Monday, December 15, 2008

Why This Luxory at Wal-Mart?

My wife and I were talking yesterday about how unusual it is that Wal-Mart has a greeter. Wal-Mart is gloriously short of customer service employees and cashiers, which can be frustrating when you can't find an item you want. I'm not complaining, it is part of the trade-off for lower prices, and I accept. However, it is a fairly radical departure from the low-cost, no-luxuries approach to have a friendly face at the door to welcome you. I would expect that from expensive hotels, maybe a few very-upscale grocery stores, but Wal-Mart?

I looked into it, and came across this fascinating story of the first Wal-Mart greeter, which started as a voluntary program that employees did in their free-time:
They are as familiar as the yellow smiley faces, the blue vests and the "rollback" prices.

People who shop at Wal-Mart -- and with the world's largest retailer attracting more than 100 million shoppers a week at its stores, few haven't -- have no doubt seen them upon entering the store.

They are Wal-Mart greeters -- and proud of it.

"I love people. It's just fun," said Eugene Alberts about why he likes being a greeter. "I meet all kinds of people, and everyone's different. The kids are the best. If you don't give them a happy face, they will ask you about it."

Alberts is a greeter at the Rogers Supercenter. His comments were echoed by the woman who started it all, Lois Richard of Crowley, La.

"Just the expressions on people's faces " is what she liked about the job, she said. "They could have had a bad day and then someone out of the blue says, 'Hey, we know you're here' ... it made their day."

Although she doesn't bear the "official" title as the first paid Wal-Mart greeter -- that honor belongs to Ethel Mennard of Crowley -- it was Richard who came up with the idea and took the first watch, so to speak.

"I was the first greeter and initiator of the program," she said.

The Wal-Mart store in Crowley opened in 1980. Not long after, a local civic club and the police department joined together to do a "mock" shoplifting spree at stores in the city, Richard said.

They hit the jackpot at the Crowley Wal-Mart.

"Needless to say, the biggest loot was taken from the Wal-Mart store. Needless to say, our manager was not a happy camper," Richard said.

She came up with the idea of posting an employee at the door to check shoppers' items. Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville wasn't willing at the time to pay an employee just to do that job, Richard said, so she suggested employees take turns volunteering a half-hour each day without pay.

Richard offered to take the first shift. Once the program caught on, Wal-Mart decided to make it a regular paid position, she said.

Today, there are more than 30,000 Wal-Mart greeters at stores nationwide, said spokeswoman Sharon Weber.

"They greet people, identify items that need to be returned, give directions. During the holidays, it's not uncommon for them to be advice givers," Weber said.

According to article in MarketingNewz last year, many large retailers also use greeters, as do restaurants, hotels and other businesses. But the majority do not because relationship marketing is not as simple as it seems, the magazine said.

"It takes a type of commitment different than traditional marketing," the article stated.

Former Wal-Mart executive Don Soderquist may define that commitment in his soon-to-be-released book on the "principles that made Wal-Mart successful," he said.

Richard said Soderquist contacted her recently to talk about being a Wal-Mart greeter.

"I want to capture in one book the culture of Wal-Mart, which is clearly the distinction that has made it different from other companies," Soderquist said. "The thing that has set us apart is the culture we've held onto since the beginning."

While saying Wal-Mart's greeter program is an example of that culture, Soderquist declined to comment further about what he says in his book. It is set to be published next year, he said.

Soderquist worked for Wal-Mart for 20 years, most recently as vice chairman. He now heads the Soderquist Center for Leadership and Ethics at John Brown University in Siloam Springs.

The average Wal-Mart greeter is a retired senior citizen, and Alberts, 69, fits that bill. A former construction worker from Iowa, he has been a Wal-Mart greeter for eight years.

Alberts started part time at the Bentonville Supercenter and then was asked by Wal-Mart to become a full-time greeter. He works from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., five days a week at the Rogers store.

In addition to welcoming shoppers, Alberts also helps the disabled find electric carts, checks items purchased by shoppers exiting the stores and puts stickers on returned items.

Alberts' blue Wal-Mart vest is covered with badges given him by company suppliers who have visited the store. Apparently, Wal-Mart's greeters can be a good source of advertising.

DSN Retailing Today once wrote about Wal-Mart supplier Lion Brand Yarn Co. asking greeters to wear scarves made from the company's yarn. According to Lion Brand, the promotional gimmick produced a "big time, significant" boost in sales in its first weekend.

Alberts' vest also sports one large "Good Job!" button he earned from Wal-Mart. Employees have to earn four smaller Good Job buttons before they are entitled to a larger button and one share of Wal-Mart stock, he said.

Alberts has already had his share of publicity. Two film crews from France and Germany both included him in their documentaries about Wal-Mart. And his face is featured on a poster at company stores nationwide.

While most of the people he has dealt with as a greeter have been "wonderful," there are those few rude or argumentative customers who can make his job unpleasant sometimes, Alberts said. But all in all, he loves what he does and Wal-Mart as an employer.

"The company has been good to me. They're for real," Alberts said.

Richard worked for Wal-Mart 19 years before retiring five years ago. Now 60, she is proud that Wal-Mart's greeter program turned into something more than just a way to stop shoplifters.

"It became about greeting the customer and just making their day," she said. "They were just astounded someone would stand at the door and greet them. I wasn't there 15 minutes before I realized this idea was greater than what it had started out to be."


Anonymous said...

See Sam Walton's semi-autobiography "Sam Walton: Made in America" page 292-293. Tom Coughlin discusses people greeters and gives basically the same story as that article.

The only thing missing is that the people greeter is far less intimidating to honest customers than a guard, which was a major concern to the manager of the Crowley store.

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