My Supermarket, My Friend

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

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.

"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.

Even utilities are getting cozy with customers. One of the players in California's recently deregulated electricity market goes by the name of Friendly Power and Gas. "Know Who Your Friends Are" advises the company slogan. And what makes Friendly Power and Gas so darned friendly?

"We've developed a customer service department with fully scripted personnel," says Alec Messeroff, Friendly's chief financial officer.

Corporate America's latest message to consumers is: "We don't just want your business. We want a relationship with you." In truth, companies really just want your business, the way they always have. But they're willing to offer a "fully scripted" ersatz relationship, in the hope that you don't notice how it differs from genuine human contact.

Company-mandated friendliness doesn't make most customers feel more appreciated; if they're paying attention at all, it makes them uncomfortable to see what's being done in their name. A mandatory smile cheapens the real thing and turns courtesy into just another commodity to be stacked on the shelves. Forced friendliness does nothing to boost employee morale; most self- respecting workers wind up resenting company rules meant to govern basic human interaction. About the only people who benefit from the program are company executives, who gain more control over employees, while getting to pass it off as an added service to customers. And unlike lowering prices or raising wages -- moves that would make customers and employees break out in genuine smiles -- the customer service program doesn't cost the company a dime.

Safeway, along with an army of imitators, is quickly adopting the creepy "smile or else" corporate culture that has some employees of Disney referring to their place of work as "Mouseschwitz." The jackboot of friendliness is coming down at a store near you, and the beleaguered troops are all wearing yellow smiley face armbands.

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