Shell Oil

  And some commentary on fuel stations in general


Heading out of state always brings some uncertainty, and circumstance found me having to hit the road for a while.  In the tumultuous political climate of early 2017, it gave me at least one moment of pause to think how I was about to pass through a substantial stretch of the *South* in a car that clearly pegged me as one of those liberal blue-state bastards.  The haters had come out of the woodwork; this seemed to be their time.  The country seemed painfully rent between two poles of human interaction -- on one side hard-line intolerance and bigotry, and on the other an honest effort to be inclusive and welcome the diversity of others.  And plenty of vocalization about it happening on both sides.  Thanks so much, Internet; you gave masses of people a loud voice that they didn't have to work to acquire.

So which would I predominantly find as I traveled, especially upon bringing certain distinctive oddities to the forefront at my stops?  I wasn't about to try concealing my footwear preference and thus just kow-tow to the ignorant I might meet along the way -- no, instead I viewed this as an opportunity, to make it clear that not only was I totally not about to discriminate against anyone else, I would expect the same courtesy in return.  My feet, along with my interactions and attitudes, would say that better than a hundred of those meme-trended safety pins stuck to my shirt could.

Places to fuel up have certainly evolved over the years, some growing into major "travel plazas" offering just about everything you'd need or want on the road.  In rural areas most of them are heavily trucking-oriented, with massive long-lined parking lots out back where the OTR guys can overnight and stores crammed with chrome doodads for the vehicles and USB toys for the phones.  And lots of hot coffee, covering the entire spectrum of quality from aromatic bliss to vile swill -- not that I really care one way or the other when I'm in my goin'-places mindset.  My coffee mug is the "alternate fuel tank", and those little breakfast sandwiches they keep warm all day are one of my favorite on-the-road indulgences.  Even the smaller regional places have mostly moved from being auto service stations to being full convenience stores with gas pumps, usually under one of the recognizable national-level fuel brands.  I don't try to stick with any of them in particular, although I do tend to avoid Sunoco and their whole NASCAR shtick.  According to an exchange hosted by the Barefootislegal folks, Speedway has no shoe policy, so I happily patronized a certain share of those where I happened to find them.  In total I wound up visiting a variety of brands and sizes, and one aspect is universal: if you tend to avoid having your bank know exactly where you've been or your mag-stripe card skimmed by miscreants at the pump, cash prepayments mean walking into the front of the store to the register.

Past the front door, and into the area where food is sold.

Oh, noez!  Odious toes!  Horrendous pathogens are going to leap right off my feet and land all over the salad bar, simply because there's no superfluous membrane between my sole and the smooth tile floor.  Flip-flops would have kept that totally contained, of course, with rock-solid hermetic biological safety.  Just ask that big sweaty guy who just emerged from the restroom without washing his hands and headed for the "Iron Stomach" buffet.

I'm being facetious, naturally, but that's the twisted non-"logic" of how too many people view someone who's barefoot.  All because of outdated prejudice they grew up with and which wasn't generally beaten out of them by parents and peers early on.  My real-life experiences were far more varied and as a whole, peaceful.  At the vast majority of stops I ran into no issues -- interaction there was all quite businesslike, where I'd basically walk up to the counter with a twenty in my hand, lock eyes with the checker and say "I'm on pump 12" leaving no time to fabricate discriminatory nonsense toward a paying customer who was just going to be right out the door again.  Well, except when I came back in for my change after my weenie little 8-gallon fillup, and then *again* after moving the car off the island to tank up the coffee mug and, ah, exchange the previous fluid load.  For the most part that all flowed harassment-free, even as I continued moving farther south.  Proving that, like bad driving, foot prejudice doesn't seem to be notably regionalized.  My half-in-jest harping on the South is because that's where at least some of the anti-barefoot sentiment originally arose, as a way to send "undesirables" out of stores without risking identifiable bigotry.  And it's not like anybody's out policing the *fuel islands* in such places, making those pseudo-issues even more meaningless.  For the record, fuel station and rest-stop parking lots are generally *littered* with broken glass bits, which doesn't bother a seasoned barefooter at all.

To bring this back to Shell specifically -- one small country-store style location in Virginia did treat me like a walking biohazard, with the deli-counter lackeys positively *yelling* at me, "Hey!  We have FOOD here!  And we're just about to SERVE LUNCH!"  A couple of scruffy local regulars even joined that chorus, and in a pretty nasty fashion.  Rather than listen to any corrective evidence the management simply called the local sheriff, who was basically next door, and after a pleasant chat with him (he knew the lack-of-law, he just wanted to defuse the situation) I left with my coffee mug still empty and filled it at another Shell location a few miles down the interstate, no problem.

