My Big Welcome

Joanna Blythman describes how she infiltrated the employee-conditioning process of Asda, subjecting herself to its brain-melting mix of Maoist self-criticism and revivalist-style fervour

Only two months to go until Christmas and the recruitment machine at my nearest Asda Wal-Mart had gone into overdrive. This 100,000-square-foot super-centre was one of the 11 biggest Asda Wal-Marts in the UK. In the week before Christmas, sales for the store had been projected at as much as £2.3m – if, that is, there were enough staff to handle them. In theory the store had around 700 employees, but it was seriously understaffed. At the checkouts alone, of some 200 positions only 120 were filled. This store obviously needed people fast. It sounded like a fruitful place to look for a job.

Sure enough, 10 days after I had posted my application form I had become an Asda ‘colleague’. There are no members of staff at Asda Wal-Mart, only colleagues. And, I was to discover, there was more to being a colleague than wearing a badge that said ‘Joanna… Happy to Help’. I had to learn how to ‘Live the Asda Values’. I had to be trained in maintaining the perpetually smiley face and ‘can-do’ attitude that would make me a valued, respected member of the warm, cuddly Wal-Mart family. With the aid of simple rhymes, mottoes and ample alliteration I would learn all about ‘Miles of Smiles’, ‘Being a Buddy’, ‘Smiley Squad Stickers’ and ‘Pockets of Pride’. Asda Wal-Mart would show me how to ‘knock the customers’ socks off’, how to ‘Go the Extra Mile’ to ‘exceed customers’ expectations – always!’. I was to be given the ‘Big Welcome’.

The Big Welcome is a three-day induction course for new Asda recruits. We numbered 20 on day one. A further 100 would be going through the same course in the next week, we were told. My new colleagues were a varied and multi-talented bunch, either young or middle-aged. They included a postman, a landscape architect, a business studies and accountancy student, a road builder, a couple of clothes shop workers, college students (one training to be a fitness instructor, the other trying to get the grades to break into marine biology), a computer hardware programmer and a petrol-pump attendant. Not one of them expressed any interest in a long-term career with Asda. They were candid: they needed the money. Night shifts paid £6.17 an hour for over-18s, rising to £6.75 after 12 weeks. My day-job starter rate was £4.62 an hour, rising to £5.06. This was at a time when the UK’s national minimum wage for someone my age was £4.50 an hour and the Low Pay Unit was recommending a minimum wage of £5.38. Under-18s on day shifts could earn £3.82 rising to £4.18. Our tea breaks would be paid, but not lunch breaks.

Walking in through the staff – sorry, colleagues’ entrance was a little bit like being back at primary school, or at a Scripture Union playgroup. The first wall display was dedicated to Asda’s parent company Wal-Mart, with photos of corporate HQ in Bentonville, Arkansas, a potted rags-to-riches history of the chain’s spectacular half-century rise from nickel ‘n’ dime store to the world’s biggest retailer, the Stars and Stripes, and folksy wisdom from founder-chairman Sam Walton. ‘Treat every customer as if the world revolves around them... It does.’ ‘Never get so set in your ways you can’t change.’ And so on.

The other walls were plastered with motivational league tables on pastel-coloured paper with lots of stick-on stars. There were photos of colleagues who had excelled themselves or, in Wal-Mart/Asda-ese, ‘gone the Extra Mile’, and of the firm’s ‘Gold Star Challenge 100 per cent attendance winners’ with prizes, even trophies on display. It was as if a very earnest primary-school headmistress-cum-Guide pack leader had launched one massive Pavlovian collective-behaviour-modification exercise. Not quite ‘well done Darren for eating your lunch today; a silver star for you, and if you keep this up you’ll get a gold star and then a badge’, but that sort of thing. One wall was given over to improving colleague relationships: the ‘Big Thank You’ from one keen colleague to another. ‘Carol! I just wanted to thank you for being chatty and helpful! From Beverly in provisions.’ ‘A hug to Helen for giving me help when I really needed it. From Brett in home and leisure.’ Colleagues with such star qualities could put themselves forward to be ‘buddies’, and so help motivate newer colleagues. Those with bigger ambitions could go on to win employee of the month/year awards, a ‘Golden Greeter’ award or even an ‘Asda Oscar’.

