How Heely-hatin' can cost you a whole lot more than a lawsuit.

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Prologue: The Heelys Guestapo Incident

Heelys-haters beware: If you would rather spend your energy sniffing out Heelys-wearing kids and reprimanding their parents for letting them wear the devil's rollershoes in your stores than being cordial and professional, maybe you're missing the point of what your job is supposed to be in the first place. (Whatever it is, it isn't playing detective Dickhead from the Heely Police.)

Face it: Heelys are popular. Kids wear them (heck, I wear them whenever I get a chance). And despite what you may have read or heard on the news, they aren't any more dangerous than 3" stilettos or 46" waists - or both. (Perhaps less so.) The point is that they are shoes. Sure, they have a wheel built-in to the heel for when you feel like taking advantage of a slight downhill, but they are shoes first and foremost. You can walk with them without rolling around, and you can easily remove the wheel from its socket in about ten seconds flat if need be.

Now, I understand that Heelys can create some liability issues for retail businesses, and so I don't have a problem with store managers and personel asking customers with Heelys not to roll down the breakfast cereal aisles like two-wheeled slaloming kamikazes.

I get that.

And I even don't have a problem with store managers asking shoppers whose kids have Heelys to remove the wheels from their shoes while they are inside the store - as long as it is done gracefully.

A better solution would even be to simply welcome their customers to their store, and politely (that's with a smile, thank you) ask them to not roll around in the store - for safety reasons: "Hey, cool shoes. You can wear those in here, but please don't roll around, okay?"

That's all they have to say.

Unfortunately, that isn't the case in most stores that choose to enforce anti-Heelys guestapo tactics. Case in point: Publix. I was in there last week with the family unit, when a store employee or assistant manager or assistant meat department manager or whatever intercepted us in the middle of our shopping to inform us that Heelys were not allowed in the store and that our children would have to either change their shoes or wait outside.

Excuse me?

This is probably the place in this post where I should make a point to say that my progeny wasn't rolling down the aisles. They were just walking. They were simply guilty of wearing a particular brand of shoes.

Here's the thing: It's bad enough that we have to take our shoes off to go through "security" checkpoints at our nation's airports, but I sure as hell am not about to take my shoes off to go shopping at Publix. It isn't like we carry an extra set of shoes for the kids just in case some asshole in a store has nothing better to do than play shoe cop instead of doing his job - which, by the way, essentially consists of being friendly to customers and making sure what I want to buy is waiting for me on the shelf.

Oh, and make sure his green apron isn't streaked with greasy Dorito crumbs. That would be nice.

So here we are, in the frozen foods aisle, with this jackass standing in front of my wife - blocking us from going any further, telling us that our kids (who were just walking, mind you) aren't welcome in the store because of the shoes they are wearing.

He isn't saying this with a smile. This moron has a frown on his face and a fist on his hip, and a finger shaking at our kids' feet.

"But they aren't rolling," we answer.

"It doesn't matter," replies jackass.

Well, okay then. We handed him the contents of out shopping cart (literally), and informed him that we would be going across the street to their competitor's store... which we did.

Discovering that the grass is greener elsewhere

I wasn't happy about this, because until then, I enjoyed shopping at Publix (clean aisles, friendly cashiers, nice layout, etc.) To make matters worse, I wasn't a big fan of the shopping experience at the competitor's store across the street. But whatever. We needed to buy some vittles, and anywhere was better than Publix - so across the street we went.

And that's when I realized the full scope of Publix's error of judgement.

Until our encounter with the Heelys Nazi, I had no reason to look for alternatives to Publix. In my little grocery shopping universe, it sat squarely at the top of the heap, save perhaps the Whole Foods and Fresh Markets and other "premium" grocery store brands in my general area. Other local chains like Bi-Lo, Super Walmart and Ingles were - at least in my mind - dirty, gloomy, unfriendly places where I hated to shop.

Yes, hated: I would rather pay 30% more for my gallon of skim milk at the posh and happy Publix than have to suffer the long checkout lines, unfriendly cashiers, and sorry-looking produce sections at the other stores.

But guess what: The Ingles across the street from Zig-Heil Publix had enjoyed a makeover since the last time I visited its tired, gloomy aisles, and what I saw shocked me: The gloom was gone. The produce section was twice as big as Publix and much nicer. (The produce was super fresh and bountiful too, which I didn't expect.) Everything I could get at Publix was there as well, and then some. Ingles' bread selection was broader. Their deli section had some stuff that Publix didn't offer, which was a nice surprise.

