(Yes the shoes above are signed, game-worn Ron Anderson Pony basketball shoes. Read more to find out why anyone would ever consider putting them in a blog post.)
A long time ago, before Zappos and even Dick’s Sporting Goods, there were mom and pop sporting goods stores that were basically the only place to get what you needed for the upcoming season. When I was younger, my favorite sport was mainly determined by whatever season it was – what I could watch on TV and which sport was in season at our local rec league. Of course, this meant that my parents occasionally had to take my brother and I out to get new equipment. Kelly’s was the spot. Mainly because it was the only spot in town.
The shoe store negotiation battle is one I remember well, sometimes I won (new Air Huaraches), many times I lost (Spot-Bilt baseball cleats).
My role has changed – now I am buying the shoes rather than convincing my dad which to buy – but it is just as challenging. The most challenging part is that I see the value in playing the game, even if I am going to hate playing it with my son. Go to any athletic shoe store (I’m sure other stores too) and you will see the game being played. Here is my experience so far – the good, the bad, and the other.
The Shoe Game
I used to think my dad was just cheap. Now that I’ve got my own son and we go through pairs of shoes like cereal (you use them up until there’s just enough left that you keep it around, but you also feel the need to go out and buy a new box of the same one) I understand the dilemma. For my dad the game was spending only what was needed because he knew I would ruin them in about 3 months time. I am proud to have inherited this skill from him. However, I was part of the game, just like my son is now, and I played too. For me, the game was getting my dad to get me the best possible shoes. It was somewhat of a classic negotiation, but neither person would admit they were part of it.
The game has changed slightly. If you go to a sporting goods store now, you’ve already browsed through all the possible selections and know pretty much what you’re looking for when you walk in. The game my dad and I played included a surprise element. My earliest memories of shopping for shoes meant I had little to no idea what I wanted before I opened the door of Kelly’s. That changed soon after when Nike started to market shoes differently – think Air Jordan. I distinctly remember going to buy cleats with my dad, however, and I had no idea what to really expect.
What I found was a decent looking pair of cleats. What my dad found was a hideous pair that were significantly cheaper than the ones I picked out. I don’t even think I picked an expensive pair. I just know his were cheap. No one had to look at the price tag inside to know they were the cheapest on the racks. Of course, I still had to try them on, because my dad told me to, but I had no intention of letting my father buy them. I did not want to wear them onto the field.
I would try them on, lace them up, walk around the store, maybe jog a little to really show my dad that I was trying them out. Soon, I would give a slight grimace and point out some small feature that just didn’t work. The arch was too high, the toe too narrow, anything that I thought he might buy from me. Then we’d work our way to a compromise and find a shoe that seemed to fit both of our needs. This story would play out many times over the next few years and every time I would find a reason not to end up in the cheap pair. I also knew I was never going to get the expensive pair. Landing somewhere in the middle was good enough for me.
This past week, my son’s shoes were clearly falling apart and we needed to find him a new pair soon. We stopped at Dick’s on the way back from one of his soccer games, and it was the Kelly’s experience all over again, just with me in the Dad seat. I had taken my son to Dick’s before and we ended up with a relatively cheap, but solid pair of shoes – the ones he just destroyed. I went in feeling like we might be fine. I might not even have to pull the cheap dad card out of my pocket.
Two things made it clear that this would not happen. First, they were remodeling. The shoe section was stacked in the middle of the aisles with little guidance and even fewer people around to help. (The sign apologizing for the clutter didn’t make me feel any better, by the way.) Second, while we sized up my son’s foot, we found out the challenge we had been waiting for had finally arrived. He had crossed the 6 barrier.
Unfortunately, my son is tall and growing constantly, which means he is now a size 6.5. For those of you not there yet, this means he is wearing a ‘Men’s’ shoe. As far as I can tell, the only real difference between a ‘mens’ shoe and a ‘boys’ shoe is the minimum $20 increase in price. A $39.99 shoe in size 5.5 increases automatically to $59.99 or higher in size 6.5. I don’t know what happens to leather, or whatever synthetic material they use, from 5.5 to 6.5, but $20 seems to be a steep price for the 3 extra square inches of material.
The thing is my dad always had one more card to pull in our game, the credit card. (That sounds good, because it’s an actual card. Back then it was really just a check book. That did not sound as cool, but I will admit it here, because it makes the story a little funnier and maybe less cheesy. Hope you enjoyed this unnecessary sidebar.) He never had to buy the shoes. Multiple times, we would not buy the shoes and then my dad would go back and buy a different, but similarly cheap pair days before our first practice or opening game, and I’d be stuck with the weird Pony cleats. (Yes kids, there were athletic shoes called Pony. Ron Anderson was a spokesperson. Unless you were a diehard 80s basketball fan or maybe from Philly, you don’t know Ron Anderson. You probably also don’t know about Pony. I know, I need a better sidebar tool then parentheses.)
