“Hello and welcome to Walmart.”

In a highly competitive retail environment, it seems like a store employee devoted to greeting customers as they walk through the door would be an expendable position. Walmart agreed—briefly. In 2012, the company rolled back thousands of store greeters, only to bring the job back in 2016 after overwhelming customer demand. Chains like Home Depot and even car dealerships employ greeters as part of their business operations. Clearly, both shoppers and stores like to see a friendly face when they enter. But there’s more to the job than that.

The concept of a greeter first took hold in the 1980s, when Walmart founder Sam Walton walked into a Louisiana location and was met by a friendly man who immediately offered to help him find what he needed. Walton was struck by the idea that a person stationed near the entrance would help give Walmart more of a neighborhood store feel.

Having someone say hello had a fiscal benefit, too: Greeting customers tends to reduce shoplifting since potential thieves feel as though someone is paying attention to them.

Benefits for the customer include being able to ask for assistance as soon as they get inside rather than trying to flag down another employee. Greeters can also act as a replacement for a cashier. And depending on the store’s location, a greeter may be able to offer assistance to out-of-town visitors by recommending nearby restaurants or other services.

Despite Walmart pioneering the role of greeter, the company appears to be moving away from it. In 2019, they announced a shift to customer hosts who take on additional responsibilities like being more active in security. The decision was met with controversy, as many of Walmart’s greeters had been people with disabilities. The updated job requirements—like being able to lift at least 25 pounds or clean up spills—forced a relocation inside the store. Walmart responded to the criticism by saying “every effort” would be made to find new occupations for affected employees.

The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 and 2021 has led to a renewed importance for greeters, who have been tasked at Walmart and other retailers with reminding shoppers about mask mandates.

Some stores have experimented with robot greeters to exchange pleasantries with customers, but humans shouldn't worry about job security just yet. A robot named Fabio was fired from the Scottish grocery chain Margiotta in 2018 when customers complained he was too annoying and not very helpful. Many requests for assistance were met with Fabio telling people to "look in the alcohol section." He was relegated to promoting meat at the back of the store before being deactivated.