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:

    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.”

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  2. 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.

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    • 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?”

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    • 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.

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  3. 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.

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  4. 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.

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    • 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!

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  5. 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.

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  6. 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.

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  7. 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.

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