The Wal-Mart greeter is back.
Having reconfigured the position at its 5,000-plus U.S. stores four years ago, the Arkansas-based retail giant recently completed a successful pilot program that returned these goodwill ambassadors to the front door. Citing positive customer feedback, the company announced this week that starting in the summer, it will be stationing 9,000 people at its store entrances.
Wal-Mart's tradition of "people-greeters" dates back to the 1980s, when company founder Sam Walton implemented a store associate's idea that a familiar face at the entrance would give shoppers the impression of a friendly, neighborhood business — while also acting as a deterrent to shoplifters.
However, in 2012, Walmart relocated around 80 percent of those staffers to other parts of the store to perform tasks such as directing customers to open registers. But that created a new issue.
"In doing that, it made it harder for customers to find the greeters if they had a question or needed help, and it made it harder to welcome customers to the store," a spokesperson for Wal-Mart told NBC News. "Customers have told us that the stores feel friendlier when there is someone at the door to say Hi and welcome them to Wal-Mart."
Two-thirds of the new positions will be the traditional greeters — often senior citizens. The remainder will be "customer hosts," a specially trained younger crew in bright yellow vests who will be responsible for checking receipts, processing returns, handling security, and protecting against theft.
With merchandise theft hovering at around 1.5 percent for most stores, shoplifting has been a huge problem for a company the size of Wal-Mart, which is the world's largest retailer. Although Wal-Mart does not disclose figures on stolen merchandise, company earnings reports indicate that Wal-Mart's average loss would be around $3 billion annually.
Keeping an eye on shoppers is only part of the story, however. A recent study from the Global Retail Theft Barometer reported that 39 percent of retail theft comes from dishonest employees, as opposed to 38 percent from outside shoplifting.
"Greeters are a big part of our company and culture," wrote Wal-Mart Executive Vice President Mark Ibbotson in a blog announcing the change in policy. "In the majority of our U.S. stores we will continue to rely on them to be the helpful first face customers see. Providing customers with an excellent first impression is part of Wal-Mart's broader strategy to ensure simpler, more convenient shopping."