Wal-Mart's Employee Morale, Customer Service At All-Time Low

Business Week sent a couple of its own “secret shoppers” to some Wal-Mart stores to see how their new customer service initiative was faring, and found that the employees they spoke with not only didn’t care, but really wanted customers to know this. Said one employee, “If Wal-Mart doesn’t care for me, why should I care? There was this horrible smell in the store the last two days from some overnight spill. They did nothing about it. It got so bad that on the second day the fire department came by and we all had to wear masks.”

Despite that mysterious anecdote, all three stores Business Week sampled scored high on cleanliness. The big failure in all three, however, was customer service, which continues to nose-dive due to poor morale:

As the experience with the cashier in Uniondale illustrates, many of Wal-Mart’s workers feel outright hostility toward the company, and, by extension, they often treat customers with indifference or worse. That puts Wal-Mart in a box. Without reasonable service, the company is forced to compete almost solely on price. That in turn squeezes margins and makes it difficult to pay employees the better wages and benefits that could boost morale. It’s a vicious cycle that now appears to be working against Wal-Mart.

“Wal-Mart: A Snap Inspection” [Business Week]
(Photo: tom.arthur)

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  1. ElizabethD says:

    So, let me get this straight. “Poor morale” definitely makes it right for WalMart staff to abuse customers. Pass along the suffering, guys! Pride in doing one’s job, anyone?

  2. Ausoleil says:

    Pretty much every time we go to one of our local Wal-Marts the employees are friendly enough, but look tired and a bit defeated. I haven’t had any of them be rude me or my wife, so no complaints.

  3. jonnypage says:

    I know at the west end walmart in Edmonton, Alberta there are ~25 checkouts, and at any point on a Saturday afternoon maybe 5 will be open, and the lineup is snaking around the store. I just leave and wonder why people put up with it.

  4. tkozikow says:

    I am curious how Wal-Mart fares in different parts of the country. The metro DC area is a tough market for service workers and Wal-Mart seems to be at the lower end of the food chain when it comes to hiring. It would nice if, just once, I had an associate actually help me find an item instead of giving me a blank stare as if they don’t understand English (oh yeah, most don’t), point to some random area of the store and slowly walk away. On the other hand, the Wal-Mart in Christiansburg VA seems to be staffed with generally well-meaning, if a bit slow, people just trying to make a decent living.

  5. jaredgood1 says:

    I worked plenty of retail jobs in college and there were usually two kinds of people who worked there. The one kind were usually doing the job as some sort of temporary thing (usually either High school or College students) and they really didn’t care one way or another about the job, because it was just a means to an end. The other kind were the lifers (it’s their full-time job and probably will work retail until they die), and they all hated the job. Honestly, I cannot say I blame them. I’d rather muck out toilets then work retail again.

  6. nweaver says:

    Why do people put up with it? Because, for an unfortunate too-many, that $.02 on a roll of toilet paper is a necessary savings.

  7. Consumerist Moderator - ACAMBRAS says:

    Wal-Mart’s Employee Morale, Customer Service At All-Time Low

    In other news, the earth is round, and water is wet.

    [/snark]

  8. Buran says:

    @ElizabethD: Exactly. “If Wal-Mart doesn’t care for me, why should I care?” Because you’re being paid to help people, not be a pompous jerk because you think the job YOU WILLINGLY TOOK is beneath you.

  9. cef21 says:

    Nweaver –

    It’s a lot more than 2 cents, at least on some things. On most grocery items, Walmart’s prices are about 30% lower than those at the nearest grocery store. That’s a huge savings. Plus, Walmart’s turnover is so high that things tend to be fresher — milk at Walmart expires in 2 weeks, compared with 6 days at the grocery store.

  10. SabrinaFaire says:

    @ElizabethD: I think it’s tough to have pride in a job that doesn’t pay well and keeps your hours to just under full time so you’re ineligible for any kind of benefits.

  11. louisb3 says:

    @Buran: Actually, it’s very possible that they didn’t WILLINGLY TAKE the job, if Walmart destroyed local businesses and left them no choice.

  12. Buran says:

    @jonnypage: I see that here too. Why have all these checkouts if you never use them?

