My Supermarket, My Friend

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

"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.

"The expression on Ryan's face when he told me broke my heart," Michele says.

The reason Safeway managers crack the whip on employees has less to do with customer service than cold, hard cash. Bonus money for managers is tied in part to a store's customer service rating, as determined by the evaluations conducted by Safeway's Secret Shoppers. In an average year, department managers stand to make $6,000 in bonuses, while a store manager can pull in as much as $30,000. A low customer-service score takes money out of a manager's pocket, which is why some managers have turned the customer service program into something resembling an Islamic jihad. One store manager taped a sign on the swinging doors leading from the employee break room reading: DON'T THINK -- SMILE.

Oddly, there's no manual that spells out exactly what the requirements of the program are; employees have to rely on oral instructions from managers. Union leaders suspect the lack of specificity to be intentional; if nothing's in writing, the company can plausibly deny the sillier aspects of the program and tinker with it at will.

In fact, Safeway officials deny that there's a new customer service program in place at all. Whatever changes customers may have noticed are due to "an additional training effort" since the beginning of the year, according to Debra Lambert, Safeway's corporate director of public affairs. Lambert says that although Safeway takes sexual harassment of employees seriously, she dismisses the recent complaints as issues raised by "an isolated group of employees" and denies there's any connection between harassment and the store's customer service efforts. Lambert calls the three-second eye contact rule a "myth," but concedes employees are graded on service attributes, including the sincerity of their greetings. Lambert declined to discuss specific aspects of the program in detail, but said that any dissatisfaction with the program has been generated by the union.

"The union is lying," Lambert states flatly, in a tone that would send a Safeway clerk back to Smile School.

If anything, the customer service program demonstrates the law of unintended consequences. A program designed to improve customer service seems to be lowering employee morale, which in turn can only make for worse customer service. And Safeway customers are left wonder-ing whether their frozen-smiled friends roaming the aisles are, in fact, amazingly lifelike robots.

"My mother was in the Safeway the other day," Michele Runyon recounts, "and a clerk asked her, 'Are you finding everything you need?' She told him, 'Yes, thank you, I can manage.' A minute later, she runs into the same clerk in the next aisle and he asks her, 'Are you finding everything you need?' "

"Superior customer service" has long been a buzzphrase among upscale establishments such as Nordstrom, the Seattle-based retailer widely acclaimed as setting the "gold standard" in customer relations. But lately, the notion of using customer service as a strategic billy club has trickled down to the bronze and tin level of firms. Wal-Mart, Target, and the Gap are among a growing number of companies that require employees to meet and greet customers at the front door. Safeway, the nation's No. 2 food retailer (behind Kroger), is the first major supermarket to enter the smile stakes, but will likely not be the last. Supermarkets get by on razor-thin profit margins -- 1 or 2 percent -- and most of the items they offer are identical to those sold by competitors. By touting their superior customer service, Safeway and other friendly companies aim to rise above the clutter.

Lately, Safeway's profits have outpaced those of its rivals, due mainly to having gobbled up several of its competitors. But the company is taking its recent upturn as proof that customers like the enhanced service policy. "After all," the company reasons, "if people didn't like what we're doing, they wouldn't shop with us." But by this logic, people must really like America Online, because it's the No. 1 Internet provider. Sometimes you put up with insufferable corporate behavior because it's too inconvenient not to.

In many cases, it's the least friendly companies that are trying hardest to be pals with their customers. Almost every HMO ad you see nowadays is a warm, fuzzy valentine that assures customers the HMO has their best interests in mind, like a lifelong friend. Banks aren't imposing financial institutions anymore -- they're your neighbors. Well, I'm sorry, but a bank is not my neighbor. It's a huge out-of-state corporation that happens to have an ATM near where I live.

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