I maintain to this day that the best education I ever received was the one from the corner of East 119th and Superior. Forgive the Seinfeld reference, but as a “Bubble Boy”, the first thing I learned at my new assignment was what it felt like to be viewed as different simply because of the color of my skin. Aside from a half dozen employees, I was the only white person - and at 6’5” there was no doubt that I stood out. That helped me learn a lot about perception and the conclusions people make based on their own perceptions. Sure, this was a difficult store to run in a tough neighborhood. But based on bad perceptions, there were some obvious stereotypes that this green General Manager needed to address.
The first was that there were literally chains with padlocks wrapped around two of the entrance doors to help prevent shoplifters from making quick getaways out the entrance doors. Many long time store employees thought I was nuts, but I removed the chains and locks. It was my goal from that point forward to prove to the residents of this area that they could have the same shopping experiences as the shoppers at our other stores in the suburbs. There was a perception that existed in the urban communities which we served that the suburban stores, among other things, received fresher produce and meat, had more employees, and had cleaner stores. But do you blame shoppers for thinking this way when you had to walk around to a different door simply to enter your own store?
I was a General Manager at this store from 1999 through 2001. It was around this time that Malcolm Gladwell was writing his book The Tipping Point, which gave examples of how little things can make a big difference. Although I didn’t read his book until years after I left, in hindsight, my decision to remove the chains was similar to the example in the book in which NYC officials made a commitment to constantly remove graffiti from the subway cars to change the perception. As a result of that commitment, crime on subways and in NYC overall went down significantly, and in the time I was at this location, the same occurred regarding theft. It’s all about perception and doing the little things!
I had a supportive leadership team at Finast, and then later Tops Markets, when the two companies merged. My District Manager Doug Deacon supported new ideas, and I was even able to convince our CEO Steve Odland during a store visit one day to let our store host the banner changing ceremony when we converted from Finast to Tops. The company was planning to host the banner ceremony in a suburban store, and I felt very strongly that the ceremony should take place in our store to continue to change the “urban vs. suburban” perception and to show the residents that we appreciate them and value serving that community.