spring day on the road, a woman traveling for work in Northwest Iowa decided to have dinner at a nearby Country Kitchen Restaurant.
It was a weeknight, and, except for a few patrons, the establishment was quiet. The woman was quickly seated by a server and given a menu.
Flipping it open, the woman noticed large amounts of food debris smeared on the menu’s laminated pages. Thinking this was not terribly appetizing and contemplating heading to a nearby fast-food restaurant, the woman instead glanced at the soup section, noticing the Calico Bean was their featured soup.
“Can I get the calico bean?” asked the woman, to which the returning waitress replied, “We don’t have that.”
“So what kind of soup do you have,” the woman reasonably inquired.
“We have some sort of turkey soup,” the waitress said.
“What kind of turkey soup?”
“Well…I don’t know.”
Somewhat perplexed at the server’s response, the woman asked if the waitress could please go to the kitchen and find out for her. “I want to know if it’s a cream soup or a broth.”
At that point, the waitress’ demeanor changed – her shoulders slumped, her face drooped and her voice dropped, as she responded.
“It’s from Thanksgiving.”
The woman wasn’t sure she understood. “From Thanksgiving?”
“You mean Thanksgiving as in…from November?”
It was now late March.
“Yes,” whispered the waitress.
“Well,” replied the woman, “nothing really looks all that good,” and left.
Budweiser: This $#%@*!’s For You
A 20 something man driving a van, waiting in a long drive-thru line on a busy Friday night at a Hardees in Iowa, finally got up to the order speaker, where he yelled, ”I’ll have a 1/4 Thickburger, large curly fries and chocolate shake.”
The voice on the other side verified his order and told him his total – and with that, the man in the van pulled forward, inching along as several other cars ahead of him in line, also waited.
Finally, after several minutes, the man had made his way up to the Hardees drive-thru window, where an African-American woman greeted him warmly, handed him his drink and told him his total.
While the woman walked away to get the man’s change and order, the man paused – then suddenly began to yell obscenities – first in general, then aimed directly at the female employee. The vulgarities quickly turned to racial slurs – while the drivers in a half-dozen cars behind the van, listened and watched in stunned silence.
As the employee returned with the man’s money, his volume and tirade intensified and his words became slurred – it was apparent to the onlookers that he was inebriated.
The employee quickly brought the man his order, which did not appease him – he let out a barrage of racial epithets while the woman closed the drive-thru window, then tossed his bag of food against it, laid on his horn and the accelerator and, with tires screeching, pulled away, weaving into traffic.
The man was driving an Anheuser Busch company van – with the name of the local beer distributor he worked for, prominently painted on the side – while he was on duty.
Denny’s: Enjoy Our All We Can Steal Buffet
A married couple in Iowa decided to have a “date night” during the week – an extremely rare occurence for them, as they were both normally too busy with careers and family activities, to indulge in such an extravagance.
After catching a 7pm movie, the couple decided to grab a late dinner at a nearby Denny’s Restaurant. (Now closed)
Pulling into the restaurant parking lot, they spotted a vacant space close to the door.
They quickly pulled in, got out and walked up to the entrance, where they were immediately greeted by a server, who escorted them past a series of empty seats in the nearly deserted restaurant, to a separate section that appeared to be a party or meeting room, for large group gatherings.
Thinking that was a bit odd but not wanting to make a fuss, the couple sat down and gave their drink orders to the server, who began to walk away – then stopped, turned and smiled.
“We’re a bit understaffed tonight, so please excuse us if it takes us a little longer to bring out your food.”
The couple smiled at the server and assured her that they had time, that this was a rare evening out for them and that they were in no hurry.
True to the server’s word, the couple’s food that evening did make it to their table slowly – from drinks to salads to the main course to dessert. Yet the server never strayed far from their table and was very attentive throughout the evening. Several times in fact the couple could see their server on the other side of the entrance to the room they were dining in, looking in on them.
Midway through dessert, the man got up to use the restroom. Immediately the server appeared.
“Can I help you?”
The man smiled. “Just tell me where the bathroom is.”
“Oh, hang on just a moment,” said the server. “Let me go check and make sure it’s clean.”
The server quickly disappeared.
He understood the server’s desire to keep a clean establishment, but he had to go – now.
Getting up from the table, the man walked through the room entryway, into the main restaurant, which was empty.
The man spotted the bathroom and began walking towards it - but before he could get there, another man, in his late teens, stepped out of the bathroom, carrying something.
The man immediately recognized it – it was a suitcase from the trunk of the couple’s car.
The teen took off, sprinting out the restaurant door, leaving the suitcase behind. The man followed him out, then paused and looked over at his car.
The server who had waited on the couple was standing there, about to close the trunk.
You Say It’s Your Urodziny?
