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Letter to Safeway Food Stores

Good Morning Safeway Executives! How are you today? HOW'S IT GOING?,

We'll get right to the point. Will you please consider reconsidering the policy that makes it mandatory for your employees to accost customers with fake smiles and forced pleasant remarks? And while you're at it you can go ahead and discontinue the requirement that requires cashiers to butcher patron's last names every time they try to pay for a loaf of bread. Despite what they may have told you back in business school, superior service is not defined as pestering every single customer with disingenuous niceties and useless platitudes. Here's an idea - How about asking that employees simply be cordial and helpful when needed and seen and not heard when not? Is it so hard to fathom how annoying a policy that demands that every customer be treated with exactly the same treacle is to people? We're not sure how you obtained your MBA's or your marketing advice, but you obviously paid too much for them. Or perhaps a consulting firm is playing a cruel joke on you. Surely if you held a board meeting, and let the group consider for even a moment a policy so ridiculous, someone in the room would be able to grasp the concept that shoppers do not feel particularly special or become more likely to spend money when they hear someone parroting "Hello, it's very nice to see you," to every Moe and Sally that walk by? Haven't the numerous cases of customers misinterpreting your employee's greetings for flirtation been enough to suggest that this approach of forced friendliness may not be such a good idea?

Ironically, because of your misguided attempts to be such a "friendly" place to shop, we will usually drive miles out of our way to avoid stopping at a Safeway. And the funny thing is we have no real complaint with anything else about your store - okay selection, reasonable prices, convenient locations, decent generic brands (that club card things is lame but certainly not unique to Safeway). But when planning a trip to get groceries, we never even consider going to Safeway and it's not specifically because we mind being greeted by an abnormally chipper clerk in every aisle. That's highly irritating, to be sure, but it's actually more of a deterrent just to be forced to witness the pain and embarrassment detectable in these poor employees just beneath the gleam of their plastic smiles. 

Now admittedly, we're not corporate executives with years of top dollar training behind us, but let's examine the situation from a layman's point of view. Safeway pays a pretty fair wage, we understand, and many of these poor souls were probably working away pleasantly, stocking shelves or portioning out animal flesh (and making pretty good money doing it) when this policy was suddenly instituted. Now, because of house and car loans taken out with the expectation that they would continue to love their jobs, workers are just trying to tough it out, hoping against any evidence that saner heads will eventually prevail. And while the stupidity of the policy might be hard for those of you making decisions over at corporate headquarters to understand, it's abundantly clear to those in the trenches that most customers are at least mildly annoyed by this behavior and end up looking upon your employees with pity. It is also painfully obvious to anyone that shops with you that the workers themselves are not fond of the rules and are only greeting people because it is required and for fear of having to find another $13.40 an hour job so they can make their mortgages. So they continue to force the pleasantness, even upon people who a drunken donkey could tell will not be receptive to it. Think about how humiliating that must be day after day after day. And it inevitably becomes so rote in their routines that even the customers who may have been interested in some genuine perkiness at one time can sense immediately that this is all a forced act. And then these folks are subtly alienated as well.

So, as we said, even though we usually go to great lengths to avoid the situation and try to buy our groceries anywhere else (often places with sub-par comestibles but that allow the employees to behave with some semblance of dignity), there are times, like this morning, when we forget how aggravating shopping with you can be. And the result was that we had to suffer through another infuriating visit just because of a spur of the moment decision to pick up some fruit. 

Let's set the scene:

We pull into the local store, which is tauntingly convenient by the way, since it is the only grocery store in our neighborhood. We make it to the dairy section unscathed and are quietly comparing prices on a couple flavors of yogurt when a sibilant voice hisses nearby. 
"How you doin'?" Forgetting where we are, We jerk our heads around fearing some pervert has crept up from behind but instead find a beaming stock boy. 
"Doing fine," we say, and make a hurried selection and turn away only to run flat into another guy standing in an apron and piling fruit with a sour expression on his face. When he sees we are looking at him, a plastic grin immediately stretches ear to ear. 
"How's it going this morning?" he wants to know. 
"Okay I guess. Excuse us we just need some blueberries." Out of the corner of our eye we watch his face return to a scowl. 
"Top of the Morning!" says a passing cashier. 
"And how are we doing today?" nods a bustling butcher.
"Finding everything you need?" asks a poor sap pushing a cart of vegetables.
Feeling pressured and rattled, hectored and harried, we make the mistake of muttering. "Actually we have been meaning to pick up some bug repellent."
"Oh, follow me. It's all the way down at the other end there."
"No really, we can find it. Just tell  us what aisle." But instead of just directing us, we know he will leave his cart and his work and walk along by our side the whole way. He even stands there as if concerned about what brand of spray we might choose. He does this not because it makes any sense or isn't totally annoying to all of us. He does this because he has to.

