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[40 comments]

Walmart Greeters Get New Assignment

January 31, 2012

A lot of changes have taken place at Walmart over the years since Sam Walton's passing, but the latest may have him flipping over in his grave.

Walmart will be moving greeters from its lobbies and closer to cash registers in a move designed to better assist shoppers and apparently save the company money. It's also eliminating greeters from late-night shifts at its 24-hour stores.

During non late-night shifts hours, greeters are being moved closer to checkout zones to help direct shoppers to products or shorter checkout lines.

"It's a better position inside the store," David Tovar, a Walmart spokesperson, told Bloomberg News. "The greeters will be able to assist customers in more effective ways. Whether they are coming in the door or are 15 feet away, they will still be able to greet people."

At the same time, the greeter job during the third shift — 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. — is being eliminated. Those greeters are being reassigned to handle typical associate jobs during those hours, including restocking inventory as well as directing customers.

"We realized that it wasn't necessary to have people greeting customers because it wasn't peak shopping hours," Mr. Tovar told Bloomberg. "It was meant to operate stores as efficiently as possible, which is also part of our DNA."

Several reports heralded the move as a break from a long-time tradition as Walmart focuses on reviving margins and sales. Sam Walton first brought in greeters in 1980 particularly to make the stores comfortable for older shoppers. Beyond welcoming shoppers, the job was designed to provide an aura of safety to the front of the store as well as extra protection against shoplifters.

What exactly does a greeter's job entail?

Walmart provided some insiight in its "first poll" of greeters that was conducted in 1999. The press release described greeters as, "part host ("Welcome to Walmart"), part psychologist ("If you were my husband, would you wear this?") and part traffic cop ("Where's the bathroom?").

When asked to rank the most important things they do as greeters, 93 percent agreed with "smiling," followed by greeting any shopper within 10 feet (90 percent).

The most common questions asked of greeters included: "Can I have a happy face sticker?" and "What should I buy my wife for Christmas?" From children, the most frequently asked questions were: "Where are the toys?", "Where's the bathroom?", and "Where's my mom and dad?"

FINANCIALS:     [NYSE:WMT]

Discussion Questions:

Discussion Questions: What do you think of Walmart's move to change the role of its greeters? How much more or less important is the greeter position today than when Sam Walton first introduced it at Walmart?

While we value unfettered opinion, we urge you to show respect and courtesy for people or companies about whom you comment. Keep in mind that this is a public, professional business discussion. RetailWire reserves the right to edit or refuse the publication of remarks that we deem unsuitable. We may also correct for unintended spelling and grammatical errors.

Instant Poll:

How much more or less important is the greeter position today than when Sam Walton first introduced it at Walmart?

Comments:

The greeter at Walmart was a staple to the shopper experience and something people discussed and appreciated. I am sure that if Sam was still alive, the removal of greeters would not be happening. Sam was 100% focused and committed to customer excellence, which ultimately drove revenue and growth. Today, Walmart is more focused on Wall Street which hinders its ability to think longer term and the impact of moves like this.

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John Boccuzzi, Jr., Managing Partner, Boccuzzi, LLC

Those are all nice cute answers when asked about the role of a greeter. The way I see it, their job is 90% loss prevention. Keeping an eye out for shoplifters and being one more line of defense, one more set of eyes on the ground, and one more reason a shoplifter might chicken out. No company wants to admit the little old lady is there to discourage shoplifting, that doesn't sound politically correct. But every job in the store is designed to boost the bottom line.

David Livingston, Principal, DJL Research

The greeter position is so important. Retailers should strive to personalize the shopping experience for consumers, and greeters help to do that. Hire the right people, with the right personality, and ensure they are always available for the customer, and there's no doubt that people in that store will have a warmer feeling about their trip in.

Specifically, in terms of Walmart's slight shift in the greeter's role, it's a non-issue, I think. We're just talking about increasing efficiency. But I say, take the next step Walmart! Introduce emerging technologies, like many retailers are these days, into the role of the Walmart greeter.

Give them access to the internet, or even a local intranet, with pertinent info like store plans, product info, local promotions, sampling stations in the store, etc. So not only do you get the "smile" from the Walmart greeter, but they come equipped with a mountain of information to make the shopping experience swift and convenient.

Ronnie Perchik, Founder/CEO, PromoAid

Greeters are still important to Walmart. They are a welcome tradition as customers walk into the store. At a time when it's hard to find a sales associate on the floor, a greeter can save consumers time, by offering directions to areas of the stores, particularly the larger Walmarts. Could Walmart do without them? Probably, but the big box store would be a bit less friendly.