A young couple had adopted Ania, a 9 year old girl from Poland, and were raising her in Central Iowa.
To celebrate the girl’s upcoming birthday, the parents organized a huge party at a local pizza restaurant, Ania’s favorite.
The parents invited dozens of friends and family members, including two of Ania’s blood relatives, who traveled all the way from Poland to be part of the celebration.
Three weeks before the birthday party, the adoptive parents of the young girl had asked the pizza restaurant manager if anyone on his staff was Polish – yes, said the manager, he believed someone on staff was indeed Polish and could speak the language.
Great! The parents – who had taught themselves to speak a basic level of conversational Polish – handed the manager the lyrics to the Polish version of ”Happy Birthday.”
They asked the manager to give the lyrics to whoever on staff spoke Polish, and have that person teach the staff how to sing it. It didn’t need to be perfect, the parents insisted – just close enough so that the little girl would understand what they were singing. If the employee was Polish, he’d understand the song right away.
The manager assured the parents that he would handle it.
Three weeks passed.
The young manager had forgotten about his promise to the parents of the young polish girl – until the mother contacted him the day before the event.
“Has everyone learned the song?” the woman excitedly asked.
The manager froze – he’d forgotten his commitment to the woman. He didn’t even know what he’d done with the lyrics the woman had given him in the first place.
Afraid to admit he’d screwed up, the manager lied – yes, yes, not to worry, they’d been rehearsing and had it down pat. Little Ania will love their version!
The manager hung up – and freaked out.
Not only didn’t he have the Polish lyrics but it also turns out the employee he’d thought was Polish, was actually Russian – kinda close to Poland, but not close enough – plus the guy had quit on him a few weeks before, so he wasn’t an option at this point.
The manager went on the internet.
He Googled “Happy Birthday In Polish” and found hundreds of entries but nothing that seemed to help.
Then, paydirt - he stumbled upon a site that said “Happy Birthday Polish” at the top, and had Polish lyrics phonetically spelled out.
Certainly this was it.
The manager printed off the web page, made copies, distributed them among his staff and worked with them for hours that night to learn the song. It was a tongue-twister – they struggled to fit the words with the traditional English “Happy Birthday” melody. Yet eventually the manager figured they had a passable version of it, that Ania would recognize.
The Saturday of Ania’s birthday, the guests arrived to find the restaurant was festively decorated with balloons and streamers and posters, and a huge pizza buffet was laid out.
On cue, the staff brought out Ania’s birthday cake, beautiful decorated, with 10 lit candles - and began singing.
What the manager didn’t realize is that there is no direct Polish translation of “Happy Birthday.”
The closest is something along the lines of “Wszystkiego najlepszego z okazji urodzin.”
What Poles sing, instead, for birthdays or other special occasions, is “Sto Lat,” whose lyrics go something like this:
- Sto lat, sto lat,
- Niech żyje, żyje nam.
- Sto lat, sto lat,
- Niech żyje, żyje nam,
- Jeszcze raz, jeszcze raz, niech żyje, żyje nam,
- Niech żyje nam!
Translated in English, the song looks like this:
- A hundred years, a hundred years,
- May he (she) live for us.
- A hundred years, a hundred years,
- May he live for us.
- Once again, once again, may he live, live for us,
- May he live for us!
What the manager had stumbled upon on the internet was, instead, something else entirely – a Polish parody song that mocked whoever it was sung to.
Here’s what the staff sang to Ania, to the tune of “Happy Birthday,” roughly translated in English:
- Bad dunce you fool,
- Bad dunce you fool,
- Bad dunce you are a
- Bad dunce you fool.
It ended as badly as you think.
Jonnie Wright is a customer service evaluator and trainer, professional secret shopper, marketing strategist and host of “The Unsecret Shopper Radio Show,” which airs Saturday mornings 8-9am, on 1350 KRNT. Email Jonnie at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Then there are those nearly-biblical customer service disasters that feel like you’re plummeting to Earth inside a plane whose wings have been sheared off. These gut-wrenching out of body retail moments transcend the mere irritation that goes with being blown off by an uber-pierced gum-chewing teenage cashier at your local Sack N’ Save – and the rarefied air they occupy guarantees their entry in The Unsecret Shopper’s “Shopping Hall of Shame.”
To qualify for enshrinement in the SHS, a shopping experience must have two basic elements:
1. An unsuspecting shopper.
2. An employee who has completely lost his/her mind.
Together, these forces combine to create cringe-inducing, “I can’t believe I’m seeing this” moments that led Al Gore to invent the internet. (so we could shop on-line instead of in person)
Here then are some of these magical shopping moments (yes these actually happened) experienced by yours truly (as well as related by shoppers and business owners alike) all of which occupy a beloved space in the Shopper’s Hall of Shame.
