Say Goodbye to the Wal-Mart Greeters

News that Wal-Mart soon will be removing its "people greeters" from the mouth of every store across America was ironic given how hard it was for Sam Walton to get them there in the first place.

According to Tom Coughlin, Wal-Mart's former COO and Vice Chairman of the Board [who defrauded his company and pled guilty in 2007 to six felony counts of wire fraud and filing false tax returns] Walton had to "throw fits" for a year and a half before greeters were accepted.

"Sam just kept pushing and pushing and pushing," Coughlin wrote in Made in America, Walton's 1992 autobiography. "Every week, every meeting, he'd talk about greeters...Gradually he wore everybody down and got his way."

Walton apparently stumbled onto a greeter at a small Wal-Mart in Louisiana in 1980. The greeter, who Couglin called an"older gentleman," explained to Walton that he had a "dual purpose: to make people feel good about coming in, and to make sure people weren't walking back out the entrance with merchandise they hadn't paid for."

The manager of that Louisiana Wal-Mart was trying to reduce shrinkage at the store -- shop-lifting. "He didn't want to intimidate the honest customers by posting a guard at the door, but he wanted to leave a clear message that if you came in and stole, someone was there who would see it."

Apparently Walton was smitten with the double-agent role of the greeter: the 'hello' coming in, the 'cop' going out. "Sam thought that was the greatest idea he'd ever heard of." Coughlin remembers. He claims Mr. Sam was vindicated years later when he walked into a Kmart and was welcomed by a people greeter. Now many major retailers post these comedian cops near the front entrance.

Sam Walton himself did not talk much publicly about the cop side of the greeters. In his book. Walton noted that "some of our people greeters...use their high profile positions to have a little fun." Like the greeter in Huntsville, Arkansas who used to dress up in costumes for local folk holidays like Hawgfest. Walton described the greeter as an example of how his company liked to "thrive on a lot of the traditions of small town America, especially parades with marching bands, cheerleaders, drill teams and floats." And Greeters.

But now the fun is over. Sam Walton's "greatest idea" is dead -- apparently a victim of the recession -- several thousand greeters are coming in from the cold, to circulate around the store, helping customers find cheap Chinese underwear, and other useful functions.

Thus ends the 32 year run of the Greeter. Like most concepts at Wal-Mart, the Greeter was not what it appeared to be on the surface. Most shoppers at Wal-Mart understood that the smiley folks in the vest with "How May I Help You?" on the back were just disguised members of the loss prevention team at Wal-Mart -- a reminder that cheap goods not only attract shoppers, they attract criminals as well.

If, as Tom Coughlin says, Sam Walton wanted to use greeters to send "a warm, friendly message to the good customer," it didn't work. Wal-Mart has been called many things over the years, but "warm and friendly" is not one of them. It's impossible to make a 200,000 square foot superstore with concrete floors "warm and friendly." The Greeter was a contrived, awkward position -- a stand-up comedian at a sliding glass door.

If Wal-Mart wants to convince the public that it is an inviting place to shop, it can begin by treating its own workers better. Every time Wal-Mart "associates" get their pay check, they are reminded what a disappointing experience it is to put on a Wal-Mart vest.

Happier employees would truly brighten up the store like no greeter ever could. No need for marching bands or drill teams. Wal-Mart workers need to be greeted with a bigger paycheck -- enough to keep their family off food stamps and Medicaid.

Knowing that Wal-Mart cares more about the people who do its work, would go a long way towards making people "feel good about coming in."

Coughlin admits that when Sam Walton first tried to push the people greeters idea, "a lot of people thought he'd lost his mind." Looking back, those people were probably right.

Al Norman is the founder of Sprawl-Busters. For almost 20 years, he has been a leading citizen-activist, helping neighborhood groups fight big box sprawl.