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Max Goldberg, President, Max Goldberg & Associates

Good move -- don't know that I need a cheery face at 2 a.m. and putting them in a more useful location should be fine. A store can always move them back if there is pushback.

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Dr. Stephen Needel, Managing Partner, Advanced Simulations

Change is inevitable, however, it's always a challenge to balance change with values, beliefs and resulting traditions. Walmart has made a succession of seemingly small changes over the last several years, even including successive incremental changes to their logo: Wal*Mart, Wal-Mart, Wal-mart, Walmart and exchanging the smiley face with a stylized sun.

It will be interesting to see how Walmart handles this most recent change, however, it is likely that the greeter will quickly disappear and be absorbed into their front-end staffing model -- a model that continues to be one that frustrates customers already.

This seems like another incremental change that on its own may not seem important, but is further evidence of Walmart's ongoing transition to a more mainstream retailer, and not necessarily for the better.

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Verlin Youd, Principal, VPY LLC

First of all the lady in the picture is half the age of any 'Greeter' I've ever seen. Who sent that one in? Here's my thing: treat seniors with the dignity and respect they deserve or stop the facade. My bet is that if it wouldn't look so heartless, they'd drop this whole greeter thing like a hot rock.

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Ian Percy, President, The Ian Percy Corporation

If handled correctly the new positioning of greeters can be even more effective than the current smiling face you see upon entering the store. Shoppers need help once they have started shopping, or are getting ready to check out and the greeters can be effective at answering questions or directing shoppers to shorter checkout lines. Sam Walton changed with the times and would expect his management to change to meet shifting shopping patterns and meet store needs.

The real cost could be if shrink levels rise and only an evaluation after several inventories will determine if shoplifting is on the increase from both the new positioning and the elimination of overnight greeters. I am sure the people at Walmart have already thought this through.

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J. Peter Deeb, Managing Partner, Deeb MacDonald & Associates, L.L.C.

Checkout lane management is becoming a more important part of the customer service process. Most customers would prefer an efficient experience at the end of their store visit, rather than the traditional Walmart "greeting." I agree with this move, especially if it is expense-neutral.

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Dick Seesel, Principal, Retailing In Focus LLC

Breaking some traditions in retail is undoubtedly a good thing. This wouldn't be a good example.

The "Greeter" is part of the Walmart experience and, in stores not always known for killer customer service, sometimes the friendliest (only friendly?) face a customer might encounter. It never made economic sense to have a greeter, (David's point about shrink noted, I've never seen a greeter chase a shoplifter,) but that wasn't the point. If Walmart's economics are so fragile that they are worried about changing such a signature part of their operation, they have much bigger issues which, come to think of it, they do.

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Ryan Mathews, Founder, ceo, Black Monk Consulting

I don't know about their role in assisting near checkout, but I do think there can be better uses for store associates in areas of the store other than at the entrance. Assisting the shopper on their journey is important, and actively doing so further into the journey could be more beneficial.

It would be great if retailers could distinguish "Guest Services Assistants" with unique clothing, etc, in order to let the shopper know they are available and willing to help. So often the shoppers journey is less than ideal because they are looking around for store associates and are afraid or unsure about who to ask for help.

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Matt Schmitt, President & Chief Experience Officer, Reflect

It is good that companies that think change their practices occasionally in order to keep them in tune with better things that arise, such as advances in technology. But ....

What Sam Walton intended by having greeters at the door has been changed from a warm aura of sincere welcome into an effort to cut down on possible shoplifting. It's a tradeoff I doubt Sam had envisioned.

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Gene Hoffman, President/CEO, Corporate Strategies International

Facing the higher costs of operating a business with lower traffic and sales results, the retail executives in today's economy are scrutinizing inventory levels and floor coverage as a means to stabilize the cost of the sales side of the balance sheet. Red ink, or the fear of it is the catalyst behind stymied marketing experiments. Adding weight to this enormous ball and chain is the misplaced scrutiny of operations and finance people that are often slow to embrace change at the time it is most needed. Another issue which gets in the way of profit is the continuing presence of stores in economically declining neighborhoods which by any method of measure is a losing venture.

While attacking these issues head on has caused some leadership to face negative press and support from market mavens, the only truth in it is a necessary momentum in this awful economy, or lack of.

'gjarnoldjr'

The "Walmart greeter" is far less important today, than at the time that Mr. Sam put them in place. The greeters served a role at that time to provide familiarization to a store/channel that was still relatively new to consumers.

