Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Day 22: Grocery Giving, Take Two

Let's imagine that you were walking into a grocery store and a man, along with his beautiful wife and baby son, walk up to you. He (or his wife) offers you a $20 gift card to this very grocery store (where, presumably, you are about to spend money). No strings attached. Do you accept?

Well, in our informal study this morning, it turns out that about one-third of the people would turn it down.

Era of Mistrust
Amber and I offered $20 gift cards outside of a local Pay-Less grocery store (not to be confused with the shoe store chain), located in one of the more economically-challenged neighborhoods in town, to people as they walked into the store. We were able to ask 18 people, and 7 of them turned us down. (One of the men who turned us down, however, came back as leaving the store and asked if he could have one.)

So, out of a total of 18, only 12 agreed to accept a free $20 gift card.

One of the most memorable exchanges came from a woman I'm thinking of as the Zen master of acceptance. I said, as she approached, "Would you like a $20 gift card?" Without pausing or even slowing her stride, she took the card and said, "Thanks." There was no hesitation whatsoever. She just accepted the experience for what it was and kept moving.

Others were a bit less fluid or immediate in their acceptance. Some wanted to know more about what we were doing, with some measure of skepticism, but not enough to reject the notion out of hand. When asked for more information, we just explained that we were finding different ways to give for a period of 40 days, and this was one of our ideas.

One woman, upon being offered the gift card, said, "Hold on, let me get my friend!" She went out to the car, where her friend had been waiting while she went into the store. The friend, who originally seemed somewhat disgruntled about being asked to leave the comfort of the vehicle, changed her tune when we explained what we were doing. "People just don't do things like this anymore. No one does anything like this," she said.

So 6 people, when offered a free gift card, turned it down. The immediate question one may ask is, "What the f*** is wrong with these people?"

The overwhelming sense that I got was that people just genuinely didn't believe us, or didn't believe that there were no strings attached.

Full disclosure: In fairness, today there was actually a slight ulterior motive. We'd been interviewed a while back by a freelance writer for our local newspaper, the Anderson Herald Bulletin, and I got a call yesterday from a reporter that they'd like photos to go with the story. We'd long been planning to do this sort of a giveaway, and it seemed like one of the most photogenic options. So there was a newspaper photographer nearby taking pictures, discretely, of the people who accepted the gift cards.

Still, I honestly don't think that the people who turned us down actually noticed the guy with the camera off to the side. Even if they did, I'm still not sure what that would have to do with their willingness to accept the money. They could ask, "What's up with the camera?" or say, "I don't want my picture taken," and still gotten the money. They genuinely showed absolutely no interest in being given money.

Is it possible that these people were so overwhelmed by their own belief that good things just don't happen in their lives that, even when extra money is literally held out to them, they are incapable of accepting their good fortune?

Studies would indicate that this might actually be the case. In The Luck Factor, psychologist Richard Wiseman recounts a study where two participants are asked to walk down a street into a cafe. One of the participants was a person who considered himself lucky, while the other considered herself unlucky.

Prior to each participant's journey to the cafe, the researchers placed a 5 pound note (this was, apparently, in England) right outside the cafe's door.

What was the result?

The lucky person noticed the 5 pound note immediately and picked it up, striking up a conversation with one of the confederates in the cafe and buying him a coffee. The unlucky person, on the other hand, walked right past the 5 pound note without even noticing it, and sat alone in the cafe, speaking to no one. Though they had exactly the same potential for experiences, the lucky person was able to take advantage of them while the unlucky person was not.

Feeling unlucky tangibly makes you less likely to experience good fortune, even when it's right in front of you. Your senses, emotions, and thoughts just will not let you even draw the good fortune into your life. Among the many intriguing correlations that Wiseman sites are the following, which he uses to define his "luck profile":

  • Lucky people tend to be more extroverted; unlucky people tend to be more introverted
  • Lucky people tend to be more relaxed; unlucky people tend to be more anxious, worried, and neurotic.
  • Lucky people are open to new experiences; unlucky people don't like trying new things
This is, I think, what these people experienced as they walked past us, without even asking questions about why a strange person was offering them gift cards. They were not open to the new experience, and many of them looked a bit anxious as they passed us by.

