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March 12, 2007: How the ‘Broken Window Theory’ extends to your store

Rudy Giuliani and his New York City police commissioner, William Bratton, got it right. Or at least partially right. It was the mid-1990s, and they vowed to fix the city’s desperate crime problem. They listened to two criminologists, James Wilson and George Kelling, who had a new idea. They called it the “Broken Window Theory.”
The thought was that if minor nuisances like broken windows, graffiti and dirty streets were cleaned up and aggressively maintained, the major problems of arson, murder, rape and drug dealing would decrease. The linkage? One broken window unrepaired for a week sends the message that “it’s OK to break windows here. Broken windows here are fine, and perhaps arson is too.”
They realized little things lead to big problems. So they fixed the windows. They scrubbed the graffiti. And they hauled the garbage and cleaned the streets.
And sure enough, the murders, drug deals, arsons and rapes declined at an astonishing rate.
Bratton went on to be a hero to the Los Angeles Police Department. Giuliani is now running for president of the United States, and both are regarded by the long-suffering citizens of New York as inspirational leaders.
We now know the greatest contributing factor to that actual decrease in crime had a lot more to do with the shrinking of the age group that commits the crimes. But still, the Broken Window Theory proved useful in decreasing the environment where criminals felt comfortable, and where crimes occurred.
In the past 30 years I have visited hundreds of your dealerships. I have pulled up into your parking lots, I have walked through your front doors, your side doors, your shop doors and your overhead doors. I have sat through your manager’s meetings and your board meetings and I have talked with your CPAs, perhaps more than even you have.
And I know what to expect when I see your doors. As I reach for that door handle, I can tell exactly how your offices will look. And I also can predict, pretty close, just how many sales dollars per square foot your operation is generating.
If there are fingerprints and hand smears on that door’s glass, if there are stickers advertising more than just the bank cards you accept, if there are posters there for last month’s ride, if it isn’t clean and shiny, I know your accounting systems will be in a mess. I know I will not be greeted when I enter the room. And I know your net profit, if any, will be at 3 percent or less.
I also know I will find empty Coke cans on window ledges and spilled soda on sales brochures. I will see dust and dirt on window sills and in the corners. There will be no uniforms. Rather, I will see employees in rumpled jeans and T-shirts.
As I look up, I will see lights that are burned out (24 out of 48 in a recent visit), and ceiling tiles that are stained with water leakage from some long forgotten rainstorm.
I know the bikes will be pushed so closely together that you can’t sit on them. But that point is moot because there will probably be large, angry red tags hanging from each handlebar that say, “Don’t get on this bike.” It will be hand printed in big, ugly bold letters, and there will probably be an explanation mark at the bottom of the tag, right next to the price.
As I get to parts, I will see peg-board hooks that turn up on the end, ready to gouge out my eye if I should fall, rather than the newer, better ones that turn toward the floor.
Mannequins? Perhaps. But if there are any, they will look awkward, disjointed and out of place, their clothing having nothing to do with what I see on the walls.
The parts guys will be holding the glass countertop down with their elbows. They will not have nametags. Several will be on the phone and will not look my direction until they have finished the call, which now is obviously personal.
The sales guy at the desk — also on the phone — will be chewing gum. He might approach me at some point, but when he does, he will almost surely start the conversation with “Can I help you?” I will say I’m just looking, and he will go away.
I can see the techs. They are in the parts bins, pawing through them, looking for parts. They have ROs in their hands, and the smears on the pages are changing color as the grease mixes more and more with the dust from each bin they touch. They might, or they might not, remember to add those parts in their hands to the RO.
And as I follow this tech back to service, I will find the manager there trying to handle the phone as well as the three customers who are here to drop off their bikes. The customers all showed up at the same time because there is no scheduling system.
And then you, the owner, will find me. You will be harried, rushed and anxious as, out of the corner of your eye, you watch the floor-checker going from bike to bike, marking his list of VINs. We will go back to your office. We will sit down after you have shoveled the papers off the side chair. And you will ask me: “Hal, why am I not making any money?”
And before I speak, I will think of William Bratton, Rudy Giuliani and many, many broken windows.

Hal Ethington has been associated with the powersports industry for more than 30 years. Ethington is a senior analyst at ADP Lightspeed. He can be reached at Hal_ethington@adp.com

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