Today, with over 3 out of 4 consumers visiting Walmart for some type of shopping/purchasing experience in the past 90 days (BIGinsight Consumer Intentions & Actions survey), placing this associate in a more centralized position in the register area, makes perfect sense. With added grocery volume in the carts, the associate is also positioned to guide and potentially calm the harried shopper.

The human touch remains in place, serving as "Thanks for coming" appreciation, "Did you find everything you needed?" inquiry, and a "Traffic cop to help people speed through checkout line" -- a priority for most shoppers.

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Roger Saunders, Managing Director, Prosper Business Development

The greeters in my limited experience of going into a Walmart were probably the nicest employees in the store, as checkout lanes are nightmares. I haven't experienced very many smiling faces working inside the store, and for $8 hour, and constant work overloads, you will get what you pay for in terms of the help they have. But hey, they have some hot deals, and they pack 'em in every day, so I don't see the greeter situation changing anybody's mind on shopping there.

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Tony Orlando, Owner, Tony O's Supermarket & Catering

The old fashioned vision of the Walmart greeter at the door is definitely part of the Walmart image and tradition, however, it really never served much of a useful purpose for the consumer. The greeters seldom could answer questions beyond the most obvious ones and most consumers were trying to walk around them so that they didn't have to talk to them. Therefore, I think in this instance, change is good!

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David Biernbaum, Senior Marketing and Business Development Consultant, David Biernbaum Associates LLC

Meijer Stores based in Michigan probably had greeters before Walmart existed. I thought the Walmart greeters were mostly a security measure -- I always wondered how they selected certain exiting customers to look at their register receipt to see if they had paid for what they were hauling out of the store. I suspect there is a degree of "profiling" going on there. If Walmart wants to save money, they should not install so many checkout lanes. I don't think I have ever seen more that 1/3 of them open anyway. A week before Christmas I was in Walmart to pick up an internet order. Those waiting to get their layaways were told it would be a 45 minute wait. One lady was so mad she just cancelled her entire layaway order. Certainly redirecting the "greeter" to help retrieve layaways would have made sense. Another good use would be to make sure the prices on the shelf have been updated to match what they ring up at during checkout.

'schindler'

I am sure Walmart has spent a few million on sorting this out, but here are my two-cents:
1. Greeters gave the illusion of service, and it usually showed up in surveys.
2. What is the lasting memory: greeter or checkout? I think the last thing we experience sticks. But one person at the "food-fight," 20+ lane checkout seems like a typo.
3. I wouldn't want to be in the way of an all-night beverage of choice imbiber, let alone my mom.

Brian Kelly, president & founder, brian brands

The "greeter" is an icon image associated with Walmart. When Walmart changed away from "low prices always," consumers did not accept the upscale image and Walmart went back to "save more, live better." When Walmart took out huge numbers of branded products consumers reacted negatively and brought many back. Eliminating the greeter is in the same category in terms of store image. Experimentation is good, but smaller experiments before changing iconic elements that are part of the consumer experience would make sense.

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Camille P. Schuster, Ph.D., President, Global Collaborations, Inc.

Well, there goes my retirement job. Actually, I've seen this shift happening for many moons in some Walmarts I've visited. Makes sense, better use of personnel today. I don't see this as a big deal one way or the other.

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Warren Thayer, Editor & Managing Partner, Frozen & Refrigerated Buyer

I must be completely atypical. I dislike greeters. Who are these strangers pretending to be my friend? What I want is someone to direct me to the aisle when I can't find what I'm looking for amidst a gazillion SKUs. The greeter will eventually become electronic via a digital screen; perhaps your own tablet.

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Joel Rubinson, President, Rubinson Partners, Inc.

The greeter location is better inside the store for several reasons. New visitors may need help finding some of the service departments which are located on the front wall. Plus, the temperature is a bit more friendly farther inside the store, especially in northern states in the winter and southern states in the summer. (Except when it's 53 degrees on January 31 in Chicagoland.)

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Dan Raftery, President, Raftery Resource Network Inc.

Moving the greeters to another position can make the in-store experience a bit less challenging -- if redirected to customer service assistant in the checkout lanes, where help "expediting" is really needed. But it is a sign of the times, as greeters really set the stage and are helpful to many customers in getting ready for shopping at Walmart, especially parents, seniors, or anyone needing directions or assistance.