Round the corner we came upon the name-and-shame ‘Miles of Smiles’ corridor, which was liberally covered with multi-coloured forms bordered with smiley faces, organised by department. On these forms one named colleague after another made a hand-written pledge to give customers better service in future – public declarations made in an almost Maoist spirit of self-criticism, and reminiscent of Weightwatchers or Alcoholics Anonymous. ‘I will treat customers as I would like to be treated myself,’ signed and dated by Lucy in checkouts. Or ‘I aim to give my customers the best service ever,’ from Mohammed in produce. On the opposite wall were cheery photos of memorable ‘Asda Days’. These featured the most recent ‘Pocket Tap Day’, when customers and colleagues were encouraged over the tannoy to have fun by simultaneously tapping their pockets as in the Asda TV advert, and the ‘Sing Along with Louise Day’, when customers and colleagues accompanied the pop star Louise as she launched her new single in the store in a bid to get Asda listed as achieving the biggest ever singalong in The Guinness Book of Records.

There was no escape from homilies, pledges, challenges and awards in the colleagues’ canteen or even in the toilets, where, along with reminders about the ongoing overtime possibilities at the store’s checkouts, some eager colleague had stuck up Day-Glo handbills with helpful examples of how to go that Extra Mile. ‘I was just finishing my shift when a customer took ill in the canteen. I dropped her off at her doctor’s on my way home.’ ‘I saw a customer looking strangely at an aubergine. The customer had never tried aubergine, so I explained the taste and different cooking methods and suggested some recipe ideas for her.’

We were ushered into the training room by Glen, the colleague charged with introducing us to Asda culture. Glen played his role with all the finger-clicking fervour of a revivalist preacher. Asda is part of Wal-Mart, he explained, the world’s biggest general merchandise retailer. He directed us to a wall emblazoned with ‘Amazing Asda Facts’. Did we know, for example, that if we put all the cucumbers the company sold from end to end they would stretch from Asda House in Leeds to Wal-Mart HQ in Arkansas? Despite its colossal size, though, there were no misters, misses or missuses in the company. We were part of an open, honest, challenging culture, a culture that was quite unlike that of any other retailer. ‘Sainsbury’s? Who wants to work for Sainsbury’s? It’s dull and lifeless,’ affirmed Glen with unwavering certainty. How did it feel, he asked us, to be colleagues in a company as big and powerful as Asda Wal-Mart? Were we comfortable with that? Did it feel good? ‘Okay then: let’s see smiley faces, and let’s hear it!’ ‘That feels brilliant,’ we chorused, somewhat half-heartedly. ‘Brilliant’ was a word that Asda liked to hear, Glen explained.

He had lots to tell us about the AWW – the ‘Asda Way of Working’. Asda’s ‘Purpose’ was the altruistic-sounding ‘to make goods and services more affordable to everyone’. It had a ‘Mission’, too, which was ‘to be Britain’s best-value retailer by exceeding customers’ needs ... Always!’, and Glen was going to ‘empower us’ to do just that. There were lots of aids to help the process along. On the wall directly behind Glen were painted the Asda ‘Values’: respect for the individual; service to our customers; strive for excellence. We could refer to a booklet for examples of how we could live these values every day. Respect for the individual, for example, meant, among other things, ‘wearing name badges at all times’. Service to customers could include ‘continually looking for ways to sell’. One of the ways of striving for excellence was to adopt a ‘can-do’ attitude. ‘Combine this AWW with our customer-service philosophy and selling culture, and what we end up with is a real competitive edge that will make us a winning organisation,’ said our ‘Welcome to the World of Asda’ guide.

Next up, a Big Welcome video from Asda’s chief executive Tony De Nunzio. Tony (we were on first-name terms already) greeted us new colleagues with an informal ‘ciao!’. If we met Tony in the store, said Glen, we shouldn’t be surprised to find him with his sleeves rolled up. As highly respected, indeed vital colleagues, we shouldn’t be frightened to go up to him and let him hear our personal plans for further exceeding customer expectations, particularly if we had a suggestion to make for a new ‘volume-producing item’, or VPI. Colleagues were actively encouraged to identify and increase sales of VPIs. We could also share with him our ideas about creating more ‘Pockets of Pride’ by suggesting cost-busting ideas that would make Asda proud of us. Alternatively, we could just fill in a ‘Tell Tony’ form.

