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?


I don't accept your premise, that the store blocked the door. I think that it was a command to customers that the customers that THEY close the door upon entry or exit.


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.


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.

Enter your name...

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.


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


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


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


A mitten ;-)

Patrick Piatt

They're minimizing cross-ventilation to retain heat-- heartless greed, considering these stores make out like fat rats during cold,snowy spells.

Kristen Rose Loyd

The Store Used Passive Voice, Which Makes The Sign Wordy And Unclear. Who Is Keeping The Door Closed? They Don't Want You To know Or They Want To Pass On The Door Closed Blame To The Consumer. That's One Reason To Use Passive Voice.

Joshua Lehrer

Your comment about passive voice reminds me of a blog post I once wrote:


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....


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...


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).



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.



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.

Justin Grondin

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.


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:

Sumi A

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.


Nobody cares.

mark wierzbicki

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?

Martin Heintzelman

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?

Random post

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.


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?


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..."

Tom L

What strikes me more than the content is the poor quality of the sign. The font is difficult to read, the artwork is almost unrecognizable, and the sign itself is poorly sized, leaving a gap between it and the left edge of the frame. My impression upon seeing the sign is that whomever would allow that to be placed in front of the store doesn't have the attention to detail and quality needed to entice me to buy any of their products.