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Anne Bieler, Sr. Associate, Packaging and Technology Integrated Solutions

I'm with Ian. I don't buy that they want to change the role of the greeter. If you need to improve the checkout experience then why not invest in a person to do that during peak times? Eliminating the overnight greeters makes sense.

I think they would eliminate it if it wasn't for the bad PR and that Sam would come back and haunt them.

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Doug Fleener, President and Managing Partner, Dynamic Experiences Group

I agree, the "greeter" position and reason for the position has changed over the years. I also agree Sam Walton will be turning in his grave when word of this reaches him. It might rain heavily in Arkansas today.

I agree with the elimination of the location of the greeter on the third shift. There are certainly other things to be done during the slowest shift. But why station the greeter at the register area? Has anyone in Mr. Walton's camp thought of the greeter becoming a roamer and walking the store to assist customers? Like in Target, finding assistance at Walmart is not the easiest of tasks.

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Ed Rosenbaum, CEO, The Customer Service Rainmaker, Rainmaker Solutions

Bad, bad, and bad. Greeters are a critical part of Walmart's history and play an important part at managing the front of the store as well as assisting older shoppers, mothers with children, and keeping the entry way open. This improves traffic flow as well as the first impression for customer service when a customer enters the store. Home Depot has copied this, and even the clubs have a type of greeter to check your card and ask for assistance.

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Kai Clarke, President, Kowa Optimed, Inc.

What are customers likely to remember more -- the person that said hi at the door, or the fact that someone guided them to the shortest checkout lane? I think the answer is clear.

That being said, on my latest trip to a Walmart the "greeter" was standing at the exit door far more in a LP role than greeter. Saw no evidence that he was interested in directing traffic. As with most things, it will come down to how well it is executed.

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Steve Montgomery, President, b2b Solutions, LLC

This is the first of what will probably be many changes in store staffing at WMT. Store level payroll is the biggest controllable expense for a 4-waller. With flat sales and increasing cost pressures, expect store payroll to drop.

Sam would not be happy about this. This was a differentiator that set WMT apart from the other "go find it yourself" mass merchants that set a tone for the experience.

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Bill Emerson, President, Emerson Advisors

I'm not for or against moving Walmart greeters from the store door to the store floor. But it is most certainly a significant change in customer service and store operations. And what I've read here leaves me with the impression that it isn't a well-planned move, meaning more tinkering down the road.

I've been a regular Walmart Supercenter shopper for many years. I can verify that, while the greeter's duties seem minimal and mundane, they do indeed serve an important function: keeping the store entrance organized and running smoothly. Whether greeting shoppers, checking in returns/exchanges, wiping down/organizing carts, recharging electric carts or providing directions, it all helps keep the start and end of the shopping experience running with minimal hiccups.

And I have nothing against reassigning late night greeters or even reassigning current greeters to other duties inside the store. My caution here is that Walmart is missing a key element of customer service: Just because a staffer provides good customer service in one position, doesn't mean they'll perform equally well in another customer service position. The new duties inside the store are a much different. For example, a shopper may not think twice about how their returns get checked in. But when that shopper is looking for a new TV and they have a question that the new greeter can't answer, that's a problem -- and a big problem in a store where finding staff -- let alone knowledgeable staff -- can be difficult.

Yes, some current greeters can likely be retrained and do well in their new roles. But others will not, and that's likely to create a bad customer service experience. And there's still the question of who will keep the store entrance running smoothly? The loss of the greeter may create a mess at the door that could make shoppers rethink repeat visits.

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Tim Henderson, Editor/Writer, Independent

Many have opined, it would not appear to be a "big deal," even if Sam would have disapproved of this decision. However, taking a more holistic view, this will be seen by many consumers, including Walmart loyalists as another step the overall decline of customer service, and the in-store experience. Yes, Walmart greeters have been the subject of many jokes and unflattering remarks, but even if they are not Charlie's Angels (beautiful and chase down criminals), shoppers appreciate that they are there. So, it may not be a "big deal" operationally, but the long term implications are troubling.

Mark Baum, SVP & CCO, Food Marketing Institute

I get the late shift change. I do not get the other. The two Walmarts I shop (near home and near office) have older and/or physically handicapped employees. They are enthusiastic and hardworking. I give Walmart a certain amount of goodwill credit for providing them a job that has a purpose. Trying to get in and out of a typical supercenter during the mid afternoon to early evening with out someone wrangling carts would be chaotic. The security angle feels a little shaky. Hope they re-think it.

