Worn-Out Welcomes

Greg Dawson has doubts about the “warm welcome” he gets when he enters a store.

Memo to Walgreens: You did not have me at hello. It worked on Renee Zellweger in Jerry Maguire, but you are not Tom Cruise and I am not Renee Zellweger.

Having a disembodied voice shout “WELCOME TO WALGREENS!” the moment I step foot in the store is not the way to make me feel welcome. It feels like Halloween Horror Nights at Universal.

The ambush greeting is one of the most annoying trends in recent years, a common pest across the retail landscape. What was intended as a remedy to customer alienation has instead put me on guard when entering the store. I feel as if I’m trying to sneak across the border without being detected.


Got me again.

I mention Walgreens because I’m a regular customer, but I’ve been ambushed at other stores I frequent such as Bed, Bath & Beyond. Both say they’ve been “greeting” customers for decades, but I only started noticing it in the past few years as the welcomes grew aggressive and robotic—a sure sign of company-mandated hospitality.

Countless books have been published on the sad state of customer service and how to improve it. Among them is Be Your Customer’s Hero by Adam Toporek of CTS Service Solutions, an Altamonte Springs company that does customer service training and workshops.

Toporek compiled a list of “Seven Service Triggers”—business behaviors that drive customers bananas. No. 1: Being ignored.

You can imagine the big-box CEO thinking, “OK, they want attention, we’ll give them attention. We’ll put it in our employee training manual: every customer must be greeted upon entering the store.” The result was predictable: a greeting with all the spontaneity and warmth of an IRS audit.

Toporek is a believer in greetings but only if done well. “They can be very useful but they need to be authentic.’’ This year Walgreens terminated a program requiring checkout clerks to cheerily urge customers to “Be well!” on their way out. “It came across as forced,” Toporek says. “Like, ‘Here’s your cigarettes—be well.’ ”

Walgreens spokesman Michael Polzin says “Be well” ended after two years because it had achieved the goal of reinforcing the company’s “At the corner of happy and healthy” branding initiative. Employees are still required to greet customers but are free to improvise an alternative to “Welcome to Walgreens.”

I’m happy to report that things seem to be loosening up a bit at Walgreens. On a recent visit I saw customers streaming in, some strolling right by the cash register, without so much as a glance from the store clerk. Instead of the startling “WELCOME!,” I was greeted with a mumbled “welcometowalgreens.”

Three years ago Walmart moved its iconic greeters from outside store entrances to high-traffic areas inside to better serve the people who needed help finding stuff in the cavernous space. Sad as it was to no longer be met by Gramps with “a cart and a smile,” it seemed like a sensible tradeoff—and long overdue.

Truth is, I don’t need or want to be greeted when entering a store. I want to be left alone to shop—until I need help. You will not have me at hello. You will have me at, “Excuse me, Sir, you look lost. Can I help you find something?”

I can’t tell you last time I heard this—sometime before the recession—but I can tell you the last time I didn’t: My last trip to Walmart. 

As expected, there was no one outside waiting to greet me. But it was disappointing not to find any of the promised helpers roaming the aisles. I walked past five employees who saw me and said nothing, even when I paused and did my killer impression of “man in need of help.”

After a while I began to feel like Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense who was invisible and could not get anyone’s attention. I finally got assurance that I was visible when a female clerk in electronics smiled at me.

In June, Walmart announced a pilot program returning greeters to entrances of about 300 stores, along with “asset-protection customer specialists” (i.e. security guards) to check customer receipts to cut down on “asset theft.’’

After receiving no help shopping despite doing everything short of tackling an employee, I paid for my bag of kale, coffee creamer, and a $10 pair of sunglasses and strolled toward the exit. As I passed the threshold a musical chime sounded and a security guard stepped into my path.

“Excuse me, sir, may I see your receipt?”

If this is the new welcome, I’d rather be ignored. 

Categories: Column