Management at Safeway Needs an Overhaul

Safeway Company LogoTenleytown’s neighborhood Safeway is sometimes referred to as Secret Safeway (not to be confused with the now-closed one in Dupont Circle) given the minimalist signage and lack of a street-facing storefront.   However, better monikers might be sad, slow and substandard.  If you are a resident of Tenleytown you may already be nodding your head or may have indulged in your own cathartic grocery store rant on occasion, so I beg your indulgence with my own – you know from whence I speak.

Let me start off by acknowledging how very fortunate those of us in Tenleytown are to have so many grocery options nearby.  There are at least three within walking distance of most residents – Whole Foods, Safeway, Fresh & Green’s – and a Giant just over the DC-Maryland border in Chevy Chase.  Our grocery abundance stands in stark contrast to other District neighborhoods that are food deserts and are fighting to attract grocery retailers.

For most of my time in Tenleytown, I have been a Safeway shopper.  For budgetary reasons, I limit my shopping at Whole Foods to when I need specific produce, cheeses, cuts of meat or fish.  I also try to shop within the neighborhood and to keep my tax dollars in DC, so no Chevy Chase Giant for me.  And let’s face it, prices at Safeway are pretty reasonable (particularly if you coupon and Club shop) and one can, in theory, get everything in one place if the grocery list isn’t too ambitious.  I’m also not ashamed to admit that I’m a sucker for the current gas promotion – saving a dollar a gallon is nothing to sneeze at when one member of the household has to commute to Virginia every day.

However, I have reached my breaking point with the quality and service.  The pluses and minuses of the Tenleytown Safeway just aren’t adding up anymore. 

The produce section is poor to say the least, with fruits and vegetables left out well past their prime.  I’ve come to expect that blueberries, strawberries and tomatoes will be moldy, that salad will be slimy and that I will have to inspect closely each item to avoid taking home rotten food.  The fish counter is to be avoided if the smells emanating from it are any indication.  There is no bakery and a mediocre deli at best.

August 2013 lineShoppers regularly face unreasonably long check-out lines – a problem that has persisted for years if online reviews and personal experience are any indication. My husband refuses to go to Safeway on Sundays because, regardless of the time of day, it regularly takes at least 20 to 30 minutes standing in line before he can check out.  By comparison, in 2009, the average time to checkout in DC was 8:23 minutes – the longest nationwide.

At mid-day on a recent Saturday, only two check-out lanes were open.  The regular line stretched into the produce section, while the “express” line extended a third of the way down the nearest aisle.  When asked about the delays, a clerk responded with “someone is on break.”  Now, I don’t begrudge anyone a break, especially grocery clerks who are on their feet all day.  However, management should plan for employee breaks and have back-up clerks to accommodate – especially when long lines are a recurring problem.

Waiting in a long line wouldn’t be so bad if there was a smiling, friendly clerk at the end of it. But more often than not the clerks move slowly, are rude and/or gossip with each other while customers wait in frustration.  I’ve even heard them complain about the quality of Safeway’s selections – I may agree with them, but it’s never good when employees badmouth their own store.

Some Safeway employees do provide excellent service.  The young gentleman who stocks the dairy aisle is extremely helpful and once even found me halfway across the store to make sure I got my son’s favorite yogurt after he restocked the shelves.  One ebullient checkout clerk always has a big smile for my son, asks me “What’s for dinner?’ and remembers how I like my groceries bagged, while another young woman at the check stand is unfailingly polite, cheerful and conscientious.  And I’d be remiss not to mention the veteran grocery bagger who is among the nicest, most helpful men you could ever meet.  Unfortunately their performance is overshadowed by their colleagues.

When I was a checker many moons ago, we were evaluated on the speed with which we rung groceries, bagging and friendliness.  The manager was ever present, checking on how things were going and customer satisfaction.  Granted this was nearly two decades ago in a Southern town, but it doesn’t seem to be too much to expect in DC today.  Yet at Safeway, customers hardly ever see the manager. And good luck finding anyone manning the customer service window.

At their core, the issues at the store seem to come down to management – personnel management, product management, customer service and quality control.  There have been proposals to redevelop the Safeway, which have proponents and opponents alike for various reasons that I won’t get into in this post.  But if the management of the store is not addressed, an overhaul might not matter.  As I heard one frustrated customer ask just the other day, “Will they even have any customers left?”

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Do you agree/disagree?  Let me know by adding your comments.

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