Exp File: Shoe Carnival. Watch for Carnies!

I took a trip to Shoe Carnival in a rare shopping day recently. It turned out to be quite an experience... only in not such a positive way.

It was a quiet Tuesday around noon when I walked into the store. Business was slow, and was the only customer. I walked in to face a large center aisle with smaller shoe aisles branching off to the left and right. Men's shoes were on the left, women's shoes on the right. Children's shoes and clearance items at the back.

It was a pretty standard shoe store, at first glance.

The only other life in the store were two middle age sales guys. As I approached a center display, sales guy #1 quickly approached to ask if I needed help. I thanked him and said that I was just looking. He followed me for a second and reluctantly walked off. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed sales guy #2 eying me from a distance.

As I strolled around the store, the sales guys then began a maneuver I can best describe as "swimming the tank": Taking opposite positions within the store, they began gliding quickly and smoothly around the store and across the aisles. It was like a synchronized dance. They didn't have shoe boxes or inventory in their hands... or any obvious task in mind. It was weird.

As they conducted this coordinated sweep of the store, each one awkwardly passed me several times. When I made eye contact, both returned a rather forced and eager grin. They they were just walking around...watching...staring at ME - the only customer in the store. I began to feel like a single gal at a used car lot -- or a struggling tuna in the center of a shark tank... The whole thing made me feel uneasy.

After a few minutes of this truly bizarre behavior, I it occurred to me that perhaps they thought I was a shoplifter. This thought amused me, and I continued to wander the store - now more fixated on the antics of the sales guys than any of the shoes I saw. However, just when I thought the sales approach could not get much worse, I heard the rattle of an intercom and a very loud announcement that went something like this:

"LADIES!!!! For the next FIIIIIVE minutes only, we're running a special promotion JUST for you! Take FIIIIIVE DOLLARS off your next purchase of ANY pair of LADIES SHOES marked $24.99 or higher - but ONLY when you PURCHASE within the next FIVE MINUTES!"

To my shock, the announcer turned out to be sales guy #1, who passed me at the back of the store as I faced the entrance. He was holding a wireless microphone and he continued with the pitch:

"YES! For LADIES SHOES ONLY, you'll get FIVE DOLLARS OFF each pair marked $24.99 or higher. Ladies Shoes can be found ON THE LEFT SIDE of the store. Remember, to get this incredible deal, REMEMBER it only applies to purchases made within THE NEXT FIIIIIVE MINUTES."

...He then vanished around a corner, but he wasn't done yet. Continuing in a manner I can best describe as a rapid-fire narrative similar to the financial term disclaimers tacked on to the end of car-commercials....

"Please keep in mind that this offer does NOT apply to clearance items and cannot be used with any other special offer."

Now... I like bargains. However, I'm not one for pressure tactics when I'm shopping, and I'm certainly not desperate to save $5 on a pair of shoes. This is especially true when there's a caveat that I MUST find a pair I like, try them on and rush to the register within "FIIIIVE minutes".

In short, I was so turned off, I decided to leave the store. A new customer arrived just before I left. As I passed her, I mentally wished her well.

In retrospect, I realize the reason I don't like Carnivals is not because I don't enjoy thrill rides, games, deals and action. I love the smells of carnivals, and the people and excitement. I like the colors, riding roller coasters, goofing around in fun houses, eating funnel cakes and watching joyful children ride cheezy kiddie rides with cotton candy.

My problem with carnivals is this: I don't like carnival workers. I don't like "Carnies." Now, I mean no offense to any Carnie that may read this post. I am sure there are plenty of very nice, reputable, upstanding and clean Carnies out there, and this doesn't apply to you. Unfortunately, I can only speak only from my own experience, which frankly, may be biased and perhaps tainted by too much television.

For me, the word "Carnie" ushers in the acrid smell of cigarette smoke.... the vision of men with ruddy complexions, missing teeth, mullets, greasy jeans, t-shirts and empty beer bottles...and chubby women with frizzy hair and snug fitting t-shirts. These are people who have had a hard, nomadic life - one that may include a shady background or past incarceration.

The Carnies I have encountered have been mostly creepy. In my minds-eye, I picture a grim, beer bellied Carnie hustling people on to a rickety ride maintained (or controlled) primarily with a greasy wrench ... I also picture slick Carnies luring suckers with a cheap, straw-filled Sponge Bobs: YOURS to WIN!! Just $5 for three throws....Feel the cheapness...the hustle...

