When 52-year-old Steve Maes went into Boston’s Virgin Megastore the other day, he wasn’t in the mood for the greeter who met him at the entrance. He ignored her perky Welcome to Virgin! and proceeded to shop.
As Maes was leaving, the store alarm sounded, and suddenly several greeters surrounded him, demanding that he empty his pockets. It turned out Maes’ cell phone had set off the alarm.
They were right on me, said Maes, an x-ray technician. All of a sudden the store greeters were goons. Not so friendly anymore.
As chain stores proliferate in cities and suburbs, many like Virgin are using store greeters to enhance their customer service or to prime shoppers to buy. And many of those stores are adding the role of security guard to the greeter’s job description–to simultaneously put customers at ease and on notice. So for a relatively small investment (often just above the minimum wage), stores can appear friendly and welcoming while subtly protecting their wares.
These days, stores need a personality–something to set you apart and draw the customer in, said John DiFranco, president of DiFranco & Associates, a retail consulting firm. In stores with high value items, greeters are virtually a necessity to deter theft.
Shoplifting is a growing problem for retailers; it accounted for 34 percent of the industry’s lost inventory in 2005, up from 31 percent in 2000, according to the University of Florida’s National Retail Security Survey. The survey found that in 2005, U.S. retailers put the cost of shoplifting at more than $10 billion.
Big retail chains–including the Gap, Old Navy, Best Buy, Bed Bath & Beyond and Kmart–have started using greeters in recent years, while others, including CVS drugstores, have recently started experimenting with the greeter concept.
Family Dollar, a discount department store with 6,000 outlets nationwide, is currently testing greeters in a handful of stores with a high incidence of shoplifting. We’re looking at greeters as potential deterrents, said Kiley F. Rawlins, divisional vice president of Family Dollar, who said the greeters would work alongside traditional security guards. The idea is that if someone looks at you and acknowledges you’re there, you’re less likely to try to steal.
Wal-Mart pioneered the store greeter concept in 1980, employing them only as what the company calls its ambassadors. The chain now has about 30,000 store greeters; they put a friendly face on a company that has taken a number of recent public relations hits for its low wages and alleged unfair labor practices.
It wasn’t the original Wal-Mart idea, but now, paying attention to shoplifting is as much part of the job as greeting, said George Whalin, president of Retail Management Consultants, a consulting firm in San Marcos, Calif. They are serving a double function, and it can be a turnoff if it’s not done right.
Most people will just say thank you’ and walk off with the cart without making eye contact, said Mike, a greeter on the overnight shift at Wal-Mart in Marshfield, Wis., who declined to give his last name to protect his job. Most are pleasant, but the drunks tend to get rowdy and very few people are all-out rude.
Some shoppers respond favorably to greeters, perhaps not recognizing their dual purpose. They warm you up when you come in and help you figure where you’re going, said Milton Pepin, a 65-year-old retiree in Worcester, Mass., who often asks for directions from greeters at Sam’s Club. With everything automated these days, the world can feel like a cold place. The greeters give me a warm feeling.
But that warm feeling turns off some shoppers. Nearly half go out of their way to avoid greeters, according to research conducted by the Retail Institute at Purdue University. It’s a superficial signature, and it can’t hide deficiencies in other aspects of a business, said Richard Feinberg, director of the institute. A greeter can’t help you find something that’s not there or make the checkout line move quicker.
On a recent visit to the World of Disney store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, Isabelle Johnson from Leeds, England, was shocked to find a row of clapping and cheering cast members right by the entrance. It was the freakiest thing that ever happened to me, she said. They mean well, but it was surreal.
Still, more companies are experimenting with the greeter concept. Hoping to shake their image as stuffy and impersonal, more banks are welcoming customers at their doors. Washington Mutual bank introduced greeters in 2000; Bank of America followed suit by starting a host program in 2003; and other consumer banks are experimenting with the idea.
I try to make them feel special, like I’m welcoming them into a VIP club, said 25-year-old Danielle Dickson, who greets hundreds of people a day at a Washington Mutual branch in Manhattan. People are mostly nice, but sometimes they ignore me and I end up talking to myself, she added with a laugh. Some of the grumpy ones say, I’m not gonna have a good day!’ and tell you everything that’s wrong in their lives. But even the mean ones manage a thank you.’
While the concept may work in some contexts, the risk is that customers like Maes at the Virgin Megastore will feel targeted or annoyed, and be less likely to return. It’s not service; it’s the appearance of service, said Maes. Anyway, if I want help, can’t I just ask for it?
– Moira Herbst- Columbia News Service