The lynch-mob at the first place could clearly be denounced as ignorant rednecks, brainwashed by all the popular mythology, and with their minds now 100% closed they'd rather form a posse against the outsider than learn anything.  Typical.  Well, maybe that's unfair; they could be perfectly good, hardworking, well-intentioned people with some really wrong information.  But the way they chose to express it was unacceptable in any polite society; it left no room for discourse and fact-finding.  Later that day I had a chat with the head of the supply company that owns the store, who said that they did have a general shoe policy but agreed that the reactions over there had been unduly extreme.

What it ultimately earned that place was the wrath of the gods.  Over the course of the next couple of weeks as time and contacts permitted, I not only sent the regional chain owner after them, but also the Virginia health and agriculture departments and Shell corporate as well.  I pointed out that if kicking out the barefooters was their idea of food safety, then maybe they were due up for a top-to-bottom health inspection, the kind that shuts them down for a day ...  Feedback from some of the followup interaction indicated that the store managers were profoundly unhappy that they were receiving all this administrative flak and having to answer to multiple authorities about the way they'd handled things, but they *did* learn in no uncertain terms that they cannot misrepresent the Virginia health department or "state law" in their sheer terror of bare feet.

Eventually I returned back home, the path to which took me through some more Shell-branded places.  I received at least one more reference to "state/health laws" on asking about unfriendly signs at a couple of doors, so clearly both the policies and the levels of employee awareness were all over the map.  While thinking later about the experiences on that whole trip, I decided to see how far I could get with Shell as a whole since the few negative interactions did seem to center around their locations.  Shell is a Very Huge Company, but the website is fairly comprehensive and easy to navigate and splits out its divisions in a sensible way.  It gave a fairly clear path to consumer advocacy, which after a brief hop across the Pacific and back eventually led to a representative at the C-level strata -- "liaison to the Chairman's office" or the like -- who encouraged me to write up my thoughts in an email and send it along.  WTF, I thought, it's just a little more time spent.

From: *Hobbit*
Subject: footwear case
Date: Fri, 24 Mar 2017 09:55:37 -0500

On a recent long trip down and up the East Coast, I ran into some
quantity of discrimination, but it was inconsistent at best and does
not seem likely to represent any corporate-level statement.  This
can lead to ambiguity, guesswork, and occasional confrontational
situations at your retail outlets.  For the sake of improved community
relations, fixing this would seem to be in your best interests.

I go through the vast majority of my life without shoes.  I don't
really need them, for any but truly extreme environments where they
are more a tool than an article of clothing.  I do this for personal
and health reasons, and there's nothing inherently wrong or indecent
about it.  But as you may be aware there is a certain amount of
prejudice in the US about this, and it was disturbing to run into
evidence of that in several Shell-branded locations.  In one instance
I was actually threatened with physical harm, simply for living my
lifestyle in a particular way while patronizing a retail outlet.
Please look up what it means to be a "barefooter" from the numerous
sources available on the internet, as the clear benefits of avoiding
shoes are well known and documented these days, and the lifestyle is
becoming more popular nowadays as part of general wellness.  Footwear
has NO relation to health regs, sanitation, liability, personal safety,
food, or even social standing, and any assertion to the contrary is
patently false and legally provable as such.

You may have already fielded a complaint last month, against a location
near Edinburg VA called "Bo's Express", owned by Emmart Oil, right near
exit 279 on I-81.  In this case the convenience-store employees were
clearly MISREPRESENTING the Virginia health department and state law,
and reacted in a rather extreme way when I stopped in for coffee and
simply failed to notice the fairly small sign they had posted at the
entrance.  Such signs requiring shoes are unwelcoming and inappropriate
to begin with, and simply turn away well-meant business.  After that
incident I visited another Shell location a few miles down the road and
had no problem whatsoever and observed no relevant signage.  Discussion
afterward with the Virginia departments of health and agriculture
determined that the store owners were in the wrong, and their sign
has since been removed.

Later on the trip I happened to stop at store # 323 near Yemassee, SC
where I saw [and walked in past] another typical "no shoes no shirt no
service" sticker on the door glass.  The counterperson seemed happy to
serve me regardless, taking my prepayment for fuel and giving change
afterward, but when I asked about the sign she said something about
"state law".  Once again, not true and thus a misrepresentation.  In
short, since I do often look for Shell locations and thus visited a
few more in my recent travels, I have encountered a lot of confusing
inconsistency about the footwear issue in general.  Whenever it does
seem to be an issue, it is based entirely on personal prejudice and/or
timeworn misinformation.  In the 21st century and especially today's
political climate, it's time for all of that to stop.