  13. bambino says:

    @louisb3: Give me a fucking break. Go work at the Esso if your town is so small that the only retail is walmart.

  14. Buran says:

    @louisb3: I highly doubt that anyone held a gun to their heads, or that there are NO other businesses in town, or that there are NO places to work within travel (bus, train, car) distance.

    And just about anywhere, if you don’t like the job, you are free to quit and let someone who WILL do a better job than your whiny ass take it.

    That said, what’s with the “walmart can’t afford higher salaries”? Has anyone looked up just how much money this company has in the bank? No, they’re just too damn cheap to pay workers more.

  15. DeeJayQueue says:

    @Buran: It’s not always that easy. Try getting a job if you’ve got visible tattoos or a criminal record or only a tenuous grasp of english. Even a shitty job is better than nothing if you’re only marginally employable.

    Plus, just like walmart is in a “box” where they have to freeze salaries to make up for lagging sales because of poor morale and customer service, the employees get stuck too. Places like walmart, k-mart, target, etc all want you to have the most availability you can, often working nights and weekends, and lots of times your schedule changes week to week. It’s next to impossible to take a second job or even find time to schedule an interview for a replacement job when you’re never quite sure when you’ll have to be at work. Lots of these workers have kids that they have to find sitters for, adding to the problem.

    Jobs like that are like flypaper. I know. I used to work at Kmart when I was in high school. I saw first hand all the “lifers” that got stuck and couldn’t get back out again. Was it their fault initially? Probably. After a while though it just gets harder and harder to leave. Even if you can find something better, you get stuck again. I got out while I wasn’t dependent on the money and still in school. Lots of other people weren’t so lucky.

  16. frogman31680 says:

    I was working at our local Ames department store when we got the word that the stores were closing. We were told not to worry, Ames corporate office had worked out a deal to get us all hired on at walmart.

    And you wonder why they all look unhappy. Sometimes it isn’t willingly that they take the employment. But on the other hand, they aren’t really looking that hard now are they?

  17. vex says:

    I realized this after they installed those self checkout lanes and found out the computers were friendlier than the cashiers.

  18. nursetim says:

    @jonnypage:
    Thats the reason why I don’t go to Wal Mart anymore.

  19. SVreader says:

    Sure, if you’re in customer service, you should be focused on serving customers, but in reality it’s clear that bad treatment of employees = poor customer service.

    Even if you hate the idea of “whiny asses” being paid more and treated better instead of just sucking it up and skipping happily through their slave-wage jobs, what’s actually going to improve customer service?

    Realistically, Walmart improving their treatment and training of employees, not people yelling at employees to quit and find other jobs, is what would make the difference.

    I’m not saying employees are always in the right or that a crappy job excuses everything (I recently had the unique customer service experience of having a Motel 6 employee say that my reservation wasn’t showing up, there was nothing he could do about it, and then pretend to not be on the phone anymore), but if paying employees next to nothing and treating them badly isn’t working, clearly it’s time to try something else.

  20. wezelboy says:

    @DeeJayQueue: Bingo. Try getting unstuck from the Walmart if you have health issues.

    Another thing that sucks about working at Walmart is the customers that it attracts. Many of them are downright abusive. I’ve seen customers insult employees for no reason whatsoever. Parents will often let their children run rampant through the store damaging merchandise. The complete lack of civility among certain Walmart customers makes it very difficult for the employees to like their job, especially since they have absolutely no recourse but to withstand abuse.

  21. chili_dog says:

    I used to shop (almost) exclusively at Walmart. But about 3-4 years ago it just changed. It was at the same time they were trying to more like Target but it was just different.

    Now I go to Target. At least the women are better looking there.

  22. Mr. Cynical says:

    Don’t you kind of ‘get what you pay for’? If you are buying the cheapest stuff around at the cheapest place around, what makes you think you’re going to get first class service?

    I’m just saying!

  23. @DeeJayQueue: Not to mention, just because you can get a different job doesn’t mean you can get a better job. The area I live in has very low unemployment. It also has a very high poverty rate. It’s not like someone working at Wal-mart can just skip next door and get a job as a Chemical Engineer.

