Stop & Sh...what?

Stuck in the Sixties:   Stop & Shop still clings to the myths

  The Stop & Shop grocery chain has a location fairly near me, so it's often my go-to store for quick food pickups.  Not only is it a fairly large-scale retail group, it is part of the Ahold-Delhaize conglomerate of brands, which also includes Hannaford, Giant, and Food Lion as well as numerous European holdings.  Exploring the Stop & Shop website specifically turns up all kinds of ballyhoo about "responsible retailing", healthy and sustainable living, and giving back to the community.  Then why would any part of their organization want to interfere with someone's healthy lifestyle choices by violating their civil rights? 

None of the Stop&Shops in my area have any signs out front about shoes or shirt or any of that; just the usual no-smoking stuff and encouragement for reusable bags.  I had a brief chat with the manager at my local store, who went on about how he has "... been in this business for 35 years and no question, you need shoes to be in here."  Well, I question that.  I handed him one of my info flyers and pleaded with him to do a little more research at his leisure, and decided that no matter how ponderous the corporate structure he was a tiny cog within, I was going to take it to that level and actually try to effect some change.  The statement would be, as usual, "if you have a footwear policy it would be in your best interest to officially rescind it, and you can research why this is true all over the internet".  Reasonable enough.

This proved challenging at the outset, as I first tried to locate good contacts within the *Ahold* structure.  Not only are they based in Belgium and the Netherlands, there were no readily findable phone numbers or email addresses for their US-based offices.  Even digging through annual reports and press stuff didn't turn up anything valid.  Stop&Shop has a "customer service" line which is largely useless, where people offered half-ass guesses as to policy and couldn't find me contact info for the real corpororate offices where such things need to be addressed.  Finally I just got on their website and turned on enough browser fluff to use their online contact form, just to basically first ask "does this actually reach anyone", and eventually got a response with an email address I could supposedly use to reach some sort of C-level customer advocacy department.  Note their address carefully: coming from a third-party email house, and "AUSA" might have implied that I might be in touch with Ahold as a whole but I couldn't be entirely sure.  With a tenuous data connection finally open, I sent the first payload.

From: *Hobbit*
Date: Tue, 28 Jun 2016 13:39:55
To: Stop & Shop Consumer Affairs <AUSA_ConsumerAffairs@epowercenterdirect.com>
Re: test?

I'm looking for the correct contacts to discuss a specific retail-
operations policy, in this case any "requirement" for patrons to wear
shoes inside Stop&Shop locations.  More specifically, if such a rule
exists at all, how to work toward rescinding it and moving not only
Stop&Shop but all of the Ahold brands toward a "barefoot-friendly"
stance within their communities.  Asking various levels of employees
either in-store or via consumer-relations phone numbers returns mixed
results and guesswork, e.g. most people simply don't seem to know
what actual policy is or is not [and unfortunately, often pretend to
know based purely from their own misinformation].  Furthermore, there
is no indication present at any nearby location entrance that I've
examined, and nothing on your relevant websites about it.

There is a lot of expanding interest in the health benefits of not
wearing shoes, with plentiful information findable on the internet.
Please have the right decision-makers begin by visiting the website
barefooters.org which perhaps has the most information and points out
to numerous other resources.  The outdated notions or fears about bare
feet being bad or unhealthy or unsafe are fully debunked there, and
the growing public wisdom on the subject cannot be ignored.  None of
the federal or state food-handling codes mention it, and there are
no laws or regulations concerning bare feet in any state.

With all the promotional stuff I find on the S&S and Ahold websites
about community relations, social responsibility, sustainability etc
you would think that this family of companies would be able to adopt
the progressive thinking necessary to cut through the old mythology.
Having your Dutch roots could help bring perspective, as European
nations in general are far less intrusive on footgear choices as we
are in the US.  What the barefoot community would love to see posted
on the doors of such retail establishments is something like

	BARE FEET WELCOME
	At customer's own risk

which makes everyone's intentions clear and also covers any remaining
concerns about "liability".  Stores and their parent companies cannot
be held liable for something resulting from a patron's own personal
decision [made far earlier in the parking lot, I might add] but retail
establishments *could* place themselves at risk of anti-discrimination
action if they persist in clinging to backward rules that make no
real-world sense.

