October  2004

Secret Shopper


Customer Service Prevails
Lumber Retailer Gets a Good Grade Despite the Mess
by Sarah Batcheler

This month I was thrilled to be asked to be the secret shopper for SHELTER magazine. Shopping is one of my passions in life, so anything that has the word shopper in it, interests me. The “secret” part of it enticed me as well. I was going undercover to expose the good, the bad and the ugly. Well, maybe I had taken the idea to an extreme, but it was exciting.

I decided to bring my husband along with me on my adventure. He actually hates to shop, but to his surprise I had invited him to a lumber store. He happily agreed to join me. I didn’t need anything at the time, so I decided to look for a front door. I have always found front doors have the charming ability to make a dumpy house look alive. 

Sunday afternoon was the perfect time, and we drove south from our home in Stafford, Va., to a lumber retailer in Fredericksburg. The entrance was difficult to find, so I phoned the store for better directions. A friendly man rattled them off, as if this was part of a daily routine. Its tricky location was behind an entrance ramp to the highway. We winded around the corner, approaching the entrance, and our adventure began. 

First of all, the parking lot was a nightmare. It was actually a multipurpose paved lot, used for keeping supplies and doubling as a small parking area. As my eyes scanned the scene, I saw forklifts, three covered areas for lumber, a Jungle-Jim, work trucks, pallets of wood and an overflowing garbage can. 

My mind was filled with doubts as I wearily stepped through the open doorway. The lofting smells of wood in the heat captured me as we entered.

“I was wondering when you were going to get here,” said one of the two men behind the counter. I was completely taken by surprise. The young-looking man smiled and said, “It can be kind of hard to find us, huh?” His nametag said Jason, and I immediately recognized him in a row of pictures over the counter as the co-manager. He had begun to establish some rapport with us, and I could see my negative preconceptions taking a turn.

“How can I help you?” he asked.

“I am looking at doors today,” I said. My husband did not want to interfere with my charade, and let me ask some initial questions. 

“Inside or outside?” Jason asked. I indicated it was for a front door. He offered to show us some doors, and led us to the back of the store, past stacks of windows lying on the ground, to a single door. My husband told him we were fixing up our house. We were the only customers in the store, and the hollowed noises of our voices reinforced the lack of people. He showed me a standard, white steel door.

“I think I am interested in a wood door,” I said. Taking my cue that this door wouldn’t cut it, he led us to the display section in the front of the store. It looked cluttered and disorganized, but displayed a beautiful wood door with a glass section along the top. There was an information sheet strapped to the side of this Therma-Tru door, but no price. 

I asked him to tell me the difference between this one and the one he had just showed me. Jason immediately dove into the specifics of the doors, their consistency and the strength each offered. He was helpful and very knowledgeable. Then, he took us to a third area of the store. He wound us around corners, under a ladder and around a forklift. I wondered why the doors weren’t located in the same area.

All the while, I was forming an opinion. This store was dangerous. There was a box of abandoned bolts sitting in the middle of an aisle and windows resting all over the store. It was not designed for a shopper.

Jason showed us some more doors, while volunteering appropriate information. It must have been obvious that we were not going to buy a door that day, because he offered us a catalog and a website address so we could find what we wanted. 

He told my husband they could order anything once we knew what we wanted. I noticed that Jason was very respectful of my husband and me. In the past, I have been in hardware stores where I felt invisible because I am a woman. Jason seemed very aware of my presence, and he communicated equally to both of us.

As I tripped over a piece of wood on our way back to the front counter, Jason apologized for the mess. 
“We get one to one and a half large truckloads of windows every week, so it is impossible to keep it clean,” he said. 

It was evident that the appearance of their building took a back seat to managing the heavy volume of windows they moved through rapidly. Jason told us that none of the doors had prices posted because they got them from a few different places, and they always went with the lowest price. He supplied a website where we could find more doors, and sent us on our way. 

A man and his two daughters were approaching the counter as we left. Hopefully, Jason wouldn’t attempt to wind these three through the disheveled store. This was no place for kids.

I noticed a sign posted along the outside of the building on my way out. It read, “For Safety Reasons: Don’t climb on materials.” 

“Hmm,” I thought. 

It should have said, “For Safety Reasons: Don’t forget your work boots and hard hat.” 

As I drove away, I realized that I am a secret shopper almost every day. I go into stores with expectations of uncluttered aisles, safe parking lots, friendly helpers and reasonable prices. When I leave, I have formed an opinion that may or may not persuade me to return with my business. 

I had been disappointed in the appearance and neatness of the lumber retailer in Fredericksburg, but I was astonished by the customer service. It was superb. 


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