'OscarSmith'

The greeter is an important part of the Walmart brand and this is another step in the continuing erosion of that brand. Though it's not as big, obviously, as the damage the dollar stores have done to Walmart's image as the low-price leader.

Bob Houk, semi, semi-retired

Richard Seesel hit the nail on the head with his comment on checkout lane management rising in importance; customers want speedy and efficient checkouts.

Most folks would gladly trade a smile on a greeters face upon entering the store for a smile on their own after leaving the store with a speedy checkout experience.

Another operational efficiency move that Walmart might look in to, in addition to correctly eliminating the third shift greeter position, is to re-evaulate 24 hour store operations. America's work force is changing and "3rd Shift" factory jobs are far fewer than in the past. An ROI analysis on these stores might be in order.

Charles P. Walsh, President, OmniQuest Resources, Inc

Continued subtle changes to operations are like obsessive plastic surgery. Each one in itself might seem sound but in the end the grotesque results will not look like the maker's work.

'DrCellmor'

I always liked the greeters. They added some warmth to an otherwise cold store.

I think they are effective to some extent from a security angle, but not that much of an extent.

I wonder what this means for many of the California Walmarts that used the greeters in a warehouse-store-like fashion not to greet but to inspect the contents of EVERY cart and EVERY receipt (not just the ones where the alarm goes off or there is a large item, which is what company policy states the greeters are to do).

'storewanderer'

Watch the shrink RISE! Theft will be an issue to change this new roll. Accidents will also rise as greeters keep the floors mopped when water and trash are in this high traffic area! After one inventory and paying about $40,000 per slip/trip and fall they will go back to the old way! Save money? How?

'theftandaccidents'

A dedicated greeter can add a lot of value in terms of setting the tone for a shopping visit, and helping the customer transition from the decompression zone to the store. I trust Walmart to optimize their labor based on their store traffic data, and to decide when to staff the role.

The greeter mistake I see all too often is assigning greeting as a task to an employee that has some other role. Hearing a disembodied "Welcome" from some employee you can't even see, who is in another isle stocking shelves when you walk in has the opposite effect of the grandfatherly figure making eye contact with you as you walk into Walmart. Even worse is using the Loss Prevention guy as your greeter. When a person wearing a badge says hello to you the second you get in a store, it doesn't make you think you are welcome, it makes you think you're a suspected shoplifter.

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Jason Goldberg, VP Commerce Strategy, Razorfish

Here's an email response we received from Ashley Hardie, manager, media relations at Walmart, looking to clarify points made in our Forbes blog on this topic, but also pertinent here.

"The people greeter position is a recognized part of our culture and in-store experience and will continue to be.

'Listen to your associates. They're the best idea generators.' Our founder, Sam Walton, said that, and he believed it. We recently talked with our associates in the people greeter position regarding their current duties. Based on their feedback, we learned this change will allow them to interact more with our customers and truly welcome them into the store.

Mr. Sam was a big advocate of change and believed in staying ahead of it.

Over the years, the associates in this position have been asked to take on additional responsibilities, such as tagging returns and prepping and cleaning carts, which prevented them from delivering the great customer service the position was intended to fulfill. Removing these responsibilities will give greeters greater interaction with our customers. In addition to this change, greeters will be located near the front doors and checkout lanes assisting customers with questions and directing them to open registers."

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George Anderson, Editor-in-Chief/Associate Publisher, RetailWire LLC

It's all about the "Almighty Dollar" now. The culture is no longer! Sam would never want or agree with this change. Some kid out of college that never stepped foot in a store came up with this hair-brained idea. Would the "Undercover Boss" TV program shed an even more negative light on this once great company?

Watch how fast they change this back to the old way just like when they took all the merchandise out of the action alleys and had it all back in within a month. They need to admit it when they are wrong with this move but sorry to say it will take high shrink reviews and accidents to prove it.

'theftandaccidents'

It would be interesting to understand if Walmart has measured the actual paths that shoppers take while walking through the stores. It's possible using current, affordable technology to track the travel paths of consumers as they move through the store and then aggregate these paths into "heat maps" by time period in order to understand where shoppers go and with what frequency. This information can be compared to similar tracking of greeters and other employees to ultimately understand the level of engagement between employees. Lastly, by attaching these data points back to sales at the register, it's possible to pragmatically measure the effect of greeter placement (or absence) on sales in the store.

The same way that e-commerce sites engage in A/B split tests to determine how site structure and layout affects shopping carts, so too could Walmart empirically understand how greeters affect sales in the store.

Tim Callan, CMO, SLI Systems

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