But best of all, the prices were unbelievably low compared to Die Shiltzenfuhrer Publix.

$1.59 for a couple of hot, juicy, delicious giant chili dogs? $2.59 for a humongous chef salad? $4.99 for a whole rotisserie chicken? Is this possible?

It wasn't until we got home that we realized that not only was Ingles' store-made stuff cheaper, it also tasted better than anything made by Publix. We've been shopping there for the last week, and so far, haven't missed Publix one bit.

I have come to the conclusion that I am an idiot for having been such a snob about Ingles over the last few years. I should have given it another chance a lot sooner. We could have saved a crapload of money in the process.

Autopilot purchasing habits vs. habit-busting triggers

The point of this post isn't to sing Ingles' praises or rub Publix' nose in it, or even defend shoppers' rights to wear Heelys inside stores and malls and other places of business.

Nope, the purpose of this post is to remind businesses that their customers choose to shop at their stores. They don't have to. They choose to. If customers have a pleasant experience, they come back. If customers have a bad experience, they go somewhere else. It is that simple.

Whenever a business does something to make a customer feel disenfranchised, that customer is going to find an alternative to that business before you can even say "refund". Bad service at Jiffy Lube? Hello Grease Monkey! Sprint dropping calls and screwing up your bill every month? Hello Verizon! Someone giving you attitude at Office Max? Hello Staples! Welcome to the wonderful world of competition and free markets: If you don't value a customer's greenbacks, someone near you will be more than happy to do so.

Maybe in the grand scheme of things, losing one customer's business isn't all that important to a company with hundreds of stores across a large portion of the US. But hey, one family is easily worth $5,000-$6,000 in revenue per year, which is nothing to sneeze at for any single store. To make matters worse, Publix can probably expect to lose a few more households to their across-the-street neighbor over the next few months, thanks to our opnion's impact on many of our peers' purchasing habits. By next spring, we'll probably have moved close to a dozen families from Publix to Ingles. Hopefully more.

Yep, that's right: Mr. Dumbassistant manager's self-righteous bullying has probably cost his store $60K in revenue per year, just by virtue of having turned off one customer.

Imagine his impact on his store if he chases away one customer every day... Or even just two per week, if you want to give him the benefit of the doubt. He could be chasing away millions of dollars of revenue per year, just by being a dick.

The point is that we're all set in our little shopping habits: We have our favorite gas stations, our favorite restaurants, our favorite dry cleaners, our favorite car washes, our favorite bookstores, our favorite electronics stores, and our favorite grocery stores. We are creatures of habit. It takes a trigger to get us to change our purchasing habits.

A recommendation from a friend or peer is a trigger (Yey to WOM). A special sale is a trigger. A grand opening is a trigger. A clever bit of signeage is a trigger. Effective marketing can be a trigger.

And, as Publix may or may not be aware of, a bad experience can also be a very powerful trigger.

Here's a tip: Don't ever let a customer leave your store angry.

Here's another tip: Don't ever treat a customer like a criminal when they haven't broken any laws or caused mayhem in your store.

What the Publix Nazi did went far beyond making me angry. In truth, I would have probly gotten over it in time, and within weeks, I would have been right back at that Publix, settling into my old habits. What he did was give me a reason to go discover what his competition had to offer.

That was his mistake.

That was the outcome of his moronic decision to put aside common sense, politeness, and the values of his store, and choose instead to be a complete asshole.

If you're a store owner or manager, let this be a warning to you: Prohibiting kids from rolling around in their Heelys inside your stores makes sense. Prohibiting kids from wearing their Heelys inside your stores is ridiculous. Worse yet, treating them and their parents like criminals when they do the latter is both bad form and bad business. They're shoes, people. Move on. Find something better to do, like taking good care of your customers instead of policing them.

Unless you just want to hand over your best customers to your competitors, free of charge.

For shame.

Judging by how many of my kids' friends also have Heelys, I hate to think of the volume of business being lost on a daily basis by stores more interested in mindlessly enforcing unnecessary "rules" than handling their customers with a modicum of tact and professionalism.

Kneejerk policies = Bonehead customer experience disasters.

Okay, rant over. Have a great Monday, everyone.

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