Service with an artificial smile

Service with an artificial smile: By Robert Rossney. Supermarket clubs point the way to a future of corporate-mandated friendliness and Stepford clerks.

By Robert Rossney
October 14, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)
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These days, when I buy groceries at my local Safeway, I hand my Safeway card to the clerk, who passes it over the bar-code scanner. There's a beep, and his eyes light on his screen. Then he looks away from the screen to me. He meets my eye. He smiles. "How are you doing today, Mr. Rossney?" he asks.

This all started innocuously enough, with the beginnings of personalized mass mailings in the 1970s ("Mr. ROSSNEY, you may already have won!"), when marketers discovered that they could use computers to exploit Dale Carnegie's trick of always calling the customer by name on a large scale. Today everybody with something to sell, from Web sites and catalog vendors to retail stores and stockbrokers, starts by compiling a database about the prospects. The bigger the enterprise, it seems, the friendlier it tries to be. And really big enterprises have the computing horsepower to be maybe a little friendlier than I would like.


As my new friend at Safeway speaks, the supermarket's computer is analyzing my purchases. It discovers that I bought a certain brand of kitty litter. Aha, it thinks. And a thermal printer on the check stand is already spitting out a coupon good for 50 cents off a competing brand of kitty litter.

There is something vaguely sinister about this coupon. Safeway, I sense, thinks that I'm making a mistake. It is correcting my mistake very politely, so politely that the word "mistake" never comes up. Here's 50 cents off next time you buy kitty litter. And oh, by the way, buy the right kind next time, will you? Thanks.

This whole exchange is supposed to make me feel good about shopping at Safeway. They're friendly to me. They offer me bargains. They care about my needs. They are crafting a shopping experience that is customized to my personal requirements.


Maybe I'm just neurotic, but I don't like this. I preferred it when Safeway didn't know who I was. The checkers were brusque but effective, offering little more than a "How's it going?" before they set to work. They were busy professionals who wanted to get me out of their line as smoothly and quickly as possible.

And I was all for that. When I am in a supermarket, what I want most is to not be in the supermarket anymore. A checker who can get me out of the door in a hurry is a checker I can respect. Because supermarkets are just too much for me.

I cannot remember now who it was who noted that the choice between "clean mint" and "fresh mint" is really the choice between "stale mint" and "dirty mint" -- but as I stand before Safeway's toothpaste shelf, this observation makes me wonder why it is that only one of the 12 varieties of Colgate before me controls tartar. Does the addition of baking soda inhibit the tartar-control process? Is Colgate afraid that manufacturing a toothpaste with baking soda that also controls tartar will disrupt the celestial harmonies? I was happier when I didn't know I faced a choice between avoiding the relentless scraping of the dental hygienist and having breath as fresh as the air inside my refrigerator.


Even when I'm not thinking about it this consciously, the process of selecting the one tube of Colgate that specifically meets my needs from among a dozen choices is dispiriting. (Never mind that I have already had to make the choice between Colgate and Crest.) And yet -- here is the ugly paradox -- I would never, ever buy any of those marginal toothpastes. The Close-Ups and the UltraBrites. They don't come in special flat-bottomed tubes that stand on end. They don't offer a kid's variety with sparkles that tastes like bubble gum. How can you trust a brand of toothpaste that doesn't offer a bubble gum flavor? Not that I'd ever buy bubble gum-flavored toothpaste with sparkles, but a toothpaste brand without a kid's variety in its quiver doesn't stand a chance in today's market. I want what I scrub my gum line with to be a player.

All of this frankly insane chatter goes on inside my head whenever I buy a tube of toothpaste. And this is only one of the scores of similar choices that I face every time I provision myself at Safeway, or at any supermarket. It wears me out. And now, thanks to Safeway's earnest efforts to give me what I want, I'm going to have to listen to yet another voice in my already cacophonous inner dialogue when I go to buy kitty litter. This is not improving my shopping experience.


And then there's that creepy exchange at the beginning of the transaction. Looking my name up in the database, then giving me the big smile. "How are you doing, Mr. Rossney?"

The first time this happened, I didn't really notice it. But somewhere around my third or fourth trip through the line, I realized that what I was witnessing was not casual friendliness. Instead, it is what people in the human-resources business call a "performance issue." Meet the customer in the eye, smile, greet him by name: That's now a job requirement. If you don't do it, a letter goes in your personnel file.

It turns out that unlike my nutty obsessions with the toothpaste, I'm not imagining this. Skimping on this bit of ritualized friendliness can, in fact, get a checkout clerk fired. This does not make me feel friendly toward my neighborhood Safeway, you can bet. It's bad enough to be on the receiving end of artificial warmth, but the feeling that by accepting it I'm complicit with Safeway's management in imposing a requirement that I'd sure as hell find intolerable if it were a part of my job is just too much.


When you go to Safeway, or any supermarket, you are interacting with essentially interchangeable people working in the service of a large corporation. This is inherently impersonal. We all know this. We all know how to cope with it. Most clerks are not all that friendly, and when one is, it usually comes in the form of an acknowledgment that the two of us, whatever our differences, are moving through the daily grind in similar ways. "Weekend's coming." "You having a barbecue?" "Aren't those new cookies good?" We have a sense of appropriate commonality, and of appropriate distance.

The enforced-friendliness policy disrupts this. Clerks are no longer one of us. We can't trust them. They've become Stepford clerks. My reaction -- feeling that what Safeway is doing to its clerks is creepy and humiliating -- is bad enough. But there are worse reactions.

A group of female Safeway checkers recently filed a grievance with the company, claiming that the new enforced-friendliness policy encourages some male customers to respond with unwanted flirtations. There is something almost millennial about this: One imagines men so starved for human contact that even corporate-mandated artificial warmth unlocks their hearts, spurring them to pitiable behavior. But I think that what's really going on is that the men just don't know that Safeway has changed the rules. Clerks are efficient, studious workers. Why on earth would one suddenly look you in the eye, smile and greet you by name if she didn't have some sort of personal interest in you? And what could that personal interest be?


In order to have the appropriate response to the clerk's greeting, you have to know that the friendliness is not what it appears to be. It's "Welcome to McDonald's" friendliness, not "I care about you personally" friendliness. This grievance, and the behavior that sparked it, indicates that some customers are having trouble puzzling this out.

Safeway's management devised these ultra-personalized services to make shopping seem friendlier to me. But the vibe isn't friendly. It's creepy. It's rich men using computers to keep track of what I eat for breakfast, and bullying their minions to paste on a smile for me. That company-mandated artificial cheer makes occasional moments of spontaneous cheer from a Safeway clerk seem furtive, like civility secretly circulated in samizdat. The overall effect is quite the opposite of what's intended: Instead of making me feel that Safeway cares about me, it keeps reminding me who's really in charge.

Robert Rossney

Robert Rossney shops for groceries in Boulder, Colo.

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