Needless to say, this trip to Dick’s did not end with the purchase of new shoes. My son will be wearing his mom’s old shoes (he still thinks this is kind of cool) to school until I can move past the 6 barrier challenge. However, it reminded me that I am in for a world of pain and frustration over the next 10 years. I don’t know how this works for all kids, but I know that athletes are probably the worst – your kicks on the field or court are probably the most important piece of equipment you can wear.
Ten years ago, a pre-teen showed me what I’m in for. At the time I laughed. I even used his skills to teach my students. Now, I dread my son becoming This Kid.
The Kid (and the art of negotiation)
As I tried on a pair of shoes on my own at, The Kid walks up to the soccer display and opens up with pure shock factor. After slowly browsing over all of them first, feigning interest in each one, he points out the shoes he wants to his mother – the most expensive shoes on the rack! I smiled, wondering if this kid really thought he could convince his mom to buy them. He compared them to his cleats at home, noting the quality features, hoping she might bite on him needing a better pair. She parried his first blows away quickly, pointing to the price tag.
Next, he employs the high-low technique, pointing out the inferiority and superiority of various cleats; he is clearly focused on price tag, but trying to use anything on the label (type of leather, new technology, type of stud) to convince his mother otherwise. He pointed out the pair that his ‘friends’ wore. These were ‘only $180’, slightly less expensive than the first pair, but mom shot the suggestion down. Judging by The Kid’s face, this was no surprise. When he moved on to the $120 cleats, he got a similar response, again to no surprise. Finally when he turned to an $80 pair, his mother gave an undecided response.
The Kid saw an opportunity and took it. “Well, let me just try them on. I don’t need to get them, I just want to see how they feel.” This kid wasn’t even in need of a pair of cleats, but his natural skills of persuasion and negotiation were taking over. While I didn’t stick around to see the end, I could only imagine where his line of reasoning would go. The shoes would feel really comfortable, and The Kid would explain exactly why they were comfortable, at which point the shoe salesman, smelling blood in the water, would approach and add his own lines of support to The Kid’s argument. Mom would contend with The Kid until he tried on another pair of cheaper cleats, to which he would say something was clearly wrong with the way they fit his foot, and the shoe salesman would be in support again.
Mom is stuck in a two on one, a position which I do not envy. She may end up winning this battle here, but the war is far from over. Eventually, cleats will be needed and that $80 pair is now the standard. The $40 clearance rack shoes I ended up with wouldn’t stand a chance on his feet, no matter how nice they may actually be.
I have to respect The Kid’s skills. I taught persuasive writing for many years, and I used this kid’s story almost every time. It was the greatest lesson in real-life, real-time revision I’ve ever witnessed. He used multiple approaches (price, features, color, comparison) until he found one that appealed to his audience (his mother). His shock factor strategy had a clear impact, setting the price bar so high, that the shoes he had his eyes on from the beginning seemed reasonable. The Kid even settled with his mom on not getting the shoes, but rather ‘just wanted to try them on’. He used specific details about the comfort level of the shoes, and the backing of an expert (the shoe salesman) to support his argument. Depending on the quality and attitude of the salesman, this could be a ringing endorsement, difficult for mom to turn down. He used feedback from his audience to revise his argument and present different perspectives to bring them over to his side. In the end, it is mom’s decision, but The Kid did a spectacular job presenting his side of the debate.
While I’m slightly fearful of my son learning these techniques (I know he will; I’m just hoping it takes him a little bit longer to get there), I also know there’s value to practicing these skills. This method of debate is natural in our every day lives. Kids are natural negotiators, and shopping seems to be a key place to hone their skills. This kid clearly already has persuasive skills, but he must have learned them somewhere.
The Cheap Dad
There are a number of contradictions at play here.
One thing is that I really like shoes. I’m no sneaker head, but I did spend a whole year of high school on a project researching shoe companies and creating a fantasy sports apparel company with shoes and jerseys to match. Buying cool, expensive shoes doesn’t fit with my cheap dad persona, though.
Another is I’m not really a cheap dad, at least not by necessity. Granted, no one who knows me would say I spend my money loosely, but my parents were in a very different place financially – my one kid vs their five probably says enough. For the time being, I’m in a place where I want to maintain the cheap dad persona. My son is still innocent enough to walk into the store knowing certain shoes are off limits. I’m going to hang on to that for a while.
Lastly, I know the value of my son learning negotiation and debate tactics. I’m even willing to use a little game theory from my economics major to add some extra value to the shoe game. I don’t really look forward to the negotiations, but at least he’ll be learning something along the way, even if he doesn’t know it. I’m sure I will even use The Kid’s story at some point to help my son when he brings home a writing assignment he needs to revise.
In the moment of buying shoes, I really don’t want to be there. In the moments after, I’ve found something to gain. Maybe cheap dad is trying to find a way to add value to an experience I don’t like. Maybe teacher dad is trying to prove that learning does really happen everywhere.
Let the shoe game begin! (I thought finishing with a corny dad joke was only fitting. I’m still working on my dad joke game.)