It’s All in the Framing

Reader Steve Cebalt from Fort Wayne, Ind., sent in this picture, taken at a mega-supermarket near his home.  Here’s what he  had to say about it:

Winter Snow Song

I was struck by the unapologetic, commanding, imperative, unexplanatory tone of that message. I liked it and thought it was very effective communication. Understand that this is a mega-supermarket, and that closing this exit imposes a major inconvenience on all shoppers and a hazard on elderly people who have to traverse to the opposite exit and then back to their car in blizzard conditions, so the closure of this exit door is a major issue for the store. Somehow I find the store’s imperative tone more satisfying than anything else they possibly could have said. But why does it intrigue me, and why do I find it more satisfying than the overwrought “customer-centric” tone of most similar communications I see? I have my theories, but I’d be interested in whether your readers have reactions. By the way, I discussed this with the store manager, who thought I was nuts. Not really. Actually, he said they gave that sign a lot of thought. He said the wording was very deliberate because they knew that closing that door was a major decision that affected customers significantly during the worst weather of the year…Safety? Mechanical failure? OSHA regulations? It could be a lot of things, right? 

Well, Freakonomics readers, what do you think of the language? And what’s your guess as to why the store opted to block off the door?


Leave A Comment

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.



  1. didi says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

    Disliked! Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 34
  2. Shane says:

    I’d assume the cost of keeping a “mega-supermarket” comfortably heated during cold temperatures gets expensive and the longer and more freak-quently (ha!) the door is opened let’s more cold air air, spending more money on more heat.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 16 Thumb down 4
    • Sam says:

      I think that’s a fair observation. But then it becomes a question of risk-assessment. Is the payoff from saving x amount of dollars on energy bills greater than the potential loss that could arise from lawsuits as a result of an emergency situation? It could very well be that the odds of some tragic emergency occuring were so low that it made sense to take the risk. I don’t know the answer to that, but it seems rare these days for companies to place employee comfort above the need to avoid a lawsuit.

      Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1
      • Enter your name... says:

        The store pays the heating bill. The insurance company pays the lawsuit (or most of it).

        I doubt that employee comfort entered into the equation.

        Thumb up 6 Thumb down 2
  3. John says:

    A lot better than the “in order to serve you better” nonsense (out and out lie) that we usually get

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 30 Thumb down 1
    • Ray says:

      Saw this once at my pharmacy: “In order to better serve you, the pharmacy will be closed daily from 2:30-3″

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 34 Thumb down 1
  4. Szlachta says:

    What’s that blue thing above the thermometer? A chefs hat? Boxing glove?

    Thumb up 5 Thumb down 2
  5. Patrick Piatt says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

    Disliked! Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 27
  6. Kristen Rose Loyd says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

    Disliked! Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 14
    • Your comment about passive voice reminds me of a blog post I once wrote:

      Thumb up 0 Thumb down 2
    • Phil Persinger says:


      I noticed the passive voice, too, but I imagine what Steve Cebalt found charming about the sign was its obvious hand- and locally-made qualities: clearly not corporate, directly addressing the fact of a closed door.

      I can also imagine that many customers are familiar with this store and have been there during cold weather. Consequently, they know how it feels to be in the check-out lines if the “offending” door is in operation. If that’s the case, the sign doesn’t really need to address issues about which other posters (who, like me, have never been to Ft. Wayne) are speculating. Basically, it’s saying, “Please use the other doors, guys; you know where they are…”

      Does Mr. Cebalt patronize this establishment? Does he walk the long, cold walk– or simply park near the other door(s)?

      Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
      • Steve Cbealt says:

        Hi Phil, Kirsten: FYI, I answered your comments in a separate comment on the current last page of this thread, so as not to hijack this page with my long-ish response! :)

        Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  7. Kahomono says:

    I like when business’ communications to me are straightforward and honest. This is the apogee of that.

    The worst thing a business can do to piss me off is lie to me. :We don’t have bathrooms” is a flat-out lie. “Our bathrooms are not for public use by policy” is MUCH nicer to hear, even though it has no better result as I dance the dance….

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 1
  8. Rick says:

    I’ve been to plenty stores that do this during bad weather. Sometimes it depends on the direction the wind blows as to which doors get closed.
    Really, how many senior citizens go out in blizzards? Not too many.
    Much to do about nothing…

    Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1
  9. Chris says:

    I think the main reason the reader found the sign so satisfying is because he didn’t have to assume anything. If it had said it was closed due to mechanical failure, or safety reasons the reader would have to assume something happened or would need to further investigate if this was true. Like if it had said it was closed to stop shoplifting, he would have to know the fact that during blizzards shoplifting shot up because thefts know they won’t be chased after. That sounds reasonable, but without knowing it he would have to assume. If it was true and the reader knew this than he might have been just as satisfied. So since it said it was closed due to the “frigid weather” he didn’t have to assume anything. Of course, it’s cold outside. The fact he doesn’t have to assume anything about their reasoning makes it easier to understand why they did something even if the Real reason why might be a multitude of things.
    (Also, since it’s hand made, straight forward, and doesn’t seem bland like the reader is probably use to, it’s more satisfying).
    I think anyways (and probably over thinking it).

    Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1
    • Oliver says:

      I think the “hand crafted” aspect is key to customers accepting this sign. While I personally prefer clear and direct commuinication to “marketing speech”, I think that the majority of customers (this is only an assumption based on my work in retail) have a – maybe subconscious – feeling of “I am a paying customer, therefore I deserve respect”. Giving the customers orders, or in this case information, without any “politeness”, does not resonate well with a lot of people. After all this is just some store marketing guys, not a “real” authority like the police for example. However this sign appears to be hand-made, not printed – with doodles that could have been drn by a child. All these aspects created a picture of “neccessity”- it says “the situation is not good, so we quickly put together this sign” and crwates the feeling of compassion in the reader. The way this sign is designed brings “king customer” into an emotional state where they see the store people as fellow humans that are as affected by the weather than they are, not just some drones whos purpose is to serve the customers.
      This kind of effect may or may not be intentional, and of course not every person will react to it as I described (the level of “trouble” the closed door means for one personally is relevant), but I’ve seen this effect at work many times. You can easily test it by replacing the manufactured high-gloss “counter closed for reasons, please wait” sign at a support desk with a hand written note “be back in 5, please wait” and watch how people react.

      Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0
  10. J1 says:

    The language is OK. Is there a reason apparent to the customers why this door would be closed rather than the other? Did Steve indicate whether there was any difference between this door and the one left operating other than location? There almost certainly are regulations governing how long an electric door must be open. It also might be a setting that can’t be modified by the owner. A door constantly opening and closing could easily leave the temperature in the checkout area below some OSHA requirement.

    Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0
  11. Justin Grondin says:

    From my experience of working for 8 years as a grocery clerk, I believe it was an effort to keep employees and customers warm. It gets extremely cold at the registers during winter and when there is cold and wind, the doors often don’t function ideally. I think the sign is successful because it contains an explanation.

    Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0
  12. mikemenn says:

    Notice how it doesn’t say it’s locked, just closed. Ostensibly, it could still be used in an emergency or by a sign-avoiding person. I also like the lack of reason why that the cold temps are keeping the door closed.
    Did the cold make it stop working?
    Is there some corporate rule that keeps the door closed?
    Is there some safety hazard at this door when it gets too cold?
    Who knows.

    I think of this sign now when I see signs:

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1
  13. Sumi A says:

    Don’t forget that the message was ‘wrapped’
    in arty font, drawings and stars that are pleasing to the eye. The decor takes the edge off the directness of the message. I think this is becoming more common in the workplace with smiley faces, winks etc :-). I’m a fan.

    Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1
  14. Bingsh says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

    Disliked! Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 8
  15. mark wierzbicki says:

    I do like the “This is how it is” straight-forward approach. I’m thinking that “Frigid” is an “F” word and that all customers understand that this is more than a typical winter (creating Empathy for the stores NEED to close This door and the common enemy (winter). I don’t know the layout of the store, but wind direction and location of cash registers could be it – Freezing employees?

    Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0
  16. Martin Heintzelman says:

    I don’t know anything about this store, and am don’t care one way or the other for the language, but I am puzzled as to why cold weather merits closing one of the exterior doors while the store almost certainly has open refrigerator/freezer compartments in the meat and/or dairy departments which waste an incredible amount of energy every day. Maybe should think of a fix for that first?

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
  17. Random post says:

    The reason I liked the sign has more to do with the design aspect(font, differential color&size of words, spacing, concise illustration) than the message itself. We all appreciate good art when we recognize it.

    Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1
  18. Frank says:

    My guess is that there’s less customers and so they cut down on the number of store detectives. They closed one door so that it was easier to keep an eye on the customers that braved the weather.

    When or how do we find out the answer?

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
  19. Alix says:

    I like it as well. It makes the message unequivocal and my guess is they are saying, “No, we will not come around and open the door just for you…”

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
  20. Tom L says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

    Disliked! Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 6
  21. tree schlosser says:

    My 1st thought was.. is that a baseball bat and boxing glove?? They mean business!!

    What are your Super Market expectations??? My thoughts are I’m not going to wander the aisles if I am freezing my ass off, I will get what I need and go! Keeping employees warm and healthy, keeping customers warm while shopping to keep them around longer I would suspect would be a good move whether the customer or employee had to walk an additional 50 feet to get to it.

    kuddos to you Mr Kick Ass Frigid Super Market Guy

    Next Chapter “Meat Locker Madness”

    Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1
  22. Derek says:

    I like the direct language and think the sign looks great. My guess about why the door has to be closed is that there is something in the vicinity of the door (probably water pipes) that would freeze if the door was allowed to open and close too often in exceptionally cold weather.

    Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0
  23. illiNOISE says:

    The sign looks like it was manually created using markers. I’m sure it took awhile to draw it up that nicely. Even if the sign’s creator only makes $8-10/hour, how much money did the store save on heating bills by closing the door, in relation to the wasted wages spent on a worker who could’ve otherwise been serving customers?

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  24. Joe says:

    Thefun pictures and fun fonts are just as important. They encpurage the customer to let their guard down, resulting in them being more likely to accept the bluntly worded note.

    Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0
  25. Chris says:

    If it’s a “mega supermarket” it should have double entry doors to minimize the amount of cold air allowed into the main store when people enter or exit. If it either lacks that feature, or it’s so poorly designed that it is ineffective, it would be interesting to know how far patrons have to go to shop at a competitor’s store, and if other stores have better designs for the climate in which they operate. That would help answer the question of whether it is economically wise to install such a system.

    I think the language of the sign is fine, although I note it lacks the requisite random quote marks around a word, and although I am glad to see they avoided the “In order to serve you better” lie, it would be nice if they put “In order to save starving puppies.”

    Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0
  26. TedS says:

    Psychological research shows that statements with this kind of attributive language (e.g., “due to” or “because”) works very well. People find it naturally persuasive, independently of the justification that follows it.

    In one study, people were asked if someone could jump ahead of them for using a copier. Half were asked, “can I go first? I’m in a hurry.” The others were asked “can I go first BECAUSE I’m in a hurry?” [emphasis added]. Oddly, just adding the word “because” led to a big increase in people granting the request.

    Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0
    • Chris says:

      That would make for an interesting Freakonomics topic. It does not make sense to me that adding “because” in the example you site would make any difference. Did they study whether the attributive language works even when the reason given is dubious? For example in your copier line scenario, “Can I go first BECAUSE I like waffles?”

      Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0
    • TedS says:

      I suspect it wouldn’t work with obviously bad reasons for the justification. I’m not sure, though. I learned about that study in grad school, but it wasn’t my area of research.

      Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  27. caleb b says:

    Agreed. It is for energy conservation.

    Stuff You Should Know did a great podcast on the revolving door and explained how much energy is saved by using them. However, they are extremely unpopular as a door option as an MIT study found that something like 97% of people chose to use a regular door instead of the revolving door right next to it. However, by using signs explaining that the RD saved energy, they could get the participation rate up to 20-30%.

    Interestingly enough, the American inventor of the door was reportedly motivated by the desire to never open a door for a woman again, as he found the chivalrous act repulsive. Fittingly enough, he never married.

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
  28. Joe Y. says:

    Human nature seems to respond more positively to direct commands that leave no room their opinion on the matter. If the sign had said “we apologize for the closure of this door, please use another” people would have walked away grumbling about how they feel the situation should have been more properly managed. This sign states two irrefutable facts; The weather is freezing, the door will be closed. By putting their very valid reasoning right there in front of you, it makes you more accepting of the inconvenience.

    Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0
    • Steve Cebalt says:

      Hi Joe Y: I think you are right on the money. Sometimes the more you explain, the LESS happy people become, and the store recognized that. I also think the size limit of the poster board probably had something to do with the extent of the explanation, or lack thereof. I did find the direct command, well, “compelling.” Guess I don’t mind being told what’s what now and then!

      Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  29. RonlyBonlyJones says:

    Why does everyone assume that “closed” means “locked”? I didn’t interpret the sign that way. To me, it’s just indicating that you need to push or pull the door open to effect ingress or egress.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  30. Eric R says:

    The nearest grocery store to me used to lock one door starting at 10pm every night, with a sign stating that fact. It didn’t take long for me to just be accustomed to parking on the side of the store with the unlocked door any times I might be shopping in the evening.

    If this is a regular thing that they do in cold weather, then I bet most regular shoppers already know it and just use the other door.

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
  31. steve cebalt says:

    An update from the original poster: The store had told me (when I asked) that the reason for the exit being closed is that it gets too cold inside, as several readers surmised. The point of my question was how they framed the communication, though, and why it seems refreshing even though the tone is commanding. The reader comments are enlightening (graphics played a really large role here) and funny (Ray’s on Page 1 for example)!

    The sign’s wording and its visuals are elegant expressions of respect for the reader (customer). It respects the customer’s intelligence in a genuine way that can’t be faked nor easily duplicated. The sentence I just wrote is a pretty good definition of branding. Why did this store get it right, when most of the multi-billion-dollar advertising and branding industry fails?

    An honest message, honestly conveyed.

    Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0