I went into the local REI store to price up some paddling gear, and everything seemed fine while I was over in the relevant section chatting with a very helpful fellow. He didn't even look down. But then when I came up toward the checkout counter and stopped to look through the insect repellents, the evening manager approached me asking if I had shoes and said I needed to have them on to be in the store.
I pointed out that there was no way I could be aware of any such "policy" if it existed at all, that I'd already been in there for 10 or 15 minutes interacting with other salespeople, and if anything I'd expect REI of all places to have a more progressive outlook than some other retailers and avoid hassling their customers over irrelevant issues. He was insistent, that I had to either put on shoes or leave. As I didn't have any worthwhile footgear with me, that wasn't an option and I tried to find out more about precisely why I was being discriminated against in the first place. He was very smooth as he tried to cut me off, saying "I'm not having this conversation" and standing there waiting for my next action, almost as though he'd run into this hundreds of times before and was enjoying his little role as an authority figure. Well, buddy, I thought, if you didn't want to have this conversation, why did you accost me in the first place?! I didn't have the presence of mind to fire back something like how I needed him to shave the right side of his head if he expected to keep working there, which makes about as much sense as his assertion. Since I was right near the checkout registers he at least he let me select my little bottle of DEET and buy it on my way out. He gave me his name and the name of his head manager and said she would be in the next morning at 10AM, and that I was free to take the matter up with her and/or REI corporate but likely wouldn't get anywhere. Such confidence in his folly, to be sure.
So REI landed firmly on the shit-list that evening, as they handily chased one more customer away and over to Amazon. Not for too long, however...
I called the main store manager the next day, who had been apprised of the encounter in the meantime, and she said that the night manager was actually in the wrong and bare feet *are* accepted in the store. Whoa! Suddenly things started looking up. She apologized for the difficulty and said that their procedural guideline is to ask barefoot patrons if they'd rather put on shoes, but to accept matters if they "declare themselves to be barefooters", whatever that actually means in their context. Exact definition is unimportant; they appear to understand the customer's individual clear acceptance of responsibility and are okay with that decision. We continued with a fairly pleasant conversation, and she said she'd handled only one other incident of this sort, about four years ago at a different store, and both of us thought it rather strange that this didn't come up much more often at many locations. How about that growing number of people who enjoy hiking barefoot but still need their backpacks, water bottles, and poles? I suggested that a "bare feet welcome @ customer's risk" sign out front could head off just about any further difficulty. She mentioned that the evening manager was fairly new on the job and wasn't aware of the right procedure, so it wasn't entirely his fault. Evidently he'd also felt really bad about the encounter after I left, but I figured that by now he'd received his due enlightment about shoeless patrons.
So the problem was solved favorably at the local level, but left me wondering about all their other retail outlets and what the view on the matter was at their national level. After a bit of phone-tag research I called the corporate offices at 253-395-3780 and was routed to their Retail Operations department, where my only choice at the time seemed to be leaving a callback. I began to get that little spidey-sense tingle of corporate stonewalling, but for naught -- later that day, a woman from the RO department did call back and happily, another good conversation ensued.
After more apologies, I was assured that REI does *not* have a shoe policy in place -- or as they say, no shoes, no problem! Store personnel are supposed to accept bare feet without question, but that fact has been inadequately trickled down through all of the retail chain. I suggested that perhaps it should be, likely simple for them to do with modern communications infrastructure, and she agreed that it might be a good idea and she'd try to work on that. I mentioned the "at own risk" sign idea, a simple tool to instantly get employees and customers alike on the same page at all locations, and that apparently really opened her eyes as being a great idea. I suggested that it would be easy enough to template up in a word processor and distribute out to all the stores to print and post, and they could even put all the REI branding on it.
So this one turned out positive, and once again brought home the value of good *information*. Rating: green!
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