Please escalate to the people who actually make policy decisions at
this level.  At Ahold too, not just Stop&Shop.  It's an idea whose time
is not just coming, but here and wanting to bring you its business.

Thanks
I got a reasonably prompt reply, containing typical party-line rhetoric that told me they were only half listening. 

Date: 29 Jun 2016 13:08:26
From: "Stop & Shop Consumer Affairs"
Subject: Reply from Stop & Shop Consumer Affairs

Thank you for the feedback.

The shirt and shoe policy has been in place for many years. It is not a
food safety concern, but really is a people safety concern. We need to
have protocols and policies in place that protect the aggregate of our
associates and customers and wearing footwear is certainly a significant
concern. Our stores are subject to many items being on the floor, despite
the diligence of our associates. This includes food items, liquids and
also potentially hazardous or sharp items, which do have the propensity
to cause injury.  There is also significant exposure for falling items,
carts and sliding doors causing injury - especially to those without
shoes and those wearing sandals.

Please be assured that your comments have been shared with our Operations
Department.

Thanks, again, for contacting us. We appreciate hearing from you.

Sincerely,

Evelyn H.
Customer Care Representative
Not a bad counterargument, but still sort of missing the point.  Really, is there that much dangerous junk lying around on your floors??  I certainly can't see it.  (Have you inspected your parking lot recently?)  Furthermore, "aggregating" employees and patrons as one entity doesn't make any sense, as they have completely different status and roles in the day-to-day business.

I made an effort to get "Evelyn" et al to think on it a little harder.

Date: Thu, 30 Jun 2016 08:57:36
From: *Hobbit*
To: Stop & Shop Consumer Affairs
Subject: Re: Reply from Stop & Shop Consumer Affairs

Yes, I find it sort of odd that open sandals are acceptable footgear
when someone could conceivably knock a can off a high shelf while
reaching for something and whack their toes.  But such things are
part of the hazards we all deal with in daily life, at home just
as well as in retail establishments.

The "shirt and shoe" thing has been "in place" since the sixties,
when it was a convenient excuse for shop owners [particularly in the
south] to subtly discriminate against people of color despite the
Civil Rights Act [you will find some of that history around the
internet], and later against the hippie movement, but really, it's time
that society moved past such narrow-minded memes and actually thought
things through a little more.  It *is* a form of discrimination, with
a rather ill-defined boundary as to what constitutes "something on
our feet".

People who routinely go barefoot are also well aware of hazards they
might encounter and are not only resistant to same via tougher,
conditioned soles, they have more situational awareness as to what's
there in the first place.  Store aisles are actually some of the
safest places I could imagine, especially when as well maintained as
I see in S&S locations.  Consider that in contrast to, say, the
garbage-strewn hotel loading docks where *I* personally work on
technical production gigs fairly regularly, rolling heavy roadcases
in and out of trucks in cold weather -- barefoot the whole time.

My worst recent foot problem, in fact, was stubbing a toe on the
desk chair *in my bedroom* at home.  Other than that, my feet are
healthy and strong and capable, and not nearly as delicate as
common misperceptions would have us all believe.

I would appreciate if someone there can be a conduit for a voice of
reason on this, and what better place to work toward reversing an
arguably ill-founded social stigma than some of the larger companies
that the public expects to be most resistant to it?  Please ask some
of your European associates what their take is on this, and whether
it's even reasonable anymore to try and micromanage what members of
the public already clearly have well in hand.  We can't all walk
around in work boots, hard hats, NIOSH masks, and gloves all day
just because "something might happen".  I would far rather accept
the responsibility for my own safety, as I do everywhere else.  The
appropriate and simple public notice coupled with a bit of employee
retraining could easily let that happen.

Thanks
No response was forthcoming from that, and I let the whole thing drop for the time being.  I still generally threw on the "flats" to go into the local store, but that was happening farther and farther from the door on the *inside* because I just didn't really see any point.  A few months later I felt a glimmer of hope, on a couple of brief shopping runs during which both I and a friend were barefoot the whole time without being accosted.  I decided to poke the corporate types with a reminder that the question was still outstanding, and put a little more of an edge on it.

