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My Supermarket, My Friend 

Is that forced Safeway smile a customer service, or an annoying attempt to control?

Wednesday, Nov 11 1998
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Shopping at my local Safeway used to be simple: Place food items in basket, pay cashier, take food home. Lately, things have become much more complicated. Early this year, Safeway launched an intensified version of its superior customer service program, mandating a series of chummy "attributes" that workers must display when dealing with customers. Since then, my local Safeway has become the friendliest place this side of Disneyland, and about as believable.

As soon as you enter one of the new friendly Safeways, you notice that many of the employees are looking around furtively, a practice Safeway workers call "prairie dogging." Among other things, the customer service program dictates that employees constantly be on the lookout for opportunities to approach customers, and greet them, if they come within a range of five feet.

The greeting -- a simple hello -- is to be accompanied by a smile. Although some employees are free to ad-lib a smile, some store managers have refined this to mean that workers must "show some teeth." The smile must also be sincere. Safeway hires undercover evaluators to grade employees on their customer service attributes, including the sincerity of their smiles.

Ask a Safeway employee where the baking soda is, and you'll feel the bond of friendship growing stronger, like a tightening noose. Employees are instructed to reply, "The baking soda is on Aisle 10; would you like me to take you there?" There are, of course, large signs suspended from the ceiling noting each aisle number, so the offer to walk you to Aisle 10 may strike you as not only unnecessary, but also vaguely insulting.

Still, you may decide -- as a token of your budding friendship -- to accept the offer. When the employee reaches the baking soda, some managers have insisted that the clerk actually touch the package, in the manner of a celebrity spokesmodel. The employee is also supposed to "anticipate the customer's needs," in this case, by pointing out the location of other baking- related supplies, and if necessary, escorting the customer to each item. (Ignored are the potential complications involved in "anticipating customer needs" when someone asks where the condoms are.)

I've found that the only way to limit your contact with Safeway's palsy-walsy staff is to keep your head down, ask no questions, and get in line. But then, you still have to deal with the cashiers, who are waiting to unleash their own superior customer service attributes. Cashiers are instructed to greet each customer, smile (sincerely!), and make eye contact. Some managers have decreed that the eye contact should last three seconds.

If a customer pays with a credit card or Safeway Club Card, cashiers must thank the customer by his or her last name. (In some stores, a sign taped onto the registers, in full view of customers, reminds cashiers: "Thank by Last Name.") Cashiers are also required to ask customers whether they need any help carrying their groceries. More than once, I've bought a quart of milk and had to turn down offers to help me carry it out.

Employees who disregard any of the customer service requirements risk getting "dinged" by Safeway's undercover "Secret Shoppers," who regularly track employee performance. Workers who accumulate several below-par performance evaluations are sent to what employees call "Smile School," Safeway's customer service re-education camp. During the eight-hour reindoctrination, wayward employees watch a video featuring Safeway Chairman Steve Burd, who inspires them to new heights of customer service.

As a Safeway customer, I suppose I should be flattered that so much attention is lavished on fulfilling my needs. So why do I consider the customer service program to be a royal pain in the ass? Well, maybe because it doesn't serve my needs at all. With the creepy Stepford Wives smiles, three-second eye contacts, and phony-baloney chumminess, Safeway is offering the appearance of superior customer service, rather than the thing itself. It actually takes longer to get out of the store now.

The program isn't merely annoying, but also troubling for its insidious dishonesty, concealing an increasingly rigid corporate culture behind a forced smile, and passing it off as a boon to customers. Safeway substitutes genuine friendliness with an artificial prepackaged substitute, roughly the difference, in supermarket terms, between selling real cheese and cheese food.

Safeway's forced happiness program is, in fact, causing a lot of unhappiness throughout the company.

"This program's become an obsession with Safeway," says Frank Bologna, a 20-year Safeway veteran who works in Dixon, Calif. "I just try to sit back and laugh at it. If you take it seriously, you'll go bonkers."

Two United Food & Commercial Workers unions have lodged complaints about the program with both Safeway management and the National Labor Relations Board. Several female clerks have stepped forward to complain that they've been verbally harassed by male customers who mistook superior customer service for a come-on. Some customers have complained about the false jollity that pervades the stores. Others have raised privacy concerns about having their last names announced in public by cashiers. Married women who retain their maiden names complain that cashiers address them by their husbands' last names -- often, only one name per household is stored in the system. Some senior citizens say they feel insulted when a clerk offers to help them carry a single bag of groceries, unaware that everyone is similarly insulted.

"We have no problem with being friendly and giving good service," says Linda Russell, president of UFCW Local 373, who worked for Safeway for 25 years. "But this program is much too rigid. Employees feel they're constantly under the gun. We surveyed our members and we've gotten back comments like, 'Even customers don't like this.' "

Michele Runyon, who worked for Safeway for nine years, says her 16-year-old son Ryan was fired from Safeway after only three weeks on the job. The reason for the termination given by the store manager was that Ryan had failed to address a customer by his last name.

About The Author

Tom McNichol

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