A Retail Tactic That is So Not Cool

(Photo by Amy Silverstein)

And the award for the stupidest ploy used to lure customers goes to …the marketing guru who decreed that stores keep front doors wide open, with the air conditioner running. It’s a common practice in many shopping venues, one that flies in the face of social responsibility and common sense.

“They are wasting energy. They’re boosting global warming emissions. They are increasing their operating costs…It is a perfect example of shortsighted, self-serving business conduct,” said Eric Goldstein, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group that helped get a 2008 law passed in New York City requiring large retailers and chain stores to keep their doors closed when running the A/C.

I became aware of this bizarre open-door policy during a recent shopping trip in suburban Los Angeles, on a day when the thermometer in my car read 100 degrees. I was a woman on a mission, eager to escape the heat and get to a sale at the clothing chain LOFT.

But once inside, it felt as if the furnace and the air conditioner were going at the same time. In fact, the A/C was on full throttle while the front doors were open, letting in waves of unrelenting heat. I figured a customer must have accidentally left the doors ajar, and I pointed this out to a busy sales associate.

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To my surprise, she said it was company policy, which was confirmed by two other employees who said they were not allowed to shut the doors during business hours. (In a phone interview later with LOFT’s parent Ann Inc. a spokesperson said there is no such rule.)

After leaving LOFT I noticed that nine other businesses in the plaza also were blasting artic air onto the sidewalks. There were small, local retailers, as well as chain stores, including: Williams-Sonoma, Gymboree, lululemon athletica and l’Occitane en Provence.

In an impromptu survey I asked store managers why the doors were open. Responses ranged from: “it’s more welcoming” to “management policy” to “customers might be confused if the doors were closed.”

For this, we are blasting the tops off mountains to get coal, and fracking for natural gas?

Goldstein pointed out that not only are retailers wasting precious energy by sending cold air into the street, they are increasing the likelihood of power failures, by cranking up their air conditioning to battle the incoming heat. And this has public health implications far beyond shopping. When electricity fails, the most vulnerable residents – the sick, the very young, and the elderly – are put at risk.

A study commissioned by the environmental group found that an air-conditioned store with a six-foot by seven-foot open doorway releases an extra ton of carbon dioxide and wastes $1,000 in energy costs in a typical New York summer. Electric utility Con Edison estimated that 1,000 New York stores with open doors in the summer waste 4.2 million kilowatt hours of electricity, needlessly spewing 2,200 extra tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

“If you can’t get people to focus on taking small steps to conserve energy, it’s hard to see how we can get them to take some of the hard measures that are necessary to ensure that the planet is sustainable for future generations,” said Goldstein. “Here is something that can be done that will both save energy and costs for store-keepers and improve the reliability of local energy providers and also reduces global warming emissions.”

If retailers won’t step up and do the right thing, then cities need to put laws in place banning the wasteful practice. It also would help if property managers required the stores in their buildings to behave responsibly.

Goldstein recalled when he was a kid and air-conditioned stores in New York kept their doors closed. Shoppers were enticed by a picture of a penguin on an iceberg, signaling a comfortable temperature inside.

“Maybe what we need,” he said, “is to bring back the penguin.”

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3 comments to “A Retail Tactic That is So Not Cool”

  1. Steven M Burrows

    This sort of energy waste is senseless. I imagine the “cost of doing business” includes this energy waste each time a worldwide consumer buys and American product. “Business-geniuses”, huh?

  2. Mary Kay Kidwell

    Thanks for bringing this to our attention. I also wonder how much energy is wasted in grocery stores where cold-food cases are wide open. Are we such a lazy society that we can’t open and close a door?

  3. Louis Lombardo

    The nation needs more revolving doors to reduce energy waste! Washington has enough revolving doors to supply the rest of the nation for free.

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