Are hugs okay at retail?

Discussion
Jan 30, 2015

While knowing a customer’s name is often praised as top-notch customer service for a sales associate, hugging can apparently go too far. A cashier was fired last year by Plumb’s Valu-Rite Foods in Whitehall, MI for inappropriate hugging, dividing sentiments in the small town.

Fred Civis, 57, had been working for 39 years at Plumb’s and was known for his hugs. In August, he was arrested and fired after a customer he hugged reported him to the store and police.

He told Fox 17 it was a friendly "pal hug" but four other women subsequently came forward with similar allegations. According to police records, Plumb’s had received formal complaints about Mr. Civis in 2012 and 2013.

Many in the town of 2,700, however, rallied around Mr. Civis, believing the complaints were a misunderstanding or an overreaction. A Facebook page was launched, "Boycott Whitehall Plumb’s for Fred," and has received 13,381 likes.

"I have known Fred since seventh grade," wrote one customer on the Facebook page. "He was a kind gentle soul then and has not changed a bit. He would never do anything to hurt anyone, and if it was done unintentionally his heart would break."

Picketers with "We Want Fred!" signs demonstrated in front of the store. The demonstrations apparently stopped following a store meeting with Mr. Civis, who never backed the boycott. In mid-October, Mr. Civis pled guilty to disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor. He is undergoing counseling but avoided jail time and a fine.

In multiple local articles on the incident, some customers were said to have waited in his longer lines over the years to enjoy his boisterous personality and embraces that have been referred to as a "handshake from the heart." Others avoided his line for the opposite reasons.

In a statement following the uproar, Plumb’s president and CEO James Nadar said the dismissal came after "multiple violations" of store policies. He added, "We remain firm in our belief that the safety and comfort of our customers must always come first."

He further told the Detroit News that Mr. Civis had been warned several times about touching customers in ways they found too personal. He said, "We don’t terminate someone for giving unwanted hugs. He just couldn’t follow the policy."

Where should the the line be drawn between friendly, personable service by store associates and annoyance or creepiness? Are incidents in which gregarious associates violate a shopper’s personal space more common than thought?

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18 Comments on "Are hugs okay at retail?"

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Steve Montgomery
BrainTrust

Here’s my line between friendliness and annoyance and creepiness between customer and store associates: Handshakes are OK, kisses and hugs are not. Hugs and kisses are something for friends and not for people you are simply friendly with at a store.

Think about this in reverse. Would anyone doubt the inappropriateness of a customer walking in and hugging a clerk under normal circumstances?

Chris Petersen, PhD.
BrainTrust

I’m often lucky to find any associate on the floor when I need one. A smile and friendly greeting would be most welcome.

But in the case of physical contact, there are too many cultural and personal differences in order to define a norm or acceptable standard.

In this case I would agree that CEO James Nadar has is right, “the safety and comfort of customers must always come first.”

Dr. Stephen Needel
BrainTrust

I’m assuming there’s more to this. Couldn’t he have first just asked, “would you like a hug today?”

Bob Phibbs
BrainTrust

A customer who hugs you says they trust you.
An employee who hugs you says they want you.
This isn’t political correctness, it is basic humanity: No one likes creepy.

Just like when I reach my hand out to shake yours means thank you. An employee who doesn’t know me and wants to shake my hand as I walk in means “I want your money.”

First rule of retail: Don’t be creepy.

Ken Lonyai
BrainTrust

Hugging is definitely a slippery slope that in a litigious society is one to avoid. Most people will understand, a few won’t appreciate it, and once in a while someone will be motivated to file a complaint or worse.

A warm smile, an affable greeting and a friendly handshake can convey a welcoming message and no one will be terminated over a handshake.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

Fred is creepy. I have never been hugged in a store and I’d like to keep it that way. One complaint should be enough to stop it all. A smile and a thank you are as far as one should go. If the “thank you” is a little boisterous, that’s OK.

Ed Dunn
Guest
2 years 8 months ago

Whitehall, Michigan’s population is 2,700 in a very rural area one goes to escape the hustle and bustle. Small town place. The information above states people knew this guy all their lives. I think this is an overreaction.

