Monday, August 22, 2011

K-Mart Principle

This could also be called the Wal-Mart principle, Target Principle, or ARCO principle. This principle is based on what people in sales call "perceived value." Perceived value refers to what consumers think something is worth, totally irrespective of what it is actually worth. The stores I list above are all kings of actual value as they offer products of equal quality to more expensive stores at far lower prices. Yet people are embarrassed or refuse to go there. My epiphany on this matter came one day when a friend was complaining about the price of gas. I told him it was actually fifteen cents per gallon cheaper at ARCO and he said , "Oh, but that's ARCO gas." (Keep in mind this was well before the BP oil spill so boycott was not an issue at this time.) I had heard the myth that cheaper gas was the "bottom of the barrel" reject of the major suppliers. I had heard it over twenty years ago when I first started driving. I had also researched it and found it to be false. So simply because the price at ARCO was TOO GOOD, my friend, and many others, refused to buy it because it must be "cheap" both literally and figuratively.

Long before this I noticed this phenomenon with clothing stores. The common insult was "where did you get those jeans, K-mart?" It's not that the jeans, or top or whatever would be bad, they would just not have a recognizable brand name. While my very young years exposed me to the designer jeans craze, by the time I was in middle school I don't think anyone wore anything except Guess and Levis. Except, me of course, I didn't wear jeans, I wore shorts every day. Years later when I finally bought a pair of jeans for myself, I looked at the price of Levis, said, screw that, went to Wal-Mart and grabbed a pair of  "Bugle Boys" for under twenty dollars. That was about ten years ago; they're just starting to rip to the point where I can't wear them now. I would say last year they were ripped to the point that many people buy their jeans ripped at new. (What the hell is up with that? You pay fifty bucks for a pair of jeans that are already ripped?)

So is this going to tie into running at all or has Pete finally run out of things to say about running and is going off on the value of cheap stuff? Silly question. Like I will ever run out of things to say about running. When I see how sports are handled I see the same principle in effect. Starting with youth sports, soccer, basketball, football and baseball programs cost an arm and a leg and still get countless kids trying out every year. That's right, I said trying out. Because the top programs that charge so much money have cuts. It's possible to offer these teams thousands of dollars per year and be told, "we're sorry, your child is not good enough for us to take your money." Meanwhile most youth running clubs charge minuscule amounts in comparison and have an even more minuscule amount of kids wanting to participate. Not only that but these programs demand attendance and work ethic and even mandatory parent volunteer hours and extra fun raising. That's right, several thousand a year is not enough from you, you also commit to fundraising another few grand. I've seen cults that were more flexible. Compare that to the average youth running club. Show up when you want, just show to races if you want, begging parents to hold a watch for a couple races to help time.

It doesn't get any better when kids get to high school. Once again, practice is mandatory, non practice team meetings and commitments are mandatory. There are fundraising and parental commitments. And yes, once again, after all this, you might not even be accepted. There are cuts. And yes, once again scores of kids try out for each of these teams each season. Meanwhile high school running coaches may pretend to have attendance policies but they're rarely enforced. As I found out at my last high school, the Athletic Director wouldn't let me enforce the same attendance policy other sports had. In fact, he wouldn't let me enforce the attendance policy stipulated by state rules.  Kids will boldly walk up and say they will have to leave a meet early or not even go to a meet due to another commitment. They'll skip practice to play other sports. Still coaches are begging for athletes to run. As mentioned in in the Pridentity blog, they make deals to get kids out.

This seems bad but we haven't even gotten to the worst of it. To use my current abode as an example, Bellingham, Washington had three graduates at the NCAA Track and Field Championships last year, two of whom were All-American. Three other athletes had qualified for the regional meet in which national qualifiers were taken from. That's six athletes, equally split between the three local high schools, running at the Division I level and being among the best athletes in the country. Meanwhile, I don't think the Bellingham graduates from all of the rest of the sports combined could match that success. Still, kids with great promise as runners would rather ride the bench of the volleyball, soccer, football, basketball etc. teams than have a chance at being successful runners. It's the K-Mart principle.

By devaluing the sport with all of their deals, with their lenient rules, with their come one, come all, regardless of whether you actually want to participate in this sport versus this recreation, coaches and administrators kill the sport of running. Now up to this point everything I have said has been theory. What if it's not the attitude, what if kids just won't run. Well, I've been to the mountain and I've seen it done differently. Growing up, Hawthorne High School in Los Angeles was legendary not only for its performances but for its squad sizes. These were, tough, scary looking inner city kids who operated with military precision on the track. their coach had mandatory grade checks, uniform policies, attendance policies. Regardless of what they did with the rest of their time, they toed the line when it came to track. I heard tons of similar stories of coaches who did similar things throughout the country. The more they made kids respect the sport, the more kids came out.

Those who ran for me at Glastonbury will remember my first day of practice speech. As I looked out at the eighty plus kids at the first meeting, I flat out said that I expected ten to fifteen to quit in the first week. It wasn't anything personal, I just bet that they heard about the glory of our success and wanted to be a part of it without being a part of of the work that went into it. Sure enough, first week went by and we were about 2000 pounds lighter. Still, every year the numbers were high on the first day and only slightly lower a few weeks later. In spite of the fast that my first year coaching was the first year kids had to pay to participate in sports, the numbers increased from before I was there. The numbers went up because I didn't devalue the sport. Now don't get me wrong. I never told anyone they were too slow for the team. Any kid who was willing to work hard, no matter the talent was welcome. What I told the kids was everyone trains like an All State athlete. The only thing that holds you back is your talent.  I once had a kid who other coaches told me was one of the most talented distance runners they had ever seen coming out of eighth grade. He didn't want to be a part of hard working team though. First week of practice I gave him his options. 1) Work Harder 2) Quit 3) Be kicked off the team. I never saw him again that season.

What about the other kids? The ones that thought track would be a joke, a time to flirt with the girls and didn't want to be serious but appreciated the value the sport had when shown to them. I had runner who I thought was notoriously lazy but very respectful and also very fast. He did what he was told but it always looked like he was holding back. I once remarked to another coach what a shame it was he was so lazy. The other coach laughed and said every coach who had worked with him before was asking how I got him to work as hard as he did. I had a few athletes tell me they didn't know why but I got them to work harder than they ever wanted to or thought they could and thanked me for it. The most classic was the football star (ended up playing in college) who came out for track because he heard from the other kids I was a conditioning specialist and figured it would help him. it was my first year and we were still changing the reputation away from the K-Mart image." As he sat in the locker rooms with his head in his hands after one workout, not really feeling like moving, another one of my runners came in, he looked up and said, "If I ever hear anyone saying track is a joke sport I'm going to kill them." That statement alone probably got me an extra ten kids the next year.

Bottom line is, as a sport, as runners, as coaches, we complain about the lack of respect for our sport but to a large extent, we do it to ourselves. How many runners go to professional football, soccer, basketball, baseball games and never once pay to see a top level high school, college or professional meet. Shame on you. How many parents who are runners push their kids at football, soccer, basketball, baseball and then take them to all comers meets with no formal coaching and say, "Go Run!" With that attitude, what do you expect.?


  1. Top notch.

    But paragraph 7, "I didn't value the sport." Is that a typo?

    I think there has been significant thought in economics about how people tend not to value things they don't pay for, with money or otherwise. People looking at the transit industry often wonder why cities don't boost ridership by getting rid of fares since they often only cover 20% of costs anyway. This has been tried in a number of places, failing spectacularly in almost all cases. A main reason is that people naturally assume that something given away for free must be worthless.

  2. Devalue. Thanks James. Fascinating about public transport. The principle appears universal.