Date: Fri, 14 Oct 2016 12:26:11
From: *Hobbit*
To: Stop & Shop Consumer Affairs <AUSA_ConsumerAffairs@epowercenterdirect.com>
Subject: Re: Reply from Stop & Shop

So, have we made any progress on lifting that misguided policy about
shoes?  It's pretty frustrating to have supposedly professional people
try to arbitrarily infringe on my civil rights if I enter a store
location as I'm accustomed to going just about everywhere else.
They, along with S&S corporate, really needs to take some time and
do some research about the safety and health *benefits* of going
barefoot -- it's all over the internet, just do a little googling.
None of the harassment I would face is legally supportable, and
may be borderline ILLEGAL in Massachusetts.

The employees who seem to take some sort of personally-motivated
exception to this might as well be walking up to random customers
and saying "you're ugly, get out of the store".  Think about your
community relations at the local level in that context -- that's
about what's going on here.  This is the 21st century, at a time
when discrimination of any sort is NOT socially or professionally
acceptable regardless of today's political climate, and commercial
establishments really need to move forward beyond that outdated and
completely wrong mythology from the sixties.  Is your policymaking
staff aware that it originated *as* an excuse to discriminate
against people in the first place, and to this day has nothing to
do with safety, health, liability, food, or even social standing?

Please work harder on this, before I have to start sending in
strongly-worded complaints about individual employees who choose
to get in a customer's face instead of doing their own jobs.
The mysterious "Evelyn" held the party line.  At this point it really felt like they were just dismissing me as a nutjob, rather than a ringing voice of reason.

Date: 18 Oct 2016 14:00:54
From: "Stop & Shop Consumer Affairs"
Subject: Re: Reply from Stop & Shop Consumer Affairs

Hello, Thank you for your recent email.

While we certainly appreciate and respect your views on our shoe wearing
policy in our stores, there are no plans to change the policy at this time.
Additionally, if you experience any issues with our associates, please let
us know or follow up with the store manager so that they can be addressed
appropriately.

Thanks, again, for contacting us. We appreciate hearing from you.

Sincerely,

Evelyn H.
Customer Care Representative
The exact same final line as seen in both of her messages hinted that it was all generated out of some canned response template, and if she's a real person it seemed unlikely that she was even bothering to forward my spew to the management chain that actually mattered.  Still, I thought it best to do one last followup with this entity.

Date: Wed, 19 Oct 2016 07:43:29
From: *Hobbit*
To: Stop & Shop Consumer Affairs
Subject: Re: Reply from Stop & Shop Consumer Affairs

If you have not yet consulted with your European counterparts,
please make sure to do so.  Do you think that someone walking
into an Albert Heijn location in Amsterdam without shoes on
would be subject to the same kind of harassment as they might
in the US?  They're generally far more progressive about such
things across the pond, and it would behoove your department
to explore that as part of your additional research.

I would love to open a dialogue directly with some of the point
administrative people within Ahold Delhaize, if you have any
workable email contact info for them.  Yes, I'm serious about
that.  We all need the additional perspective.  As I mentioned
before, there's a lot of new and changed knowledge about this
topic all over the internet these days, and retailers CANNOT
continue to ignore it.  You are denying a fundamental human right,
suppression of which can have disastrous long-term physiological
effects on the lower body and extremities.

You also don't seem to have consulted your legal staff, as
to how they would balance risk of action over discrimination
issues vs. action concerning foot injuries to someone who
WILLINGLY ENTERED A PREMISES without shoes in the first place.
When you consider those two paths, especially in Massachusetts,
the choice really should be pretty clear.

This question is not going to go away simply because you've
pushed away "some nutcase from the internet" once more.  There
are many more barefooting advocates than you might think, and our
numbers are growing.  Please continue giving it the consideration
and independent research that you know it deserves.