Ed Rosenbaum
BrainTrust

There has to be more to this story than we know. I agree hugging a stranger is going too far. But a handshake or hug to a friend is not going over the line of proper or acceptable decorum. The store has the right to set the rules and procedures an employee is to follow. The employee is responsible for following them. It appears this gentleman decided to make and follow his own rules which was not acceptable to a group of customers or management. Therefore, the results were obvious.

I must admit I did not see what the big deal was when I first read the story. But after thinking about it, it was clear that one can be too friendly and actions misunderstood in what is a more formal environment. This appears to be what happened here. My more obvious question is if he was employed at this store for over 39 years, why did management choose this as the time to terminate him? Could there possibly have been new management that had a differing agenda?

J. Peter Deeb
BrainTrust

NO! NO! NO hugs for customers! Too many opportunities for harm to all parties including lawsuits for the business. Handshakes, friendly hellos, and “thanks for shopping with us” accompanied by a big smile all accomplish the same goal without all the potential pitfalls. Another part of training that should be included in orientation of new employees but probably is not done in many places.

David Livingston
Guest
2 years 8 months ago

My take is if you are not the owner or manager of an independent, then you can’t. I have a client who hugs, kisses and offers a genuine compliment to a lot of female customers and employees. He always knows who he is hugging. He can’t be fired because he owns the store. My guess is most of the women who shop his store do so for the attention he gives them. For him it works. If he stopped he’d lose business. Another time we could not figure out why our store was losing so much business to a nearby IGA store. After consumer research we found out that the women enjoyed the hug and compliments they got from the store manager. We hired the store manager, problem solved. It’s like, who in a store gets to carry a gun? If you are a chain store employee you can’t. If you are an independent owner/manager you can. In fact if you didn’t you’d be helpless in some areas. But I agree, if you don’t know someone, hugging is creepy.

Nikki Baird
BrainTrust

You know, simply asking the customer first would go a long way to defusing all of this. “I’d like to give you a hug. Is that okay?” If the customer says no, then the answer is no. But I hesitate to be so absolutist about no hugging or whatever. It’s human interaction, and if a relationship does exist, how sad would it be for the store associate to have to say “I’m sorry, but I’m not allowed to touch you”? The world is a messy place, there are no absolute rules that can be enforced governing personal interactions, and actually, I wish people would just relax.

Debbie Hauss
BrainTrust

Unless it’s someone you already know it’s probably best to avoid hugging and kissing in the store between store associate and customer. I actually had an uncomfortable moment at a trade show when a new company PR rep hugged me on first meeting. It was awkward and yes, unprofessional.

Mel Kleiman
BrainTrust

To hug or not to hug, that is the question—and a difficult questions to answer. Depends on the circumstances and all kinds of variables.

The question really is, do you terminate an employee for continual violations of a company policy? The answer is YES. Does not matter if we like the policy or not.

Warren Thayer
BrainTrust

Aw, c’mon, Fred! This wasn’t your first rodeo! Formal complaints to the police in 2012 and 2013? Being told by store management to stop it? Four women coming forward to say it made them uncomfortable? Others avoiding your line for the same reason? Hey, you’re outta there! But maybe you could get a job with the NFL.

Kate Blake
Guest
Kate Blake
2 years 8 months ago

I’ve seen more egregious behavior from customers than the other way around. I’ve had male customers get too frisky and children with pink eye running around a store, trying to get hugs.

Bill Hanifin
BrainTrust

This is a highly subjective issue to manage, but given the sensitivities of the general public to violations of their personal space, I would probably err on the side of handshakes and smiles rather than promote a culture of hugs.

It could likely be that this employee is justified, but for the general retail marketplace, it’s a hard policy to scale successfully.

Li McClelland
Guest
Li McClelland
2 years 8 months ago

This is easily handled. In this day and age you never know how what you perceive as a friendly gesture will be received in a business environment . If the employee knows the person, all they need to do every time is say “It’s great to see you here again! Can I give you a hug?” and wait to see if the customer signals that it’s OK by reaching out first. If the employee doesn’t know the person, or don’t know her well, then don’t initiate a hug or a discussion about a hug—ever. How hard is that?

Ralph Jacobson
BrainTrust

Can we all just please relax for a moment?! Let’s not remove every last piece of humanity from our society, ok? We barely talk to each other any longer. We text, selfie and post blogs and never hear a LIVE human spoken word, nor feel the embrace of a friendly hug. I think hugs are GREAT! I NEED one now!

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