Failing to serve the Publix

  One of the larger supermarket chains in the Southeast is Publix.  For me, they have the favorable distinction of being one of the few chains that never wasted time on a "loyalty card" program, instead simply bringing lower prices to any and all without forcing customers to jump through extra invasive hoops to receive some token discount.  That signals some sensible thinking at the administrative level.  The company website also presents the usual marketing pablum about diversity, sustainability, healthy living, community involvement, yadda like most of the chains do.  And over time they have walked quite a bit of the talk.

Then why the heck would they still want to succumb to that prejudicial nonsense about bare feet?  Mr. George would be spinning in his grave if he knew that rather than royalty or family, customers were being treated like "undesireables".  "A culture that cares", or "respecting the dignity of the individual", my ass.  George was still alive and active during the sixties/seventies -- what was *his* take on discrimination?  I decided to take this up with them at the corporate level, and since I'm in their territory for some part of each year, push it fairly hard.

Since one of the most frequent anti-feet excuse from grocery chains is illusory liability concerns, I went after the legal department in a similar approach to Ahold.  People who sit at a desk in front of a computer all day certainly have time to do the necessary research, from my fledgling guidance and beyond, and perhaps eventually understand that removing this one remaining but painful wart of discrimination from their entire infrastructure really would make good long-term business sense.  It would cost them almost nothing, in return for a positive reward in terms of community relations.

So I called the customer-service number and escalated and presented the case in a typical way, asking them to involve appropriate counsel.  A return call a few days later was from the customer-care area and delivered the usual party line, which made it clear that they hadn't even talked to Legal and were just jerking me around.  I clarified that I wanted someone *from* Legal to call me to discuss, and basically threw it right back at them.  It is well worth expressing intolerance of faceless corporate arrogance, especially when a *human* issue is on the table.

A couple of days later someone finally did call from the legal department, Jessica I think, and we actually had a nice conversation.  She was unaware of a lot of the recently emergent knowledge about barefooting, and sounded personally intrigued.  This gave me a little hope.  I also got an actual ticket number for my query, so I could continue referencing it directly whenever I talked to other people.  To help move her department in the right direction, I offered to send along some links and other guidelines via email if that would make it easier and they had a usable address to give me.  Turned out it was fairly obvious, although buried inside an obfuscated and mostly nonfunctional "feedback" form on the website and not easy to find otherwise.  It actually took a couple of tries to reach them, because their inbound mailsystem assumes that everything for customer-care is generated by the web-form and ticket system and needs to have a magically formatted "case number" in the subject string.  It's unclear if straight non-web-form email actually could ever open a *new* case and not just bounce.  Anyway, they eventually received my thoughts.

Subject: Case Ref # 9876543 : shoe-policy case
Date: Sun, 12 Mar 2017 06:10:08 -0500

Please associate this message with customer-care case # 9876543,
currently being handled by your Legal department.  Here is some
supporting information for the request.  This case likely needs to
travel to the CEO or similar level to be resolved.

Please read and understand the following material from the web:

In addition, simple online searches for word combinations such as
    barefoot health
    barefoot liability
    barefoot safety
    barefoot fitness
and any other words expressing commonly stated "concerns", will turn
up countless references illustrating the increasing popularity of the
barefoot lifestyle as a healthy choice.  It would clearly be in the best
business interests of Publix to accomodate that, collectively shed any
remaining vestiges of misplaced prejudice from the sixties, and welcome
barefoot patrons on an equal basis with any other paying customers.
Again, there is no risk presented to Publix in terms of duty of care,
since someone walking in across the parking lot has already clearly
assumed their own risk profile.  Experienced barefooters are both well
aware of and *resistant to* potential hazards.  I personally go out
in the woods and hike mountains without shoes, and am perfectly fine.

Mr. George would have probably agreed with me, in that unfounded
discrimination is always at odds with community goodwill.
Policy sign at Publix door


I then took a bit of a diversion, upon observing that the tangible mechanics of becoming outwardly foot-friendly might be a little more problematic for them.  The highlighted statement here, typically conflating footwear and shirts which really have nothing to do with each other, is part of a large adhesive sign behind the glass of every location's entrance.  So changing one small part of it might seem infeasible to apply in a widely uniform way without replacing the entire thing.  <snark> [Well, they got themselves into that pickle due to lack of discerning forethought, didn't they.] </snark>  However, I also noticed that they already had a way to do local modifications, as shown in the upper highlighted part here [click the pic for a better view].  Stick-on overlays on the *outside* are used to customize store hours, and could clearly also be used to modify any other part of an existing sign.  In that same email I tossed out a couple of suggestions.