Assault on the Ahold-Delhaize citadel This left things at a bit of an impasse as of late 2016, but I wasn't done with them yet.  It was time to reach a little higher in the food chain.  Early the next year I had an opportunity to simply stop in at the Ahold-Delhaize main corporate offices in Carlisle PA, and launch an "assault on the citadel".  Their headquarters is located in a pleasantly bucolic rural area near where 81 crosses the PA Pike, easy to find right off US11.  I came through town around 10AM on a Friday morning and pulled into the parking lot behind the building without any impediment, and walked into the front lobby to ask for someone from their legal department.

Good thing I didn't come any earlier, as most of their employees were still streaming back in from a big off-site meeting that morning and I basically rode in on the wave of that.  But the reception desk found me someone from the Risk Management area to come down to the lobby and chat; he said that didn't have a lot of time so I tried to make it brief, emphasizing the duty-of-care aspect and *lack* of liability on the part of a store and handing him some of my fairly standard advocacy / website-pointer material.  It was not exactly the most typical way he would ever interact with anyone from the public, in person right there in his own corporate stronghold, but he listened cordially and gave me his card.  Once I got off the road later I sent him a followup email.

Date: Sun, 19 Feb 2017 20:01:08
To: bastrachan@ahold.com
Subject: meeting followup

Thank you for your time on Friday.  I realize that someone coming
straight in to your corporate headquarters for a consumer-relations
discussion may not be the most common occurrence, but as I said I
was passing through and hoping to give prior contacts in that
department a face to put with an email address.  Sorry if I seemed
a bit incoherent, but I didn't want to keep you away from your work.

The exchange between myself the mysterious "Evelyn H" from a few months
back may be viewed here:
   http://techno-fandom.org/~hobbit/bf/ssh.html
which, while a bit lengthy on my part, hopefully describes the case.
I felt that she was working more from personal bias than providing
objective responses.  Additionally, one of the excuses frequently
given in the course of harassing a barefooter is "liability concerns",
and it seems to me that by definition, a retail establishment's duty of
care would NOT extend to responsibility for anyone's personal lifestyle
preference including that of not wearing shoes when they are well-used
to it.  Posted signs such as the suggested "at own risk" variant would
provide redundant levels of indemnification, and basically cost
nothing to implement.

The US-based Ahold-Delhaize brands have a good opportunity here in
the areas of diversity and community-mindedness, as proudly described
in several areas of the company websites.  I truly believe that for
the brands to become outwardly barefoot-friendly would ultimately be
viewed as responsible business practice and endorsing more aspects of
healthy living, with no adverse side effects or undue risks to manage.
Your marketing departments could likely spin it into a positive press
release, to resonate in the industry and help educate its constituents.
Perhaps you could ask Kevin Holt to call up Dick Boer across the pond,
and ask about general public and corporate attitudes toward shoe-free
lifestyles in the more progressive European countries?  If you find
an opportunity to present the general idea to some really key players
with global perspective, please feel free to involve them and encourage
further research.  I would love to know their honest, human-being take
on the question.

There is fairly high-profile precedent for this, by the way.  Chains
like REI and Trader Joe's do not have a footwear policy, and the online
community is fairly certain that neither do Kroger and Walmart.  Small
shops and neighborhood general stores seem quite amenable as well.
There are likely others which have decided that as they settle into the
21st century, it makes sense to move beyond fifty-year-old mythologies
whose origins were never based in real-life fact or concern.

Thanks again!
He never responded to that, and as far as I knew he never chased the link I gave him to this very page and the exchange with Evelyn, possibly just dismissing me as a nutcase and getting on with "real work".  I hoped that by being reasonable and dropping a couple of names I could show him that I'd done a little research diligence on my end, and at least make him think about the question a *little* bit.  I didn't keep after him further, not wanting to be a total pest, but realized that in the process he had given me a useful tool to bring to heavy bear in any of Ahold's US brands.

Download and print this sheet scaled onto 8.5x11 paper, cut out the cards, and if accosted in a store it may carry quite a bit of weight to hand the assailant one of them and say "call this man" for a proper explanation of premises liability.  Most on-the-ground employees probably won't even recognize the logo, until it is pointed out that Ahold is their mothership and the ultimate source of all things corporate and legal.

Not sure where this leaves things as of March 2017 or so, but I'm sure this story isn't over yet.


_H*   161026, 170329

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