Thursday, May 17, 2012
I’ve decided to blow the dust off our blog and write a post about…THE SHIRT.
Before I start, forgive my tone. I’m a still a little sore about the whole thing.
As you all now, we just had graduation here in Blacksburg and we always enjoy seeing another group of VT grads heading out into the world. What most of you probably don’t know that we fairly recently acquired our own screen print equipment, which means we can make our own art quickly and run small quantities of shirts for special events, like graduation. Before we had to rely solely on outside printers to create or edit our art and print the shirts which can take weeks to complete and prevents us from, well, having fun.
This May we decided that in addition to our normal Virginia Tech alumni and graduation products we would offer something specific to this year’s graduation. We knew the First Lady would be speaking at commencement and, although our staff has widely varying opinions on Mrs. Obama, we thought that was pretty freakin’ special.
I came up with a design based loosely on Obama’s campaign poster, because it’s iconic, and used a photo of Mrs. Obama. I added the text “Yes we did!”, a play on the Obama slogan “Yes we can”, for the grads, as in “Yes we did (finally graduate).” We printed 48 shirts, took a photo and threw them online.
Well, it hit the fan.
While we had a great response to the shirt from our in-store customers and folks on Twitter, some of our Facebook fans were not pleased. There were mostly general comments of dislike, however two had to be deleted for racial overtones, and a few called the shirt “disgusting” and “a disgrace to our colors”. I was taken aback.
Let me say this. I’m well aware of the political and social makeup of our fans, and I definitely know where Southwest Virginia lies on the political spectrum. However I also know that we are in a culturally and politically diverse college town and that not everyone shares the same beliefs as the majority of people in our geographic area. And I believe that’s ok, because we live in America, and it’s our differences that bring about progress and generally make life interesting. It’s when those differences are voiced or viewed in an ugly manner that we get nowhere.
Despite trying to clarify the meaning of the shirt several times I think those particular people still thought it was a political shirt, like the store was endorsing Barack Obama.
Let me be reaaaal clear. As a store, we would NEVER endorse any political candidate. As I mentioned before, we have a wide variety of political opinions here. We have Conservatives, Libertarians, Liberals, Apathetics and (this would be my camp) the Oh-Who-Cares-We’re-Getting-Screwed-Either-Ways. This shirt was not about politics. This shirt was about an event. If Laura Bush, the Pope, or Kermit the Frog had been the speaker we would have made a shirt. It’s what we do. If we think we can make a reasonably funny or likable shirt, we will.
After the flood of haters and a few threatening phone calls, we deleted the Facebook post and removed the shirt from our online store. We stuck to selling it in the store and it sold well. We had to print more. We had several calls for the shirt and were able to ship them out, but could have sold more if they were online.
We’re no stranger to bad feedback- it’s an unfortunate part of doing business. Sooner or later you’re going to screw up someone’s order, give incorrect change, or carry an item that pisses someone off. Some of our Smack shirts have offended some folks in the past, but frankly if out of 144 shirts sold we have one complaint, we’re not going to stop selling it. Thank you for your feedback, I’d be happy to offer you something else, but this shirt just isn’t for you and that’s the end of it.
Consumers have the right to choose what they buy just as we have the right to choose what we sell. If our customers don’t like something, trust me- we’re the first to know. It doesn’t sell. We mark it down and vow to do better next time. That’s business, and it happens all the time.
But for us to feel we can’t continue selling something because of people’s reactions is unheard of.
We love and respect Virginia Tech and Blacksburg, but we really love being the rogue little red-headed stepchild mom-and-pop un-bookstore that carries stuff other people won’t sell. And I don’t just mean smack-talk shirts, I mean anything. We try to come up with our own unique art and offer unique products and services the other guys don’t. We try to keep everything at least PG-13 and don’t do anything that would jeopardize our license with VT. We know some items might ruffle a few feathers, but we carefully weigh those risks before we put them on our sales floor or website, just like we did with the Michelle Obama shirt.
We knew some folks weren’t too crazy about her, but we thought that most people would “get” the shirt- that it was about the commencement ceremony. We were wrong. And, while it was only online a short while and responded to by a handful of people (it had an equal amount of “likes”), some of the comments were getting nasty and I was afraid of what might pop up in the next comment. As I said before two comments were deleted for racial overtones, which really makes me ill. People were angry and we didn’t want things to escalate or get ugly by continuing to advertise the shirt.
To the people who commented on Facebook- it’s ok if you didn’t like the shirt. You have that right, as well as the right to voice your opinion. But to those who were angry or hateful, two words:
On a lighter note, I do know someone who really liked the shirt:
To those who continue to shop here, even if you don’t like a shirt or two, we love you and you’re the reason we’re here and will ALWAYS be here.