  24. bohemian says:

    Our local Walmart has hit the point of not being able to retain enough desperate employees. They put the help wanted sign out in July and it is still up. Anyone who has enough of a clue is either working in a call center or at one of the other big box retailers. I think even the poor and uneducated are starting to get a clue that working at Walmart isn’t that great.

  25. Nighthawke says:

    I went into one store to do a job interview and was led past their break room. I took a good look at the faces and took in the general mood of the room, it was like looking into the mouth of a black hole, it was so dark and dismal. You’d think that a prison had a cheerier outlook than what I had experienced.
    I pegged the interviewer with a question about the general atmosphere that I had just encountered. I got a indifferent shrug and “thats always like that here”.
    I got the hell out of there as fast as my feet would carry me.

  26. lestat730 says:

    @ElizabethD: I’m sorry but I fail to see why the many people who feel trapped in a low paying and dull job where they aren’t appreciated at all would feel any sense of pride. I know I wouldn’t.

  27. UpsetPanda says:

    Has anyone here worked at Wal-Mart AND a competitor, like Target? I had a few friends who worked at Wal-Mart and at Target, and there was a dramatic difference in morale. Sure, they all griped about coworkers, bosses and hours, but I found that the ones at Target actually talked about their work (aside from the complaints) whereas the Wal-Mart workers tried to stay away from discussing their job, almost as if they felt embarrassed.

  28. Keter says:

    I think it may depend on the store location and staffing strategy, too. My son worked part time at Wal-Mart for about a year while in high school and liked it. He got a 30 minute break and free snack chips and sodas – they knew how to keep kids happy. The adults working there were mostly former retirees going back to work due to boredom, some extra spending money (particularly around Christmas), or a discount; they, too, seemed happy enough. But the store was in a richer part of town, and was more high-end than many. It was the few mid-career folks – the ones with families and big money woes – who seemed unhappy. A store across town in a poorer area seemed to have a lot of employee malaise, but then they also had a mid-career staff.

    Wal-Mart might be well advised to limit their hiring to the youngest and oldest, and let the mid-career people go to work at Target and other retailers where there remains at least some hope of having a career with benefits again… I use Target in this example because I’ve watched a local Target open and retain many of the same staff – mostly mid-career moonlighters and kids who didn’t go to college – over a three year period. They must be doing something right with that more main-sequence demographic.

  29. TechnoDestructo says:

    @Buran:

    You need to travel more. Walmart country doesn’t HAVE buses or trains. Cities are spaced far apart…it isn’t worth a long commute for a barely-above-minimum-wage job. Some places don’t have much of a retail sector apart from Walmart, and Walmart may even be a majority of the unskilled job market. And while many small towns like that will have small specialist retail shops, a lot of places only hire family and friends.

    Basically, if you have the time with your Walmart schedule, you could keep looking for something else, but don’t expect it to be easy to find it.

    Also…Esso? That alone tells me that you aren’t equipped to understand what the problem is.

  30. sassypizzazz says:

    The Wal-Mart I go to is decent. Of course, I am able to go grocery shopping in the early morning, which seems to be the best time. Most of the employees there during that time are the “lifers” but since I live in the Midwest, the workers are fairly nice. But I am beginning to think that my Wal-Mart may be the exception to the rule. And, since I only buy groceries at Wal-Mart, I never have to return items.

  31. SadSam says:

    Read Nickel and Dimed, author goes undercover to work 3-4 low paying jobs (Wal-Mart was one) and reports on whether she could survive on the wages and benefits.

    The book is a bit outdated, but still a good read.

  32. sassypizzazz says:

    @Buran:

    I live in the heart of Wal-Mart country. There are 4 Wal-Mart Super Centers, with another one being built as we speak, for a city with less than 500,000. Also, public transportation is a joke. The utility company owns and operates the buses, and the routes are inefficient to nonexistent. So, for many people, Wal-Mart truly is the ONLY option. And, because the cost of living is so low, as compared to other cities in the U.S., companies (i.e. not just Wal-Mart) justify paying lower wages.

  33. ElizabethD says:

    @lestat730:
    I’m sorry as well — that people like you seem to think employees are justified in abusing the goodwill of CUSTOMERS on account of their gripes with their employer. That is such a latter-day spoiled, me-me-me attitude toward work – not to mention basic civility.