Our training room was stuffy, windowless and lit with naked strip lights, and by now our attention was beginning to drift. Some people looked at their watches. I began to compose letters to Tony: ‘Dear Tony, have you ever thought that a better basic pay rate might put an even bigger smile on colleagues’ faces?’ Or: ‘Dear Tony, I find wearing a first-name-only badge demeaning.’ Or: ‘Dear Tony, turn off the in-store tannoy. It’s driving me up the wall.’ After lunch, one new colleague didn’t return. The rest of the day passed by in a blur of in-depth security training, which covered ‘shrinkage’ (mainly shoplifting) and how to go about making a citizen’s arrest.

By day two our group had shrunk to 13. ‘Am I right in thinking that they just tell you the same thing over and over again?’ asked the would-be marine biologist. It would be more of the same today, we agreed. ‘We aren’t brainwashed enough yet,’ observed the would-be fitness instructor. But, boy oh boy, there was still so much for us to learn about; not least the mystery shopper employed by the company to keep colleagues on their toes. Kelly-Anne from customer services explained that every month the store was visited by a mystery shopper – essentially an inspector from an external company, whose job it was to ‘assess colleague behaviour’. To score well when the dreaded mystery shopper turned up at your department, good service – ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ and a generally civil, polite response – was not enough. Asda was looking for ‘amazing service’, which should deliver a respectable score upwards of 80 per cent. And just in case you weren’t sure of the difference between ‘amazing’ service and ‘good service’, there was a video to show you examples of the former, prominently featuring ‘Smiley Squad stickers’ – £1 money-off vouchers – to mollify disgruntled shoppers. Our demeanour was all-important, too. We had to cultivate our ‘10 Foot’ welcoming attitude, and having made unswerving eye contact with customers we should think carefully about the way we talked to them. We should ‘inject enthusiasm’ into our voices, and our tone should ‘reflect sincerity and confidence’.

Somewhat embarrassingly, this particular store had come out seventh from the bottom in the mystery-shopper company league table, with scores of between 50 and 74 per cent. Everyone had vowed to do better. If you did well, you could earn a gold, silver or bronze prize, which might win you a box of chocolates or a bottle of champagne. But the mystery shopper would not hesitate to award any colleague a 0 per cent score. This would be followed up with a one-to-one ‘counselling session’, out of which ‘outcomes would be put forward for action’. There were no negatives in Asda, only ‘opportunities for improvement’. Make a pledge on the Miles of Smiles wall, and even the least smiley colleague could be considered rehabilitated.

Monitoring of colleagues didn’t stop with the mystery shopper. Asda’s ‘Penny for your Thoughts’ phone line encouraged customers to phone in and say what they thought of the store or a particular colleague. In a Christmas training video there were numerous examples of favourable reports on colleagues who had amazed customers with exceptional service, such as driving harassed mums home when they broke down in the car park even though it was during the colleague’s time off, or dashing out with brollies and welcoming smiles to greet shoppers in torrential rain. In case you didn’t get the idea, there was a ‘SMILES’ aide-mémoire, which acted as a prompt for living the Asda values. ‘S’ for ‘smile at the customer’, ‘M’ for ‘make contact’ (say hello), ‘I’ for ‘information’ (offer correct information), ‘L’ for ‘listen’ (to what the customer has to say), ‘E’ for ‘end it well’ (say ‘is there anything else?’ or ‘goodbye’), and ‘S’ for ‘said it, now do it’ (follow through your promise).

As an incentive to live the Asda values, colleagues were eligible for annual bonuses if the store exceeded certain targets. The happier the customers, the better the bonus would be – perhaps as much as £250 for a full-timer. So, colleagues had a direct financial interest in improving store performance, our trainer explained. Our efforts might even extend to confidentially drawing to management’s attention any other colleague whose behaviour didn’t shape up.

By the end of day two, everyone had got the message: be nice to customers. It was hard to imagine any company with a clearer training goal, or one that made such a long-winded effort to communicate it. Which made it all the more puzzling why this store was struggling to improve its mystery-shopper score and to fill vacancies. And if it was such fun to work at Asda, how come the chain had a 21.2 per cent annual staff turnover rate? I was beginning to see why. Even earning the princely sum of £4.62 an hour, I found that the place got on my nerves. It made me feel as if I wasn’t quite an adult. Something about the set-up made me itch to go round with a felt-tip pen and turn all those smiley faces into grumpy faces or even positively naughty faces. I felt a growing urge to snarl some very rude words indeed at the mystery shopper. Perhaps I just wasn’t cut out to live the Asda values. I didn’t go back for day three, and I suspect I wasn’t the only one.

Extracted from Shopped: The Shocking Power of British Supermarkets by Joanna Blythman published by Fourth Estate, 2004.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist September 2004

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