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?


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  1. 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).

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    • 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.

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  2. 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.

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  3. 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.

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  4. 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:

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  5. 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.

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  6. Bingsh says:

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

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  7. 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?

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  8. 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?

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