    “Pay me more or I’ll be rude to those other people.” I don’t have to be happy about living in the kind of world where adult employees resort to infantile behavior toward the people they are hired to serve.

  34. layladylan says:

    @MissJ: You’re dead-on. I worked at Wal-Mart in high school and a friend of mine worked at Target. While I’m not saying that Target is a paradise or anything, employees are treated much better there from what I have heard. At the Wal-Mart where I worked, turnover was incredibly high and morale very low. I refuse to shop there now.

  35. @ElizabethD: Lack of pride does not equal customer abuse.

  36. LAGirl says:

    every time i read a story like this, makes me glad i’ve never been to Walmart.

  37. lestat730 says:

    @ElizabethD: I didn’t say that employees are justified in abusing the customers, but when employers treat employees like crap you can hardly expect them to be motivated and show pride in the job. Additionally, I’m sure you’ve been in a store before and seen a rude customer screaming at an employee with no respect or consideration for their feelings when it isn’t even their fault. Maybe they had a bad day or maybe they are just not nice people, the fact is that retail workers have to deal with people like this all the time. Add to that inconsiderate managers who view workers as body’s and not human beings and it all becomes a drain on the person emotionally and physically. So when you have low pay, being overworked, nasty managers, working most holidays, and having no or low benefits it can start to feel like a vicious cycle with no end in sight. Every day is the same and therefore every day is the same bad day repeated over and over again. You’ll see plenty of workers that might show pride when they first get hired but after many years of it, you have people who survive but are miserable and unhappy. Sure they could quit, but anywhere else they get hired is more of the same. Retail is a tough industry to work in and it will eventually wear down and burn out just about anyone. So no, I don’t blame them for not showing pride and jumping for joy to help the customers.

    When I was younger I worked in several retail stores in between school and I saw a lot of this first hand. Many of the lifers were horribly depressed and unable to escape. After 2 years of it I started to feel the same way and thank god that I was able to find a good career for myself after I finished college. I could escape all this but many don’t have that choice. So when you say ‘people like you’ your wrong. I have a lot of pride in my job and the reason is because I’m payed well enough, respected, appreciated, and treated with some common decency. At the end of the day I feel like I truly accomplished something good and I’m happy to come back to work. Yes, everyday isn’t perfect but the point is I have good days at work while many people are not so lucky.

  38. evilhapposai says:

    I just started at a Walmart and was supposed to be in the electronics dept. after requesting the Americans with Disability Act form prior to getting my drug test I was ONLY allowed to be a greeter at MUCH lower pay because of my physical disability. After starting the ADA form that required me to get breaks on time was ignored until now I have to yell in the radio to get it. Since I have been hurting do bad at the job that I cannot get in my car to drive home and must call home for a ride. I have asked but am NOT ALLOWED to sit even for a short time. I have since put in another ADA form that the doctor says sit down work only and was told that Walmart “probably will not accomadate”. The thing that pisses me off the most is that other places in the same store I have seen sitting like in lawn and garden and the fitting room. When I asked about cashier and that I have seen others sitting there I was told that was “only for pregnant women and so forth”.

    So, yes I am one of those working for that HATES Walmart. They are the scum of the earth when it comes to working with the disabled. But I have NEVER took out my frustrations out on a customer, but if one would ask me how I feel about Walmart or why I look like I am about to fall over in pain I WILL tell them exactly what is going on.

    ……and I hope ol’ WallyWorld is reading the comment. SCREW YOU AND THE CHINESE POISON TRAIN YOU RODE IN ON.

  39. evilhapposai says:

    Oh and for the record about taking this job if it sucks so bad like the earlier comments. I needed cash for doctors appointments, food, and medicine and there is not much else in my area. When I walk up with a cane and try to apply somewhere for work I might as well have a criminal record or a communicable disease (which I do not by the way) as far as they are concerned. So yes, I kinda HAD to take this job and just quiting because I dont like it is NOT possible. Walmart knows this and treats its employees like crap because there is no where else for many of them to go. I also went to the local county job and family service/ disability office and 63 applications later still had no job. Companies CLAIM they are diverse and have laws to be fair but rarely ever follow them. Its not against the law to just never call back for the interview or say we hired another more qualified applicant.

