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Check Chums

click to enlarge safeway-9726.jpg

Robert Scheer

À la Cart: You need never spend another night friendless and alone, not while your corporate buddies are there for you.

You've got a friend in Safeway Inc.

By Traci Hukill

A NEW SAFEWAY is a little slice of consumer heaven. It boasts impeccably clean floors, spacious aisles, and shelves stocked to overhead with almost everything Americans have ever thought of putting in their mouths. This store has everything--flowers, fruits, vegetables, meats, baked goods, salads, drugs, and teller machines. One need never leave this place. And everyone is so friendly! They even know your name!

Let's say you zip down to the Safeway for a quick quart of milk. An impersonal exchange would do, but no! Pass within 10 feet of one of those young, clean-cut employees and she's likely to flash a bright smile and ask if you're finding everything OK. Or maybe she'll just chirp, "Hello, how are you today?" And best of all, when you pay with a check or credit card, that Safeway employee will thank you by name every time. Why, it's like having a friend without having to listen to one!

You came for milk, you left after having made a personal friend--could a simple shopping experience be more fulfilling?

Now we don't like to poop on a good party, but it came to our attention that those well-scrubbed bagboys and checkers might be interested in more than just spreading a little sunshine. Job security comes to mind, especially in light of a Safeway memo addressed "To All Department Heads" that found its way into my hands a while back. This heartwarming bible of brotherly love offers Safeway employees a set of guidelines for making their beloved customers feel welcome. Arranged simply by dos and don'ts, the memo includes these inspired messages:

"Greet with a Smile. Make Eye Contact," the memo exhorts, but "Don't Be Mechanical" and "Don't Be Overzealous."

"Thank Customer by Last Name. Don't Thank Randomly. Role Play with Checks Before Beginning Shift," the Big Brother of grocery PR continues. And lest all of this should start to sound stale, "Develop a Battery of Appropriate [parting] Comments." But for heaven's sake, "Don't Be Repetitious"!

"It's a personalization of service," informs smooth Safeway spokesperson Debra Lambert about the thank-by-name policy. "Service is a very important key to our company, and we have been for quite some time fine-tuning [it]."

At long last, a corporation that wants us to know it loves us for our individuality. And we thought all it wanted was our money.

Whatever Safeway's method of instilling its service ethic in employees--be it profit sharing, terrorism, or lobotomy--it has admittedly succeeded. Employees are pleasant and for the most part seem genuinely friendly, even if their parting comments are a little repetitious. Then again, anyone's battery of appropriate parting comments can run low now and then.

"Yeah, I like it OK," shrugs a woman unloading groceries from a shopping cart in response to a question about Safeway's shtick. "They don't overdo it or anything."

"It's OK," echoes a young man who's just purchased the makings for a huge dinner party. "I don't really need them to take me to another aisle, though, to find something. They can just tell me where it is."

Indeed, Safeway's policy of escorting a customer to the exact shelf where, say, super plus tampons or hemorrhoid medications are found can lead to moments of acute embarrassment for at least one of the parties involved. In some cases, the balm of helpfulness meant to soothe can be an irritant in itself.

But customer service is nothing new, and Safeway isn't alone in the conspiracy to befriend the existentially isolated consumer. Wal-Mart checkers have been stumbling over my surname for a good five years, and I hear tales of similar "personalized" friendliness at Nordstrom and other department stores. That the practice is becoming more common makes it no less gratingly superficial, only easier to overlook.

In truth--and this is spleen talking--the economic motive for implementing institutionalized chumminess is so vile that it all but eradicates the sweetness of a smile from a stranger. From the corporate standpoint it's business as usual: Work that bottom line, and tap every resource if you must in order to do it.

In this case the indispensable resource, the one Debra Lambert terms key to Safeway's "competitive edge," happens to be a fragile and ethereal quality, that of human goodwill.

It's the ultimate manipulating tool.

THE ERA of the friendly corner market is a distant memory for most communities, especially in the suburbs. And yes, many of us are nostalgic for the "good old days" we never actually experienced, days when Bruno the Butcher and Maggie the Vegetable Lady knew our kids' names and what kind of steaks and tomatoes we liked.

But Bruno the Butcher would never mispronounce my name. It's fine to hear a clerk rattle off your name if you're a Smith or a Williams, but what if your last name is Wierzchowicz or Gzsanka? Of course, if your Safeway checker has followed the rules and engaged in a little light role-playing with checks before his shift, he may not stumble at all. Don't count on it, though.

Is the magic act working? Something is. Thanks to Safeway's recent takeover of Southern California supermarket chain Vons, the Safeway empire now trails industry leader Kroger by a mere $3 billion in annual revenues. Add Safeway's 241 California stores to the 300-odd Vons California locations and we just may become the friendliest darned state in the union--as long as you're shopping inside a Safeway and not ducking gunfire in one of our urban centers.

A few years ago the venerable grocery giant launched a TV ad campaign consisting of the requisite feel-good scenes between employees and customers set to a catchy little tune. The jingle went like this: "Everything you want from a store and a little bit mo-o-o-ore." At the time, Safeway was still passing itself off as the good guys, at least in our neighborhood. I started squirming when the chain installed TV sets running ads for food above every other aisle at some stores, as if maybe we hadn't gotten the gist of the commercials on our TV sets at home, in the magazines, and on the billboards.

I began to suspect I was being played, and now I'm certain of it. I don't go to a national grocery chain to feel warm and fuzzy or to make some new friends. If I go there at all, I go for the selection and the convenience. Anything else is just "a little bit mo-o-o-ore" than I ever wanted from a store.

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From the June 26-July 2, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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