And I'm betting that, if you asked them at the end of the day whether anything unusual happened today, they would say no. For them, things like that never happen.

They didn't just turn down the card ... they turned down the very possibility that the gift card actually existed.

"The Man" Tries to Bring Us Down
Actually, we bought 15 of the gift cards, which means we left with 3 gift cards remaining. Our intention was to give away all 15 cards, but we were thwarted ... by some administrator (assistant manager or something - I couldn't see the actual title on her badge) who didn't like us standing out front, giving away gift cards (which we had purchased there) to patrons, encouraging them to spend money and have positive feelings about their store. In essence, we were offering free advertising for the Pay-Less (if I were given free gift cards at a store, I'd be more likely to return), and still, they wouldn't let us do it.

The reason offered was that there was "no solicitation" on the premises. We explained that we weren't soliciting anything, just giving away gift cards to their own store. The woman replied that she appreciated us buying the gift cards, but we "couldn't" give them away, citing the photographer as one of the reasons. He offered his card, and explained that the article would run on Saturday, but she was still adamant - we could not give the gift cards away in front of their store, even though we weren't trying to get anything from the people.

Full disclosure: I offered my business card to a couple of people who expressed some measure of interest in what we were doing, as a means of expediting the exchange. "If you want to find out more, you can go to the website." But this was the extent of any "solicitation" going on. If I'd been really thinking, I should have offered my card to the manager when she asked us to leave ... this was one Scrooge that could have used some uplifting.

In fairness to the woman, she may have been ordered to chase us off by her own boss - I don't know how high up in the hierarchy she was - but still, it means someone had a problem with us giving away gift cards, in the midst of an economic recession, outside of a grocery store.

We had talked to a couple of other employees, who seemed to think the idea was very cool, so I wonder if they didn't pass it along, meaning no harm, only to have the telephone game reach someone who decided that such behavior could not be allowed to continue. Possibly the person who made the decision had no real idea what we were doing, and wasn't particularly interested in finding out.

I have little sympathy for this sort of mindless bureaucratic mindset. Regardless of what the policy is in place, there's a person who has to make the decision about whether or not to intervene in this sort of situation. Perhaps, had we pointed out that we only had three gift cards left, the person could have been talked into letting us stay ... but I wasn't inclined to help people spend money at their store.

There are two other Pay-Less stores in town, and we'll hand out the other three gift cards at one of them.

And the Pay-Less which told us to leave will never get our business again.

This reminds me a of a story from Randy Pausch's The Last Lecture. He recounts a story where, as a child, he went to Walt Disney World and accidentally broke a $10 Disney salt-and-pepper shaker set that he and his sister bought for their parents. While in tears, an adult suggested to them that they take it back to the store. They did so, told the truth about what happened (he dropped it), and got a new salt-and-pepper shaker set to replace it, free of charge.

The Pausch parents were so impressed by the story that, as they performed volunteer work with English-as-a-second-language students, they regularly brought bus loads of these students from Maryland to Disney World, because they considered it such an incredibly positive experience. Randy Pausch estimated that his family spent, over the years, more than $100,000 on tickets, food, souvenirs, and other expenses at Disney World in the time since someone decided to give away a $10 salt-and-pepper shaker to a couple of kids.

As Pausch hints, it's highly unlikely that modern policies at Disney World would allow any employee to give away a souvenir for free to replace one broken by a kid's carelessness.

Little acts of generosity can have a big impact, and sometimes the policies in place remove the ability to perform these little acts. If you're in a position of leadership, you could be missing out on a lot of good opportunities if you enforce the letter of a policy, even in cases where the spirit of the policy doesn't apply.

Of course, if you're in a position of leadership, you are also in a position to cultivate a culture in which giving opportunities are embraced at all levels, rather than avoided, and see what transpires. Who knows, you may just inspire someone to build a windmill in Africa.