What is the point Safeway? Why would you think this is a good idea? Did you consult with the Gap about customer service? Can't you see that junior high girls going to a mall to try on the latest summer swimwear might not necessitate the same public relations trickery as some poor schlep forced to step out for some laxatives or tampons? When a person is returning from a morning workout, sweaty and hot, and simply trying to pick up the makings for a smoothie, the last thing they want to do is exchange pleasantries with every single shelf stocker and fruit glosser on the floor. In any normal place of business, even the most naturally friendly of employees would ascertain with one glance that if a person is walking along, hat pulled down, eyes straight ahead, marching with a distinct purpose, eyes on some prize at the end of an aisle, then they most likely do not want to exchange platitudes with a stranger? Any normal person in any situation would be aware of this but your employees aren't allowed to be normal, are they? Has it occurred to you that some people just want to get what they need and go home without having a truncated conversation with each working person they encounter? People carrying a gallon of vodka and a bottle of Maalox do not want you to make eye contact with them. And then, as an added insult on the way out, the cashier botches their name and breaks off yet another fake and tired smile. 

And there's no reason, incidentally, to answer the question "what would make anyone think that a person wants to exchange platitudes" because Safeway employees evidently aren't allowed to think. This is a corporation that will not allow its 150,000 workers that leeway. They are not allowed to use personal judgment and greet people on a case by case basis, leaving those alone who clearly do not wish to be spoken to. We read that a San Francisco based group of these ill treated workers filed a union grievance recently complaining that too many of their customers were misinterpreting their faux friendliness for sexual come-ons. Safeway's response was to cite its "superior service initiative" and dispatch an army of undercover shoppers that eventually wrote up hundreds of employees who didn't meet the minimum standard of making eye contact and greeting every patron with some syrupy disingenuous warmth. The dissenters were forced to attend day long courses preaching the constant gratuitous greeting or face losing their jobs. In Tucson, there was a case a few years ago where some lonely degenerate mistook a young female Safeway employee's sustained pleasantness for the first ever attraction shown to him by a member of the opposite sex. He soon began stalking the poor girl around town. We forget the exact details but we're pretty sure that it didn't end well or we probably wouldn't have heard about it.

Can you not grasp the concept that if it is required that employees address every customer the same then any special treatment a certain individual might have felt will only be lost? This behavior doesn't personalize the experience of stopping off and picking up a shaker of Tums but rather has the exact opposite effect. It makes it more of a hassle than it is worth. Everyone we know objects to your policy and is made uncomfortable and mildly annoyed every time they stop at one of your stores. And having their family name mispronounced by a clerk at the end of a visit does nothing to restore a feeling of community. If you're going to insist on this foolishness, why not make the investment to create robots to do all the greeting? Then at least the behavior could be explained on some demented level.

Here, in a last ditch attempt to convince you, we'll try to put this in terms that your businessmen and women can understand. By our conservative estimate, we spend about 3000 dollars a year elsewhere that we would have spent at your stores if this policy was not in place. Multiply that by the old time tested formula that if one person writes a letter of complaint, there are probably 100 others who were just as annoyed but didn't take the trouble to write. Then multiply that by the number of other letters you receive from patrons that dislike the policy and then times that by the number of stores. Then figure in the 150,000 disgruntled employees who we're sure don't shop with you on their days off and all their friends who are upset by what you've done to them that they are also boycotting. Now divide that 14 figure number by the dollar value you think is being added by people who come to your stores simply to experience the "friendly atmosphere" and like it when cashiers call them by name even though they've never met them before. If the result you come up with is a positive number, than disregard this missive and carry on.

Otherwise, just bag the policy Safeway. It isn't working.

Response from Safeway

Other links to Safeway related complaints

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