Shell needs to apply a solid and consistent anti-discrimination policy
from the C-suite on down, and not leave it to the highly variable
discretion of managers or franchisees.  A "requirement" for shoes is
intrusive and has NO bearing on your operations or risk profile, and
is especially idiotic when only applied inside a building and not,
for example, in the parking lot or fuel islands.  Your location
personnel wouldn't take issue with piercings/tattoos, odd hair colors,
or baseball caps from the rival team, would they?  How unprofessional
would such assaults on one's rights be?  Shoeless good-faith customers
coming in to spend money should be welcomed just like anyone else,
and any expressions of prejudice should be removed from locations where
they appear.  Employee re-education should be a natural part of this,
in the interest of preventing confrontation or animosity before it
has a chance to occur and waste everyone's time.

Requiring shoes may actually put Shell at a *greater* liability risk.
See this document, written by someone who has extensively studied the
law around duty of care and negligence:
While it specifically references Ohio law, the situation and treatment
will be the same in any state.  In some states it may actually be
unlawful for a place of "public accomodation" to discriminate in any
way.  Personally, being externally compelled to put on shoes places
me at MORE risk of a slip-and-fall incident.   Weigh these factors
carefully, and consult your legal departments.  Experienced barefooters
are well aware of hazards they might encounter inside or outside a
store and easily avoid same, and are quite frankly the *least* likely
sorts of people to launch some type of frivolous injury lawsuit.
Numerous other references are on the internet that handily debunk all
of the traditional [and largely fabricated] concerns.

Please do the relevant research, in the beneficial interest of treating
your customer base with consistent respect.  I really don't want to
hear the tired old "you might step on something and sue us" nonsense,
as it's a meaningless impossibility even in our litigous culture.  If
there's really any lingering concern on the part of Shell and its
affiliates, install entryway signs saying "bare feet at own risk" or
some similar sentiment to make local personnel feel better and keep
everyone on the same page.  With your store floors generally kept more
pristine than my own home, there really is no worry to be had.

I can be reached by email or phone for further discussion.

Part of me expected this precisely constructed missile to make a tiny "clink" against the massive iron wall of the Shell citadel and fall back to earth as a wasted gesture.  But surprise -- a couple of days later, I got a very reasonable reply.  The explanation of how ownership and administration works was quite useful, and my correspondent seemed to have some sincere questions about health aspects that he had heard of but hadn't researched the latest on.

From: <>
Subject: RE: footwear case
Date: Wed, 29 Mar 2017 15:21:15 +0000

Good morning -

Thank you for the thorough email.  I enjoyed the shared information and
well written suggestion.

I have shared this concern with our retail compliance managers for the
US downstream.

I need to clarify that most retail fuel stations are not owned or
operated by Shell Oil.  We have very little legal authority or influence
regarding the "No Shoes, No Shirt No Service" policies set by the station
owner/operators.  The majority of retail fuel stations are no longer a
traditional franchise business model.  That has changed in the
last 25 years.

So if you have a problem with a particular station's policy, you will
want to allow the management of the station to address it directly for
the best results.

I am not an expert at podiatry or diseases of the foot but there are
several known diseases transmitted from foot to foot that could be a
very serious risk to patrons who may be barefoot.  I can understand that
a station owner would not want to be responsible or a contributor to
such a personal injury to any customer.  In addition the liability for
personal injury to the station would be very serious.

I will follow up my consult of our compliance experts and confirm our
authority regarding health policies at the retail site level.

In the meantime, please be safe and know that we appreciate you giving
us this opportunity to address your concerns.


Office of the President
David Ketchum
Shell Oil Products US
North American Fuels,  OSP16006A
910 Louisiana
Houston, TX 77002
Tel: +1 800-435-1242
For SOX Purposes:
The Authorized Requestor has been verified.

Wow.  Nice, complete with some objective followup action.  I made sure my own references were solid, and then gave answering his concerns my best shot, along with plenty of appreciation for letting us engage constructively even if somewhat inconclusively.

From: *Hobbit*
Subject: Re: footwear case
Date: Wed, 29 Mar 2017 21:06:21 -0500

Thanks for getting back to me!  Understood about the ownership issue,
but presumably Shell does issue guidelines to help those downstreams
shape their own policies?  After all, they're still carrying the
brand and its reputation to some extent...

