Holidaying in Cornwall after Easter, I noticed that the outstanding friendliness of Asda's staff is not confined to the north of England. A national company culture has been created.
When I covered Asda as a retail reporter in the late 1980s, the now rejuvenated supermarket chain was creaking. In the early 1990s, it got into financial trouble until the former finance director of Woolworths and B&Q retail group Kingfisher took charge of it. Archie Norman, who later became a Conservative politician, was on the receiving end of some mockery for introducing US-style customer service and staff incentivisation methods.
But they payed off. When the transformed company was bought by US retail group Wal-Mart Stores in 1999, the friendliness of Asda staff really began to become outstanding in relation to other UK supermarket chains. Wal-Mart introduced US-style front-of-store 'greeters' to Asda (who may also operate as shop-lifter monitors but they happen to be friendly monitors).
It is too simplistic to say that Mammon is the sole motivating force for this ethos. Of course, Asda wants to make money, but so do the other supermarkets.
What is it about Asda's corporate culture that has created this? Is it attracting staff who are already friendly people because they are attracted by the corporate ethos or is Asda creating an atmosphere at work that is socially transformative of the people they recruit? One suspects it is a bit of both.
The friendliness of the store staff is shared by the operators of Asda's home delivery service. Often, those using the service are elderly people who appreciate human contact with the van drivers. In Asda's case, there seems to have been a deliberate effort to make this part of the service.
Though there is a growing realisation in the Church of England of the importance of local churches becoming more friendly to outsiders, we cannot afford to be complacent. There is the infamous story of a church being asked by a diocesan missioner whether it was taking part in Back to Church Sunday. "No," came the reply. "The Mothers' Union are laying on apple pies and we don't want strangers eating them."
Certainly, our motivation to be friendly as a local parish church should be gospel-driven. We want people to come to know the love of Jesus in the gospel, and so we want to be friendly to them. But in terms of how friendliness works front-of-house on a Sunday in the local church, Asda's staff are worth watching.
April AD 2013