Personalized service seems to be the latest preoccupation by big corporate stores these days. I know at Safeway, this is a big deal. I'm not a Safeway shopper, but while at Lake Tahoe for a week recently, I became one by default.
For years and years, Safeway has had the closest grocery store to our family house on the Nevada side of Tahoe, where I grew up. Built in the early '60s, it was where we had to shop, and it offered adequate grocery store fare. Our Round Hill Safeway, which seemed to get increasingly cramped with each passing year, was an architectural nightmare. Black lava rocks were cemented on its outer walls, giving it that extra special touch of ugly. Laminated wood ceiling beams jutted skyward out the front of the store, as if the idea was to make the building look like some sort of Space Age hunting lodge.
For more than 30 years, this Rodney Dangerfield of Safeways served the locals as best it could. It languished at the bottom of the company's upgrade list, possibly rating just above the Safeway in Winnemucca, Nev., which I've heard about, but never visited.
Finally, somebody at Safeway got a big idea. Why not tear the down the Round Hill eyesore? And build a bigger, ultramodern Safeway shopping "experience" for the local folks? After all these years, didn't they finally deserve it?
Well mercy be, the deed was done over the past year. The locals were suddenly wandering slackjawed through all the customer-friendly features of their brand spanking new earth-toned stucco mega-store: Look, they said, it has a bakery, and a pharmacy, and a bank, and even a little gaming nook for the no-yield slot machines. And don't forget vegetable sprayers, which are accompanied by recorded sounds of distant thunder when they're on.
When my wife, Elena, and I visited for our inaugural shop in August, we surveyed the expansive, cold-air shopping venue with no less wonder. The modern world had finally made it here, and the change felt dreamlike. I could almost hear trumpets and harps. The old '60s Safeway was like a crummy corner pharmacy compared to this.
"HI, how're YOU today?" asked the first hyper-cheery Safeway person we encountered. But before I could respond, he peppered me with another query: "ARE YOU FINDING EVERYTHING OK?"
"Uh, I hope so," I said, looking at our empty shopping cart.
We headed to the cold cuts display, where another Safeway person was stacking packs of deli items. "HOW'RE YOU TODAY?" she asked, with a sneering smile and dull eyes.
"Great. I'm finding things," I offered.
As we continued through the gleaming store we passed more Safeway people. About four more, as I remember. And each of them, armed injections of pit-bull enthusiasm, made the mandatory happy-face inquiries about how we were, and if we had found everything. Then we wrote a check for the groceries, and used my stepdad's Safeway card to get all the discounts. The perky cashier, apparently doing her corporate duty to start a first-name relationship with all the names on the Safeway cards, called me by my stepdad's name. And, with a flourish, she wished us a "super" day.
As we walked to the car, I told Elena that the Safeway people had been an obnoxious part of this new Safeway shopping experience. She agreed.
"You're getting constantly badgered for happy feedback," I said. "Why?"
That night we ate dinner with longtime family friends who are locals, and the Safeway experience came up.
"When I shop there, I shade my eyes and look down so I don't encourage them," said Lester, who is shy and mild-mannered.
But, Lester added, not even that works. Walking head-down near the frozen-food section, he nearly bumped into a kneeling Safeway person who was stocking a shelf. Suddenly looking up at Lester was a scary manic smile yelling, "HI, HOWYA DOIN'? FINDING EVERYTHING TODAY?"
Rattled, Lester veered away, wondering if he should do his future shopping while wearing a motorcycle helmet, its mirrored visor down.
On my next visit, I decided to have some fun. As soon as I spied a Safeway person, I'd shout, "HEY, HI, HOWYA DOING!"
But it wasn't that much fun. I did it a couple of times, but it felt all wrong. I didn't care how they were. I just wanted to shop and leave.
So maybe Safeway's grandmaster, Steven Burd, ought to rethink this one. Here's a tip, Steve. Safeway customers aren't stupid, OK? They smell a corporate mandate every time they get bombarded with phony greetings. And I bet if you did a survey, you'd find that most customers find it all very annoying, even intrusive -- unless they want a date.
Steve, here's what you do. Trash the whole idea. People just want to shop in peace. Personalized customer service is really very simple: Help customers when they ask for it. If they don't, leave 'em alone.