SOME years ago, when the U.S. retail giant Wal-Mart took over one of our supermarket chains, we were told that among the wonderful innovations heading our way from across the Atlantic would be the employment of people specifically to meet and greet shoppers.
Many stout British hearts must have sunk at this prospect!
If you were to draw up a shortlist of the two people you would least like to encounter in the foyer of a supermarket, one would be a skeletal individual clad in a black-cowled robe, clutching a scythe and beckoning you with a bony finger.
And the other would be a cheery individual dressed in a colourful uniform topped by a baseball cap who approached you with a smile and an outstretched hand. “Hi! I’m Warren! Welcome to Wondermart! How are you this day? Can I be of any assistance?”
The fear was that, like so many retail trends, once the office of greeter was established at one supermarket, every other chain would feel obliged to do the same. And then every large retail outlet would follow suit.
Just look at the way in which the ritual checkout enquiry “Do you want any help with your packing?” has become universal. The same might have happened with greeters. There would be Warrens everywhere, all producing the same formulaic greeting, carrying with it just much sincerity as the once ubiquitous “Have a nice day”.
Being British and still – on the whole – reluctant to make small talk or enter into any form of social discourse with total strangers, we would have had to devise strategies to avoid meeting Warren’s eye and hurry past without responding. I would probably have pretended to be checking the contents of my wallet or something. Or Warren would have seen me coming and decided not waste a greeting on this scowling curmudgeon….
Anyway, in this one instance, the dam held. Greeters have not become endemic in British retail.
But we must be eternally vigilant in case transatlantic informality makes too many inroads. For example, it has been reported that the coffee chain Starbucks wants to introduce a new system where you supply your first name to the person making your coffee.
This is so when your drink is ready, they can shout out, “Hey, Bill! Your skinny latte mocha to go is ready! ”
Not much harm in that, you may say, but it is just another little invasion of privacy, anonymity and formality in a world where such commodities are getting rarer and more precious. Some of us must make a stand. If and when I am asked in a coffee shop for my name I shall either say “Mr Marshall”… or tell him I’m called Warren.