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Chummy Checkers

Robert Scheer

Returning Cartwheels: National megacorporation or friendly neighborhood store? Judging from the familiar treatment delivered by Safeway checkers, it's kinda hard to tell nowadays.

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

By Traci Hukill

MISSION STREET SAFEWAY is a little piece of Santa Cruz 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. Neutered reggae dribbles from regularly spaced speakers for those who wish to skank while they shop. 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 on Mission Street or 41st Avenue 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 with 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 DEPT. HEADS" that found its way to Metro Santa Cruz's office 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:


"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 famously 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.

Cyanide and Cynicism

MANAGER "STEVE" of Soquel's Safeway outlet gets a little jumpy when asked about the policy. "I can't talk about anything about [the company] to newspaper reporters," he says, heading off controversy and potentially subversive discourse at the pass. "That's all confidential."

Metro Santa Cruz was unable to discover whether the friendly neighborhood megastore's corporate office supplies its managers with cyanide capsules in case of capture by the media, but, needless to say, no one at Safeway wished to discuss that, either. Safeway's fortress-like mentality is legendary among the press. It's actually awe-inspiring.

Nevertheless, 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. Then there's the case of the well-meaning employee who escorted a customer all over a San Jose Safeway in search of plastic forks, only to find out they were clean out of stock. Yes, 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.

Witness the heartbreak and betrayal I suffered at the hands of the handsome deli clerk on Mission Street when he flashed the same blinding smile at everyone else in line as he did at me. I was wounded, I was spurned, but I'll be back. Oh, yes, I'll be back for thin-sliced turkey and papier-mâché macaroni salad and another thousand-watt smile. And the deli clerk? He'll probably get a raise.

The Buddy System

IT'S NO COINCIDENCE that megastores like Wal-Mart and Safeway are honing in on our collective need for buddies just as our national sense of community enters a period of intense trauma. Consider how the Internet affects relationships, for example. Suddenly it's possible to chat five times a day with someone across the country whom you haven't seen in years. On the other hand, now that you telecommute, you only see your coworkers a few times a month.

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 "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. Sweet of the megastores to rush to our emotional rescue, but do they honestly think we're dumb enough to mistake a clerk we've never seen before for a comforting, familiar presence?

For one thing, Bruno the Butcher would never pronounce my name like the first two syllables of "Huckleberry Finn." 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 his shift, he may not stumble at all. Don't count on it, though.

More irate even than those of us cursed with unusual names, 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, relating an annoying 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 anyway? 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 April 10-16, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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