By Eric Huber Special to Published Dec 18, 2009 at 1:01 PM

With the holiday shopping season in full swing, Milwaukee consumers hunting for bargains might forget another essential part of the retail experience:

Customer service.

Before we dive in to the where you can find it, let's look at the three essential elements most customers expect from retail workers -- even during busy times.

The greeting: A good, sincere greeting leaves a lasting impression on the shopper, even if they don't find anything on their trip in to the store. They still consider coming back, no matter what happens. This is the most important of the three elements, and it can make or break a sale in some cases. Cleanliness also plays a major factor here. 

Attentiveness: Most retail stores don't even bother properly training employees on how to show attentiveness to a customer's need, but shoppers that do find it in a store employee will be more likely to buy something on their trip in. This is especially important this season, given the shape of the economy.

The 'thank': I went to a local lighting store a few weeks ago and bought a chandelier. Now, the chandelier wasn't cheap, and not only did the salesman give me terrible service, he didn't even thank me at the end of the sale; he just stapled my copies and shooed me away. Do you think I'm ever going back? Saying "Thank you" doesn't take much effort, but at the same time it doesn't count for much when you hear the two words. The employee has to actually show that they mean it.

Where should you go?

Below is a list of retail stores where I made purchases recently, with ratings based on the three elements above. I used a four-star rating system with one being the lowest and four the highest.


*** (three stars)
Clean. It's the first word that comes to mind when wandering through most Target stores like the one in Menomonee Falls, where I was sure I would find good customer service, especially on a weeknight when there were very few customers in the store.

Greeting: Unlike their competitor, Wal-Mart, they don't give you the "Walter" greeting (Jeff Dunham joke) when you walk in the door. And even after walking past a few employees I thought I would at least get a smile. Nothing. The entrance was clean, and in this case that did play a part.
Category rating: ** (two stars).

Attentiveness: As I walked through the store, I noticed a lot red-shirted associates with scanners and carts putting up product on shelves, and helping customers with questions. I made my way to the electronics area and inquired about a 32-inch TV on the shelf that was on a limited sale. One of the employees came over and scanned it a few times and very nicely advised me that they do have a couple in the back. Politely, I said "I'll hold off for now."
Category rating: *** (three stars).

Thank: I took a few items that I found on my own to the registers. At peak times, Target is notorious for having overcrowded lines with not enough help. Not on this day. I walked right up, received a friendly "How are you," quickly scanned the plastic, signed away, and exited with a "Thank you, have a nice day."
Category rating: **** (four stars)

** (two stars)
For those farm boys and girls on your Christmas list, Fleet Farm is the place to be, but do be aware that while most employees will help you if you have a question, they don't do it with a smile.

Greeting: Like Target, there really is no one who formally greets you at the door, but when this is the case I usually test a few store associates by breezing on past to see if they even care. I did that here a few times, but nobody even gave me the time of day.
Category rating: * (one star)

Attentiveness: I approached one of the store associates, who was steadily stocking Christmas decoration boxes on the shelves. I inquired about lighted candy canes that I was looking to put around my sidewalk. She seemed reluctant to give me help at first, but after realizing what I was looking for she became more interested in assisting me and was even going to get a ladder to check the tops of the shelves for the particular canes I needed. They didn't have them. I moved on.
Category rating: ** (two stars)

Thank: There's nothing that drives me more crazy than a group of checkers saying the same thing every time you walk up to registers. "Did you find everything OK?" To the young girl's credit though she was the nicest employee I encountered on this trip.
Category rating: *** (three stars)

* (one star)

The land of electronic deals was one of my prime stops, and in the past I've had mixed service, but not on this slow day.

Greeting: I walked in to the store and received a robotic "Hello" from that guy who looks like a security guard, but is just a greeter. I purposely picked up a flyer and browsed through it close by to see if he would offer any assistance. Of course, he didn't. The entrance was well-maintained and clean though. Category rating: ** (two stars)

Attentiveness: Blue shirts are all that I saw on this day, but no one wearing one offered me any assistance as I made my way through several departments. I picked up my cell phone and phoned my sister to see if she had any ideas for my other sister and even blurted them out as I passed the associates in a state of confusion. I still received no reaction from any of them, still with the flyer in hand.
Category rating: (one-half star)

Thank: I picked up a DVD and made my way to the checkout. And just when I thought it couldn't get any worse, I stood in line behind just two people for about 10 minutes as three employees, including a manager, tried to figure out a sale. Finally, as the line grew larger, they brought one more of those half a dozen employees just standing around to help. He came across as semi-friendly, but I've seen too much bad to even focus on the good at this point.
Category rating: * (one star)

*** (three stars)
This is, without a doubt, one of my favorite places to go and shop. I mean, everyone loves books, right?

Greeting: Usually, there is no greeter to welcome you to the store, and the raunchy smell of body odor mixed with greasy hair may turn some away, but to my surprise, upon entering a nice elderly lady smiled and said hello as she pranced by helping another customer. The floor was clean and the displays of books didn't look like a home library.
Category rating: ** (two stars)

Attentiveness: I had one particular book in mind on this day that I wanted to give to a few of my relatives this Christmas. I approached the customer service desk, but nobody was there. However, before I could turn my head to look for someone, a store employee quickly made her way to the front of the desk. I gave her the title of the book she led me up the escalator and diligently helped me find it. Not once did she come across as rude.
Category rating:**** (four stars)

Thank: I stood in a line of about five people, but didn't have to wait too long, and was always entertained with the assortment of books, games, and impulse candy. I approached what seemed to be a nice young lady and set the four copies on the counter. Much to my dismay she was very robotic, and didn't present herself or her service in a sincere manner. She wasn't rude, but at the same time certainly didn't stand out as four-star. Category rating: *** (three stars)

** (two stars)
The last stop on my tour was Wal-Mart -- the place where you can save a lot of money while living better, or so they say.

Greeting: The parking lot part of the entrance was a little dirty, but the inside was kept clean. As expected, I was greeted with a simple hello, but what was surprising to me was that the greeter still managed to speak to everyone that was walking in while helping a departing customer with an issue.
Category rating: *** (three stars)

Attentiveness: As I walked around the store I noticed that, unlike Target, employees weren't doing anything but walking around or leaning against counter and shelves daydreaming. I needed some help on a snow-blower, so I found a female employee to show me where they were. Of course, they were in the garden center, buried behind some pallets. She took me there, but then proceeded to chit-chat with another store employee and didn't bother asking me if I had questions. I walked away and nothing more was said.
Category rating: * (one star)

Thank: I took a few small items to the check-out area and found an express stand with no other customers waiting. I was greeted with a "How are you doing today, sir?" I said, "Good." But, as soon as she saw more people getting in line behind she immediately shifted into rush mode. She printed the receipt, told me to have a good day, grabbed my bag with authority and shoved it toward me with her eyes on the next customer's merchandise.
Category rating: ** (two stars)

During my tour, service at Target and Barnes & Noble stood out the most, while Wal-Mart and Fleet & Farm were about average and Best Buy was surprisingly horrid.

Just because I received this kind of service from these retail centers doesn't mean you will, too. However, I encourage you to take the three steps to great service with you on your next shopping trip and see what kind of results you encounter. It may just help you decide which stores deserve your patronage, regardless of price.

Eric Huber Special to
Eric Huber is a staff writer for, and