  40. kingdom2000 says:

    Having worked retail, I can’t blame. As a whole customers are not only wrong most of the time but seem to think your there to be their punching bag because the boss yelled at them at work.

    On top of that mangment often has unrealistic goals based on spreadsheets that have little to do with the real world but you must meet because they get a fat bonus. The end result is usually long hours and not enough people to do the tasks required. When was the last time you went to Wal-Mart and saw enough people manning the registers? Or in the aisles? I personally can’t remember.

    So the result if 8 hours a day, everyday of constantly being attacked in some form or fashion with a company that only cares about how much you are costing them and makes little effort to hide it. Nevermind the lack of advancement.

    Lets put it this way, those that don’t understand…I am betting they never worked retail.

  41. lestat730 says:

    @kingdom2000: good to see someone else who understands, I shiver just thinking about my days in retail.

  42. Trick says:

    What? No cheering for Wal*Mart? The Consumerists continues to point out all the slack-jawed idiots who work for Wal*Mart and now we are supposed to feel bad for them???

  43. SOhp101 says:

    Wal-Mart employees actually have had morale in the past?! That’s news to me!

  44. Extended-Warranty says:

    It’s real easy to sit back and land expectations on what you expect from Wal-Mart employees. I’d like to see some of your put in 2 years of what they have to go through, and you’ll understand. Now I don’t agree they should intentionally piss off every customer. But overall, anyone should hate their life if they have to endure all that crap.

  45. UpsetPanda says:

    You know misery loves company. I’ve worked retail before, and I can tell you (as can many others) that sometimes when your customers suck, the best relief you can have is to gripe about it with your fellow coworkers. They know exactly what you’re feeling, it’s easy to get into that shlump, and you’re waiting for “that guy” to come in and push you to the brink.

  46. louisb3 says:

    @Buran: Others have already refuted your comments, but I thought it would be fun to point out that you’re holding Walmart less accountable than its employees. After all, it’s WILLINGLY EMPLOYING the employees who are doing a crappy job at least as much as they WILLINGLY TOOK the job. And just about anywhere, Walmart is free to fire them and hire someone who WILL do a better job, at least as much as the employees are “free” to quit and let somebody else who WILL do a better job.

    Also, the threat of poverty and eventual starvation is about as effective as “holding a gun to their heads.” Perhaps the lack of actual violence makes it easy for you to ignore it, but people do need to work somewhere (and, as others have said, “somewhere” = Walmart), unless you rather they lived a life of crime.

  47. Recently went to a local Wal-Mart to return a DVD Burner that would not burn CDs properly. They accepted it without too much hassle, however, the two employees that were in there were carrying on a normal conversation but in very harsh and depressing/angry tones. It was quite awkward actually. I don’t believe I ever saw either one of them smile at all. My uncle worked at Wal-Mart at one point, and I can tell you the morale is VERY low and they treat their employees like crap. It’s sad.

    I hate getting bad service sometimes, but I have to say, if I was hating having to go to my job because of my employer, I would not be too happy either. However, that means its time to get a new job (though I understand some people are stuck with wal-mart due to lack of employment opps in their area, etc.).

    There has only been one exception to the Wal-Mart low-morale atmosphere, and his name is Gil, he is an older Japanese(?) man that speaks english a little rough, and he is THE ABSOLUTE nicest person you will ever find behind a register. He ALWAYS smiles, and always puts on his best face and is helpful no matter what.

    The local college kids have even dedicated a facebook group to him. (I know it sounds lame, but this man deserves recognition for being willing to smile and be happy no matter whats going on or how bad his employer is, and that is awesome.)

  48. FLConsumer says:

    While employee attitudes at Mal-Wart suck, there’s a bigger problem — Mal-Wart management. A good customer service experience almost always requires good management. Higher wages can help you hire higher quality workers, BUT are no guarantee. A good manager can MOTIVATE employees to do better than they have been, and a good management team will put time into their employees to make sure their employees understand what is proper behaviour.

