Here in the Washington, D.C. area, Giant Foods, a huge grocery chain, announced a cutback of holiday hours the Salvation Army can have its renowned Red Kettles and bell ringers outside its stores. The reason: “to serve our customers, and not hinder their shopping experience.” What about people’s “civic experience” – where, for Giant Foods, does that fit in? There’s an alternative path for Giant to take.
Many of us grew up hearing the Salvation Army’s bells during the holiday season. Those bells are an entreaty to each of us – a kind of gentle reminder about our connection to one another. But the contribution we make is not about mere money; when any of us place our coins or bills in a Red Kettle, we are consummating our relationship to each other. And we are doing so anonymously – without any expectation of recognition for our contribution.
Last year, the National Capital Area Salvation Army raised one-half its total holiday funds from outside Giant stores. They and other groups could raise these dollars six days a week, throughout the months of November and December. Now, Giant has said the Salvation Army can have their kettles out for only six days per month, and four hours at a time.
In recent years, we’ve experienced the Bernard Madoff rip-off, greedy over-reach of banks, AIG’s implosion, BP oil fiasco, and many other failures of business leaders and organizations living up to any semblance of ethical standards. In fact, one could argue that in far too many instances, business has turned its back on people and society.
Now, the “shopping experience” is overtaking our consciousness. At each turn, we long for and demand customer service. The customer always expects to be right. We give ourselves permission to ream out airport ticket agents when we’re inconvenienced. We want to be able to return a product when we decide we no longer want it. Sadly, our politicians talk in terms of “voters’ bill of rights” and encourage us to look at them as “products,” only to tell us to expect from them the same customer service we expect from business. But this customer approach is placing an ugly stain on our pubic square.
Rather than focus on our mere shopping experience, I wish Giant Foods had cooked up a new, more robust effort to engage our civic experience. Given people’s anxiety and frustrations in the nation, Giant should redouble their holiday efforts, not curtail them, and announce that they will highlight the Salvation Army and their bell ringers; that they will sponsor community conversations on our shared aspirations for the type of community we all want to create; and that during the holidays they will create ways for people to join together to spark practical civic actions in their communities.
Instead, the grocer chose to bag the Red Kettles, silence the bell ringers, and advertise once more that we should concentrate only on our shopping experience. Indeed, I can imagine them even offering to provide “double coupons” to shoppers in response to any backlash from their actions surrounding the Salvation Army. Of course, that would only reinforce the current scenario: give more to those who already have something in their pots, and empty the pots of those with little.
I urge Giant – no, I call on Giant – to stop looking inward and trying to find ways to squeeze out more profits, and instead turn outward toward their community. My bet is that they would profit more during this holiday season if they embraced a public spirit, and not simply the pursuit of the so-called shopping experience. People in our nation are yearning to be part of something larger than themselves; we all want to join with others to make a difference. We are tired of business as usual. Giant Foods has the opportunity to nourish that urge within us, to be part of that larger public spirit. It’s not too late. But first they will need to sound the bells that call us back to one another. That would be a new way to do business in America.