I may not have emphasized the liability / negligence aspect quite
enough, although it is spelled out rather well in the ""
document.  When a customer willingly walks into a retail location
without shoes, across a parking lot that's likely far more sprinkled
with hazards than the interior of the store, they have clearly assumed
their own risk and the store has NO particular "duty of care" to look
out for their feet.  The most a retail proprietor would need to do
is warn the patron that hazards may exist, and they're done -- 100%
covered.  A sign expressing the "at own risk" sentiment would also
effectively do that automatically for any patron coming in.  [And,
one has to ask, coming in to where?  The store building?  The overall
property, i.e. crossing the curb-cut at the street?  The artificial
boundary of the store wall is really pretty meaningless here.]

Sure, people can try to sue for completely frivolous reasons, like
if they think someone's painted the walls the wrong color or failed
to install enough restroom facilities or something.  Most such cases
last about five seconds before being laughed out of summary judgement.
The provable circumstances of entering without shoes in the first
place would work completely against them in making such an effort;
surely your legal staff would concur.

As to diseases -- the fear is definitely overblown by the popular
mythology.  The most commonly referenced ailments are athlete's foot
and hookworm.  Routinely bare feet stay dry and ventilated and are at
vanishingly *low* likelihood of catching or spreading any sort of
fungus -- whereas the warm, moist environment *inside* shoes is the
ideal breeding ground for such things!  As store floors are generally
dry and cool, they are certainly not the same conditions as the feared
public shower.  Minor fungal infections, if ever contracted inside or
outside footwear, can be cleared up in two or three weeks using
numerous antifungal creams on the over-the-counter market.  [It helps
to stay *out* of shoes for the duration of such curative period...]

And hookworm is far less serious than most people think -- not to
mention almost nonexistent in modern civilized infrastructure.  In
general we don't have human feces lying around in our environments
too often anymore.  The CDC has quite a bit of info on their website:
the summary of which is basically that hookworm is hard to get and
easy to cure nowadays.  It's effectively the same medication as
intestinal worming pills for pets.

Frankly, retail owners have far more to fear from customers' bare
*hands* and breath than they ever would from bare feet.  Especially
during flu season here in New England.  And yet we don't "require"
face masks or latex gloves to enter a premises, do we?  There is simply
too much exaggerated social stigma about bare feet, which is fifty-plus
years old and well overdue to be permanently laid to rest.  If those
disease rumors were true, I would either be dead or down to necrotic
leg stumps by now.

Please assure your compliance/operations teams of the low concern
needed over these aspects -- they can also independently verify all
of the foregoing from readily available sources.  Perhaps some of
these clarifications can be distributed to your retail owners as well,
to help them make their own more diversity-minded decisions.

I do make a habit of staying safe!  Especially out on the roads, but
even when I'm outdoors enjoying forests and mountains with my feet
firmly in intimate touch with the ground and rocks I'm traveling over.
It's a wonderfully freeing experience once you get conditioned up for
it.  Which doesn't even take all that long -- just a few months.  In
light of that, having to put shoes on to walk over smooth floor tiles
in a store just seems so incongruous.

Thanks again, hope this can lead to constructive internal discussions!
I'd love to someday see that Shell logo sprout some toes and become
a fun icon for an enlightened, foot-friendly corporation.

Despite Shell being a petrochemical giant which some might regard as inherently evil, their website offers the usual large-corporation appeasements about environment, safety, corporate responsibility, diversity, and human rights.  While it is more directed toward internal employee policy and LGBTQ considerations rather than general lifestyles, I found this passage from one of their articles particularly relevant:

We recognise that social attitudes to LGBT issues vary around the world and that the external environment is changing.  Our approach is all about reinforcing respect for our employees and raising awareness rather than changing individual beliefs.
The second sentence is the key one.  We would certainly expect that general attitude and sensitivity to also extend outward to Shell's colleagues and clients, down to the last weary traveler who just wants a cup of coffee to help him keep going.

Working this story into presentable form waited until I had done up my own conceptual version of the suggested icon, which delayed things a bit too long but was fun to play with.  (Who knew that Shell had been through so many variants of their pecten / scallop icon over the years!)  Meanwhile the Outbarefoot site also came into being, so if they wanted a more standards-track sort of sign they could look there for the brown ones.  But Shell apparently has some reasonably clever people in its upper strata, and I'm sure they could come up with something even better and/or appropriate to their own interests and brand message.

Let's see if they do someday.

_H*   170521

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