I realize that the policy statements at store entrance doorways are
in the form of large stickers applied to the inside of the glass, and
thus somewhat problematic to have location managers simply change out.
It seems that re-statements of the relevant sections could be applied
in a similar fashion to the external overlays for store hours, e.g.
adhered to the exterior of the glass to supersede selected text.
Suggested replacement verbiage could be
or some equivalent sentiment if there's any remaining worry.

The important thing is to get all of the stores' *staff* on the
same page and eliminate any further possibility of disagreement or
confrontation.  As I mentioned on the phone call, marketing or public
relations departments could spin this into a nice community-relations
press release or the like to help the public's awareness of the
company's ongoing commitment to diversity and inclusiveness.

Thanks for your serious consideration and action,

So, how about saying "please" on such signs regarding shoes?  What's special about pets that brings out a little more courtesy?  My *feet* don't bark or pee on the floor, and service animals certainly don't have shoes on.  If any statement about footwear was really deemed necessary [it really isn't], framing it as a suggestion rather than a mandate would not only carry a more welcoming message, it would also help to realign the thinking of location staff.  That way, any customer with a strong conviction that they do indeed know what's right for themselves can politely decline, and continue unmolested with their business.  That's really what anything said about shoes should ever be, at a minimum -- a suggestion that sensible footwear MAY help many people shop more comfortably, but will not be imposed as a "requirement" on those who are confidently fine without it.  In reality, over half of their customers shuffle around the stores in flip-flops, which creates greater risk than just about any alternative.

Imagine what might happen if the sign said "no tattoos".  This very entrance would have probably been smashed into rubble by an angry mob long since.  Pick your battles carefully, Publix -- barefooting isn't just a hippie-flower-child thing to make a social statement anymore, it's become an integral part of many healthy and productive lives and you'd best get on board with that.

Despite all this effort, they fell silent for several weeks with no kind of response forthcoming.  Another call to customer-care revealed that they had basically dropped the whole matter on the floor unanswered, which is common but still pretty unprofessional on their part.  This is why we ask for case numbers -- it stays in their ticketing system, and they could look up the entire exchange to date and get familiar with it quickly without me having to start over.  The basic party line was still the same, with another ridiculous assertion added on during that conversation: that a foot injury would require some kind of special "bodily fluids" cleanup by a specifically trained manager using "special chemicals".  Huh??  Is the implication that all barefooters are virulently HIV-positive or hepatitis carriers?  And that their cooties would leap off a floor and attack anyone else walking by?  This was way off in left field, an excuse that the barefooter community had not even heard before, and likely a total fabrication from someone who has no understanding of medicine, pathogen transmission, or commercial floor cleaning materials. 


A couple of years after my interaction, one of the prominent leaders in the barefooter community became aware of similar stunning illogic coming out of Publix corporate.  He took his own tack by writing physical letters to the CEO's office, specifically addressing the fallacies stated to a colleague from the mailing list.  That had included similar nonsense about "bloodborne pathogens" along with the usual fallacies about sanitation, etc.  The exchange of letters pretty much speaks for itself; Kriss has given me permission to link to them here:

    Kriss' original letter to the corporate leadership
    The response from Publix, full of bogus and unrealistic excuses
    Kriss' response to that, completely shredding their assertions

They are all PDF, although "docdroid" embeds them in some script-driven wrapper on their site which may be an issue with some browsers.  As expected, Publix never responded to his second effort, the same way they didn't bother responding to me until prodded.  This is typical response in such cases: they try to just go radio silent and hope that we'll just go away.

What's interesting is that on the ground in the stores themselves, very few people seem to care one way or the other.  I have gone barefoot into several Gulf-coast Publix locations over time without being harassed, and there are many similar accounts across a wide swath of online media.  Confrontations are actually very rare, considering the level of unfounded paranoia exhibited by their corporate infrastructure.  In fact, it seems quite possible that all of those excuses about "OSHA" and "bleeding" and "shopping carts" originate with ONE severely misguided person close to the CEO's office, who has fed everyone else there this BS as the stock answer to use against all such customer-care escalations.  It's incredibly disingenuous and frankly insulting to anyone in touch with the realities of personal health.

As of the reference dates here I consider the matter still in flux, whether or not Publix considers it closed with no beneficial changes.  They *are* going to keep hearing about this, and not just from me and Kriss.  What has still not been ascertained is precisely what these "special chemicals" are supposed to be, or what the magic pathogen-containment procedures consist of.  Do your part!  Call 800-242-1227, get to their supervisors, and ask them some of these poignant questions.  Ask them what they think "American freedom" or respecting the individual really means in a context like this, or who exactly came up with such medically-inaccurate fantasies.

_H*   170402, updated 191217

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