    At the bottom end of the labour pool, which is where Mal-Wart really stands, you’re going to have to do A LOT more training of your employees, as most of them have probably been fired from more than one job or haven’t ever worked in the business world. They have NO concept of what working really is and what is expected, and that’s where good management comes into play. I’m not talking about training videos & other corporate bullshit; I’m talking about true 1-on-1 with the manager and the employee. Yes, this does cost money up-front, but how much does it really cost in the long-term? Not much. It costs far more to keep up with the revolving door of employees being hired & leaving in < 6 months. Quality costs less in the long-term. Wall Street’s smart enough to know this, but apparently Mal-Wart management isn’t.

    A few gripes of my own:
    *Is there a VALID reason there’s 50 checkout lanes and only 2-3 open?

    *Is there a reason the Mal-Wart stores are always filthy?

    *Is there a reason that there’s always shipping materials (plastic, forklift palettes, paper, etc) strewn about the store floors?

    *Is there a reason the shelves are in disarray and often out of stock of individual items?

    Maybe there is a valid reason for these questions, but not one that will appease your customers. I know I’ve personally left carts full of items after waiting in line too long. Maybe trashy people will stand for it (and trashy people need a place to shop too), but my time’s worth more than the $0.02 I was going to save on something. If those trashy people had an understanding of money & value (especially how much one’s time is really worth, they’d be following me straight for the exits as well.

  49. crankymediaguy says:

    “Give me a fucking break. Go work at the Esso if your town is so small that the only retail is walmart.”

    Esso? Are you, like, ten thousand years old or are you Canadian? There hasn’t been an Esso station in America in about 25 or 30 years.

    Welcome to the 21st Century, Rip Van Winkle.

  50. Dr.Ph0bius says:

    I would question anyone going to Wal Mart expecting any sort of a warm and fuzzy customer service experience… and this is the Detroit area, which is easily one of the worst places in the country for customer service (in general, there are always exceptions). But in all honesty, I have never run accross anyone who seemed to be hostile or mean, though (and again, I hate to generalize) it always seems that for the most part, people working at Wal Mart are working there becaue they arent able/qualified to get a job anywhere else.

    I hate to sound snobby, but its kind of a case of the attitude that you see from undereducated people in general. It may not even be intended to come off the way it does…

    But hey, screw Wal Mart anyway.

  51. TechnoDestructo says:

    @fall_farewell: Bad employers don’t DESERVE to have people like that.

  52. cheryld40 says:

    Our local wal-mart is notorious for long check-out lanes. First they wait until at least 5 people are in every line (2 are open!) and then they call for help. That help then makes it’s way slowly to the front, usually not until the second call for help. Many times I want to leave my cart and walk out, but there is no where else to shop nearby for the items I am getting. The salespeople are also slow and unfriendly, and the type of help you get for minimum wage (sorry for the generalization, but true). I also work in retail (grocery) and where I work we call for help the SECOND one other customer is waiting! And we are friendly even when we have any number of personal issues going on–divorce issues, sick kids, family members in the hospital, accidents, financial trouble, etc. We do NOT let our customers know that we are not happy that day! We are trained that the customer IS our paycheck and we are there to do a service to them and help them get home to their families as quickly as possible. They DO appreciate it, as we get compliments every day! And it also helps us to have a better day when we “have” to be friendly! Customers do return to stores with friendly customer service. However, sometimes they also return to poor service stores when gas prices prevent them from going elsewhere.

  53. Johnathan Thomas Pierson says:

    What most people, specifically those who’ve never worked at Walmart for over a year, don’t understand is that customer service is largely representative of the customers themselves.
    As was said on page 1, some associates look downright defeated by their jobs. This past week I had a customer insult me by saying that I look like I spent the night drinking. Shortly after her, I had another customer ask me if I liked my job when I replied negatively to it she blew up at me. And the final straw was a customer who asked me to forgo putting her items in bags, to put it in a plastic bin she bought. As soon as I rung up the bin she took it and put it in her cart, not allowing me to do as she asked, I proceeded to put the items in bags, which sent her over the edge.

    For those of you who have experience in retail, you know what I’m talking about. For those of you who go into Walmart daily and see that the associates are always wrong just because you, the customer, are always “right”, you make me sick. It is inept and careless to assume that the world revolves around you just because you’re spending money. You want good service, you better damn well pay for it with humility, respect, and compassion.