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Chummy Checkers

Midtown Safeway
Where Everybody Blows Your Name: Following company orders , store personnel in the new Midtown Safeway on West San Carlos in San Jose have been directed to address customers by name, smile, make eye contact and be more helpful than any other supermarket staff on the face of the earth.

Photo by Christopher Gardner



Safeway Inc., now the second-largest grocery chain in the nation, wants you to know you have a friend who cares. Really.

By Traci Hukill

MIDTOWN SAFEWAY is a little piece of heaven--about an acre, actually. One acre of impeccably clean floors, four-lane aisles and shelves stocked to overhead with almost everything Americans have ever thought of putting in their mouths. One acre of regularly spaced speakers advertising Gas-X and Axid to us inventive, if bloated, Americans. One acre of flowers, fruits, vegetables, meats, baked goods, salads, videos, drugs and teller machines. One need never leave this place. And everyone is so friendly! They even know your name!

Pass within 10 feet of an (invariably young, clean-cut) employee 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!

Of course, 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 DEPT. HEADS" that found its way to Metro's downtown San Jose office. 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:

"DO GREET WITH A SMILE. DO MAKE EYE CONTACT." But "DON'T BE MECHANICAL" and "DON'T BE OVERZEALOUS."

"DO THANK CUSTOMER BY LAST NAME, " "DON'T THANK RANDOMLY," and--our favorite--"DO ROLE PLAY WITH CHECKS BEFORE BEGINNING SHIFT." And lest all of this should start to sound stale: "DO DEVELOP A BATTERY OF APPROPRIATE [parting] COMMENTS" but "DON'T BE REPETITIOUS."

It feels nice knowing that the legendary Safeway friendliness is genuine, doesn't it?

'IT'S A personalization of service," informs Safeway spokeswoman 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]." Assistant Manager Mark Bowers of the Midtown store is absolutely polite as he delivers the company line, deftly avoiding controversy in any form. "We stress our service. It's a number-one priority," he says, noting that he is not at liberty to divulge any details about the company wide program.

Whatever Safeway's method of instilling its service ethic in employees (incentives? terrorism? lobotomies?), it has admittedly succeeded. Employees are pleasant and for the most part seem genuinely friendly, even if their parting comments are a little repetitious ("Have a good day" being the runaway favorite at Midtown).

"Yeah, I like it okay," 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, tampons or hemorrhoid medications are found can lead to moments of acute embarrassment. Then there's the case of the employee who escorted a woman all over the Midtown store in search of plastic forks, only to find they were out of stock. Yes, in some cases the 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 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 odious, only easier to overlook.

In truth, 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 both Lambert and Bowers term key to Safeway's "competitive edge," is a fragile and ethereal quality, that of human good will. It's the ultimate manipulating tool--we are, after all, social creatures who require love in order to survive. Most humans deprived of meaningful contact with other people either die or go insane.

It's interesting that megastores like Wal-Mart and Safeway are keying in on this need just as our national sense of community enters a period of intense trauma. The era of the friendly corner market is a distant memory for most communities, particularly in the suburbs.

WE'VE BEEN HEARING about the dissolution of our communities for quite some time. But consider that the Internet is expanding our immediate community to include the entire world even as it depersonalizes it. Conversely, consider that home offices and home entertainment centers are shrinking our community of day-to-day contacts even as they put us in touch with people many miles away. These are strange times, and maybe, just maybe, it elicits a pleasurable response in the ol' gray matter to see a smile and hear our names spoken, even if they are mispronounced.

Which raises another more humorous point about thank-by-name policies. 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? Do you really want to hear the family name subjected to the inevitable pronunciatory massacre? Of course, if your Safeway checker has followed the rules and engaged in a little light role-playing with checks before her shift, she may not stumble at all. Not likely, though.

More irate even than those of us who are nominally challenged, however, are women who dislike the M words: Miss, Ms, Mrs. and the one that sends a frisson up the spine of every woman under 50, Ma'am.

"And don't call me Ma'am!" fumes a svelte friend in her 40s about her Safeway experience. Another pal who shops for her elderly mother and uses the older woman's ATM card to pay has this warning for well-meaning clerks: "If they call me Mrs. one more time, I'm gonna kill somebody." I guess personalized service is a bit like a magic act. Everyone's impressed until the wires start showing.

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 darn state in the union--as long as you're shopping inside a Safeway and not ducking gunfire in one of our urban centers.

One thing we can be sure of, however: The Midtown Safeway's Earthquake Moderne architecture will not be replicated anywhere. Says Assistant Manager Shannon Amsbaugh a little grimly, "I have no idea [what the inspiration is]. But I can tell you there won't be any more Safeways like us. We're one of a kind."

You can say that again, sister.

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From the January 9-15, 1997 issue of Metro

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