It's a bit dramatic, yes. But here's my point:

As an experience architect, it would seem to me that Shoe Carnival, in creating an innovative brick-and-mortar experience would choose to capitalize on some of the more positive aspects of the Carnival environment, rather than the more questionable or negative ones.

Rather than the Carnie-like hard-sell and intimidating sales maneuvers... how about capitalizing on things like the senses: With color, yummy smells, popcorn and music? How about offering easily won games (read: no pressure) that offer the thrill of a bargain? How about driving customer delight with low-pressure service, lighthearted fun and smiles. Maybe balloons for the kids? Based on this incidence, I'd say the Shoe Carnival experience may warrant further examination.

I can't yet say whether my experience matches that offered at all Shoe Carnival's stores, or if mine was an isolated incident. I did some checking and the company has experienced growth and was even ranked by Forbes in November as a solid retail investment. So it can't all be bad.

However, perhaps this type of feedback is something the leadership team at Shoe Carnival should consider as they refine and cultivate a unique in-store experience -- especially as they close a number of stores this year. Location isn't the only key to success... good experience is.

If you've visited Shoe Carnival and have some thoughts, feel free to comment or send it my way.


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

I've been a Shoe Carnival employee for 5 years. What you write of here is what is described as "creating a sense of urgency" which is the model by which the corporation does business. We are required to run the microphone every 5 minutes, or after 2 songs on the overhead stereo. I find it more odd than anything that at least one employee wasn't approaching you with open-ended questions, such as, "what can I help you find today?" or the such. As it occurs in your experience, I can only assume they were either inexperienced retail sellers or aren't sure of what makes normal customer service? But I doubt they thought you were shoplifting, or they'd have been providing more direct customer service as well. These are all, of course, like your post, speculation. Shoplifting is, however, a very sad subject within the retail industry. I have experienced it turn good days into horrid, make good years bad, and the plague of shoplifting can turn a pleasant job into a nightmare. It is far more common than most people outside the industry perceive, and affects all customers directly in one form or another, be it less staff to help them at a store because budget has to be cut in order to compensate the hundreds of dollars that might have literally walked out the door that week and, of course, the rising cost of all consumer goods. So, if these workers were watching you with concerned eyes, regardless of whether you think you appear or think you do or don't act as a shoplifter, you'd be surprised that they include all creeds, colors, ages and genders. I wish I didn't have to worry about such things, but in the last 15+ years I've worked in retail I've experienced hundreds of people stealing from me right in front of my eyes, and thousands behind my backs. It's a fact that people don't hear about "loss prevention" that much, because it's something that corporations try to hide, as to not show that they're easy targets and cause more theft. But in a moral relativist society, the balance between "prevention" and "absorption" leans sadly far heavier on the latter than the former. 3 months ago, a Shoe Carnival loss prevention specialist was shot trying to apprehend a shoplifter. Just today my store lost several pair from two 6'+ high cowardly thieves that smirked at me as they walked past me and out the door, knowing that I would be unable to do anything about their crime. I have had grandmothers put new shoes on their grandchildren's feet and walk them out the door. I see people hide shoes and candy in baby carriages on a regular basis. I know this post was written a few years ago, but even when it was written the SC chain had experienced so many reasons that would explain your Carnie's tepid behavior. I beg anyone who reads this-- please have sympathy on the retail seller. We only do what we are told to do by the big corporate giant head in the sky. We are good people at the Shoe Carnival. We don't make very much money, and most of us don't have benefits of any kind. But most of us love our jobs and we love our customers.

Unknown said...

Thanks for reading my post and for the passion you put into your response. This article is from December 2009. Believe me when I say that I have plenty of retail experience, which is part of the reason I write about customer experience for a living. My observations stand, and my criticisms are offered for the executives who are running employees like you through these kinds of hoops. The behavior was really crazy and unfortunate, and drove me out of the store. I dare say it has driven others away too. it's very unfortunate they run people in circles like this --and I feel we owe it to the brands that serve us to speak up when they exceed or fail to meet our expectations. I'm glad that you are a good person and really care about employees and mean no offense to you personally. Best of luck to you!

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I’m Leigh Durst, a 20 year veteran in business, operations, customer strategy, ecommerce, digital & social media and marketing. Simply put, I’m a strategist that helps companies (start-up to blue chip) achieve business shift, create more compelling online and offline experiences. I also write, speak and teach about experience design and next-generation business. I’m a futurist, visionary, strategist, doer and connector with a passion for people and helping others. When I’m not on the road, you’ll find me in the San Francisco bay area, working, beaching it and hanging out with my family and dog.


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