Kids, do try that at home – preferably
A married couple sitting in a restaurant in Des Moines (now closed) couldn’t figure out why, after taking their order, their server had not returned and had in fact not been seen for nearly 10 minutes. Concerned for the woman’s welfare and encouraged by his wife, the man finally stood up and began walking through the otherwise vacant restaurant, searching for the MIA server. Moving past a storage room, he heard muffled cries from the other side. Uncertain of what to do, he hesitantly opened the door – and the mystery of the missing server was immediately solved.
On the floor lay the partially clad woman and the equally naked cook, clutching each other in the withering throes of passion.
Welcome To The Store, We’re Closing
A high-end furniture store was experiencing a precipitous drop-off in sales. The owner chalked it up to a sluggish economy but the economy didn’t seem to explain why even the most loyal long-time customers had stopped stopping by.
The perplexed owner questioned members of his staff, who all expressed shock at the downturn of business but could offer no plausible explanation. As conditions worsened, the owner took drastic measures including laying off some staff. But to no avail - admitting the company was no longer solvent, the owner sold off the remaining merchandise at fire sale prices and closed the store’s doors for good.
One day, towards the end of the sell-off, the owner was lamenting his misfortune to an old customer when she mentioned that one of the store owner’s employees had told her that the store was going out of business – three months before the owner told his staff. The owner contacted other former customers who relayed similar accounts – adding that staff had also warned them (falsely) of fictional furniture recalls, shoddy craftsmanship and trouble in the owner’s marriage.
A few days later, the owner got word that two of his former employees had not stayed unemployed for long – they had recently opened their own furniture store.
A (dead) Bird At The Door Is Worth No One In The Restaurant
A restaurant owner in Des Moines hired me to review his customer service practices. Cleanliness, he said, was one of his top priorities and one he constantly preached to his store managers.
To see if his preaching was turning his employee congregation into believers, I decided to perform a simple test at one of his locations. I took a dead bird that was lying in the grass, minding his own dead bird business, and put it on the sidewalk directly in front of the front entrance to the restaurant. Certainly an employee would see it and dispose of it!
Two weeks later I returned to the restaurant – the bird had beaten me there. It still sat - dead – right where I’d placed him, so close to the door that employees would have to step over it to clean the glass, if they had been. I considered hiring the bird to it – after all, he was right there. Instead I staked out the area for a few nights, watching to see how patrons would react to the rotting bird carcass. Shockingly!, about every third customer would spot it, cringe, flap their wings and fly back to their car, taking their wallets with them.
Was the bird ever disposed of? Yes, two weeks later – by me. The lack of cleanliness was reflective of chronic customer service problems at the location and the owner eventually closed it.
(The “Dead Bird Test” is a staple of my customer service review process.)
There Will Be A Slight Re-stocking Fee
A check-out clerk at a convenience store in a small town in Northwest Iowa was ringing up a customer when the customer mentioned that they were out of a particular brand of beer. The clerk complained to the patron (mistake #1) that she’d repeatedly told the person in charge of re-stocking to make sure there was enough of the beer on the shelf.
Apparently the beer stocker-in-charge heard the clerk tossing him under the bus because he immediately appeared from behind a side door and began expressing his own version of the store’s stocking hierarchy. (mistake #2) The discussion continued and escalated, as a long line of customers gathered, with items in their hands and disbelief on their faces.
Finally, with the encouragement of the first customer, who just wanted to know if they had ”my [gosh darn] beer,” the stocker walked back into the cooler to, apparently, get the man his gosh darn beer.
Then, the sound of smashing glass. (mistake #3) And again. And one more time. The official store stocker was now the unofficial merchandise destroyer, smashing bottle after bottle of beer. (and who knows what else) He would solve the problem of who was supposed to stock the beer – he’d simply get rid of all of it!
Patrons were horrified – yet not leaving. (gotta have their stuff!) The store clerk was laughing. (mistake #4) Reacting calmly under duress, she picked up the store phone and rationally dialed – her best friend (mistake #4,592) who she regaled with a blow by blow description of the stocker’s tantrum.
I’ve shared a few of my best stories from the Shoppers Hall of Shame – now it’s your turn! You’ve had your share of bad customer service experiences – the rude clerk, the inebriated salesman, the customer service rep who calls you a name then hangs up on you – now it’s your turn to sound off! Talk about your worst retail dates – not only what happened but what, if anything, you did to retain some level of satisfaction. I’ll share your stories in future blog posts.
Thank you for sharing those bad retail dates!
Jonnie Wright is a customer service traininer and evaluator, professional secret shopper, marketing strategist and host of “The Unsecret Shopper Radio Show,” which airs Saturday mornings 8-9am on 1350 KRNT. Email Jonnie at email@example.com.