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Nov 13

CHRISTMAPOCALYPSE 2013: AND SO IT BEGINS

I found myself walking around Michael’s Saturday night because my wife needed clothespins for a craft project.  Here’s an abridged list of thoughts I had upon entering the store:

–       Why does every craft store smell like a potpourri factory?

–       There is no way this place would pass a fire inspection.

–       Michael’s hates disabled people because the store is merchandised like a Tough Mudder track.

Craft stores must be run by people featured on the TV show Hoarders.  Here’s the concept: fill a few dump trucks with yarn and popsicle sticks, trough it in a 10,000 square foot store, and invite the general public to pick over the pile and put things back wherever they please.  Price tags and item descriptions are optional.  Add a few Christmasy signs and an aggressive holiday soundtrack to let everyone know that you mean Christmas.

I was wondering why life had forsaken me to wander the claustrophobic aisles of Michael’s on a Saturday night when I heard this:

“EXCUSE ME!”

Next time you are dining out with someone, ask them to pass the pepper as loudly as you can without screaming, and then shove past them to grab the pepper yourself.  This is what I was confronted with.  I stepped into a display of Christmas ribbons to let her pass and she plowed on by, a round little troll wearing a striped purple shirt and hideously dimpled yoga pants.

I am a reasonable man.  I am walking around, looking for wooden clothespins in the made-out-of-wood aisle.  Surely you can understand my confusion when I discovered them in the tiny-paint-bottles aisle.  And I know these are narrow aisles with no regard for ADA compliance, but shouting ‘excuse me’, shouldering past, and stopping right in front of me so I can immediately bump into you is an affront to decency.

So I said (shouted) “EXCUSE ME!” and dropped a shoulder, charging into the mason-jar-fad aisle.  The jars were marked down for a pre-Black Friday sales event and arranged on the shelf to simulate a recent earthquake.  Jars were on their sides, upside down, on the ground, everywhere but looking nice.  Ugly as they were, this is an unfortunate merchandising strategy many retailers showcase around the holidays, if not year-round.  There are three general holiday strategies retailers follow:

–       Pile ‘em high and watch ‘em fly

–       We’re participating because everyone else is

–       We had to buy insurance in case our customers develop seizures

Michael’s seems to have mastered the town dump concept, which saves the company money by paring merchandising and signage costs, but creates a disorganized, chaotic atmosphere that makes people like me want to take a swing at ignorant purple trolls desperate for seasonal glitter.  Stores that employ this method usually survive because they are a specialty retailer and shoppers are there for specific items.  Like craft clothespins.

My retail alma mater, RadioShack, is what I call a “me too” retailer: their only motivation for doing anything is other retailers, and they can’t be left sitting alone in the lunchroom.  The last Christmas I worked there, corporate provided clear stickers to put in the windows as holiday decorations: a set of snowflakes and a set of cellular logos.  Nothing says ‘we’re really trying’ quite like a holiday-themed window sticker riddled with air bubbles advertising AT&T.

Here’s a fun field trip: go to your local RadioShack and take a look at the signage hanging above the wall paneling (it’ll say RadioShack, or The Shack, or whatever they call themselves now).  When the floor associate isn’t looking (close to all the time), climb up there and rip one of the signs down.  It’s double sided.  Right around this time of year, the store manager flips all the signs so the Christmas ornament side is showing, and that is about 80% of the holiday merchandising strategy for RadioShack.

Some stores go overboard.  After being mauled at Michael’s, my wife and I went to Bath and Body Works.  My nickname for the place is The Headache Store; when you walk in, the air is chewy, and I’m under with a migraine in about five minutes.  But I am not ashamed to admit that I like their smelly hand soaps.

Bath and Body Works sells Christmas by the pound.  The store is bathed in shades of red, flashy ornaments hang from every display, the music is a mix between trance and Burl Ives, and the store’s seizure insurance policy is framed in the manager’s office.  It’s clean, bright, shiny, and completely over the top.  The atmosphere works and the upkeep is manageable because the store sells approximately twelve products.  Candles, soap, shampoo, and lotion, in scents ranging from aquatic starfish pine nut to red velvet mandarin chicken.  Stores with narrow inventory are successful by selling a pleasant shopping experience.  Purple trolls do not smash into you at the local craft warehouse while looking for cotton balls, located in the googly eyes aisle, across from beveling knives.

I would like to postulate Rick’s Theorem of Retail Congregation: the quality of signage and merchandising across a retail brand is directly proportional to the quality of customer it attracts.  Here’s how to test this: does the store appear generally nice?  Do the customers appear generally nice?  The theorem holds when the answers match.  If they don’t match, have another look.

We grabbed three packs of clothespins and headed for the registers, where we had the fortune of waiting in line behind the purple troll.  She was telling a friend in a staccato whine how badly she wanted all the things she had seen on her trip to Michael’s.  Answers: no and no.  The theorem holds.

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