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Wayward at Safeway

The supermarket chain's recent 15 minutes of infamy over stolen sandwiches is a reminder that policies and training have to stress common sense as much as compliance.

November 9, 2011

Safeway may be paying dearly for $5 worth of sandwiches some customers didn't pay for.

The supermarket chain's recent 15 minutes of infamy over stolen sandwiches is a reminder that policies and training have to stress common sense as much as compliance.

Last month, a Safeway store in Hawaii made international headlines after it called the cops on a couple who failed to pay for two $2.50 sandwiches. The couple had bought $50 worth of groceries and said they had intended to pay for the sandwiches, which they'd eaten while shopping. Also of note: The couple was with their 2-year old daughter, and the mother was roughly eight months' pregnant and said she had felt lightheaded before eating one of the sandwiches.

Despite a request by the couple to be able to pay for the sandwiches, Safeway officials called the police. That led to the arrest of both parents and their separation from their young daughter for more than 18 hours.

Clearly, this was an absurd and disturbing outcome for a minor incident. And a cautionary tale for employers around customer service guidelines. I don't know exactly what Safeway policies and training procedures are, but news accounts indicate the store manager was trying to follow company policy in bringing in the police.

If so, it looks like a case of emphasizing compliance over common sense. Given that multiple Safeway workers seemed to be aware of the situation, it also appears to point to a corporate culture in which speaking up against apparent wrongs isn't easy or encouraged.

It's hard to imagine this sort of fiasco happening at an organization like Zappos.com. The online retailer takes pains to tell employees they are expected to use their discretion on the job. To be sure, the pendulum can swing too far in the direction of "anything goes." But places like Zappos and American Express realize it is better to trust in employees' ability and desire to do the right thing than handcuff them with a million policies.

Safeway ultimately dropped the shoplifting charges and apologized to the couple. But damage has been done. By rigidly following a rule, the store may have turned a $5 theft into a much bigger dent in its reputation and bottom line.