Friday, December 23, 2011

Getting Wes Welker's Autograph at a Poorly Designed Signing

Wes Welker, wide receiver for the New England Patriots, appeared at Whole Foods in Bellingham, MA on the evening of Tuesday, Dec 20, 2011, for a free signing to promote Bonk Breakers, a new line of energy bars. It was billed on the Whole Foods website and Facebook page as a “Meet and Greet” which would take place from 5-7 pm. It was also eventually propagated to some local newspapers, radio stations, and a prominent autograph signings site list. They had stated elsewhere that only the first 150 people would get autograph tickets, it would be “first come, first served”, but limited to 1 autograph per person. Fair enough.

Announcement on the Whole Foods website calendar:

Tuesday, December 20th
Wes Welker Comes to Bellingham!
5-7 p.m.
Join us for a great opportunity to meet wide receiver, Wes Welker here at Whole Foods Market in Bellingham!
Wes will be on hand sampling his new line of energy bars, known as Bonk Breakers!
More details to follow, but please save the date!

Event listed in the Milford Patch (posted by a Whole Foods employee):

Wes Welker from the New England Patriots Meets and Greets at Whole Foods Market in Bellingham
Wes Welker Coming to Whole Foods Market in Bellingham
Welker to sign autographs and promote energy bars
WHAT: Calling all football fans! Whole Food Market Bellingham is proud to host New England Patriots wide receiver, Wes Welker for a meet and greet! Welker will be at the community market on Tuesday to promote Bonk Breakers; a new line of energy bars, and to sign autographs for fans and for customers looking for the perfect last minute gift for the football fanatic in their life!
WHEN: Tuesday, December 20
5:00 – 7:00 p.m.
WHERE: Whole Foods Market
255 Hartford Avenue
Bellingham, MA 02019

Hearing about the signing just the night before, I had to rush to find a football in time. I went to my local Sports Authority but couldn't find a football I liked, i.e. an official-sized one that said "NFL" on it. And this was despite all Wilson footballs being 25% off. I then went to my local Dick's Sporting Goods who were having a 50% off sale, but that particular model was already out-of-stock. I managed to find ONE football left there that would work for my purposes, and I grabbed it. $19.99 + tax for a Wilson NFL "Competition" Official Size composite leather football. Game on.

This Whole Foods location was just shy of a 45-minute drive for me each way. I arrived early at 2 pm, hoping to be one of the first in line, only to be told that there was no lineup allowed until 4:30 pm. Huh? How is that supposed to work? I was at the tent inside where they were just setting up. They clearly did not want anyone around.

"The quiet before the storm"

So we had to wait outside in the cold the whole time? I found a couple others hanging around who had gotten there as early as 1 pm. We started to form a line off to the side of the main door, planning to keep it along the wall, with plenty of room for passers-by, and without blocking any store fronts (even at a 150 count it would hold). But employees came out and told us we couldn't stand on the sidewalk as it blocked traffic. It didn't, though. I mentioned if they were waiting to form the line at 4:30 pm, if they were going to have police detail to handle all the fights, and they said the police were coming at 4 pm. Our response: What is your plan for 3 pm when you have hundreds of people out here? Apparently they had no plan.

So they wanted to be "fair for all of our customers" by having everyone line up at the same time (i.e. 4:30 pm), but how it is fair if someone who got there later has an equal chance to get in front of someone who was there earlier? It’s a recipe for altercations, and disaster. Now did they just assume, or want, that everybody would just show up at 4:30 and form a nice line? Naturally people would come early. Shouldn’t those people get the passes first! They said they were going to do "first-come, first-served", so isn’t that a true "first-come, first-served"? Either make a line, do wristbands, or start giving out the tickets as people show up. Come on, people.

Even live on the store’s Facebook page, people were trying to warn them:

Brendon Roy: “This welker signing is going to go terribly…..there will be crazy fights at the door between people waiting since noon and people just showing up to get in…I hope they have a few police details there. this could be like black Friday all over.”
Tuesday at 3:02pm

Whole Foods Market Bellingham: “Have no fear Brendon! We have a great event planned for this evening! Hope to see you here!”
Tuesday at 3:19pm

So we had to stand around in the parking lot all afternoon, keeping alert as to how this would proceed. Would they smarten up and start a line early?, or maybe come and pass something else out? Who knew. But if you weren’t there and they did, well you might just get screwed. So we had to hang around.

Event info in store window

But any attempts to create a line or to explain to employees what was going to ensue here otherwise were scoffed at. They wouldn't announce where the line would be, either, despite our repeated questioning. So we organized ourselves, creating a nice line of about 100 people in the parking lot with me and my friend at the front (we both got there between 1 and 2 pm, first ones), but store employee Marybeth then came out with a megaphone and told us that this was NOT the line and to disperse.

We were belittled and mocked at by the employees. Employee Crystal told someone, "If you don't listen to me, I won't give you a ticket", was snickering at us "You guys are not going to get tickets", and mocking us for trying to organize things ourselves. Where were we supposed to go? Now these two employees were being downright rude and disrespectful to those of us waiting. Complete intimidation. They clearly stood out, while I felt the rest of the workers were fine throughout the evening.

A new person who arrived asked employee Marybeth, “Hey, where do we line up?", to which she responded, “I'm not telling you", and bluntly walked away.

I heard someone else was threatened to be arrested and escorted from premises for complaining.

One of my other friends went inside to check out the situation. Maybe the lineup would start inside perhaps, so we would have to constantly keep tabs on things. Once inside he spotted a tray of Bonk Breaker samples. He tried grabbing one, but was scolded, “No, that's not for you. No!”. Who were they for then? He then asked where to wait, and was told, “No, not here, you will have to be outside”.

Sign inside tent display

The numbers of us grew and grew, easily going over 150 of us by 4 pm, 30 minutes before the tickets were to be distributed. The police arrived and immediately went inside the store, not doing anything about all of us outside in growing numbers.

More and more people kept coming and coming. I think as the event start time approached, people started coming at an exponential rate.

A mob scene eventually formed outside the main doors to the store which cops had to break up numerous times. The police officers came out waving their arms, “Clear it out, guys! Clear it out! We need customers to be able to get in and out. We need this space clear.” We exclaimed out to the employees present, "We tried to tell you!.. See?, we told you this was going to happen!"

It was complete chaos. There were about 4 different lines being formed, hoping yours would be the right one, and fans kept flip-flopping between them based on their gut instincts at the moment. Now if they had let us line up early, this last minute mob scene could have been well avoided. At 4:30 pm, they placed a ticket line marker in the parking lot, creating another mad rush. I didn’t know it had been placed until I saw a stampede of people running over there.

And lo and behold, they ended up putting that line marker EXACTLY where me and my friend had tried to form the line 2 hours prior! The SAME line, mind you, that the megaphone lady said was NOT the line! We both had already moved away, though, but luckily the nice people waiting there didn't complain when we made our way back into line, or maybe they didn’t even notice. Sure, we were not first and second anymore, but still up towards the front good enough to secure a ticket anyway. I can tell you, though, I saw at least 25 people cut into the front of the whole "line" here. And these were new people who had just arrived, not there all day like us. This had to have pushed back and out 25 people who were supposed to have gotten in and gotten an autograph. They were now out of the equation. Not fair to them at all. And I put "line" in quotes above, as it wasn't really a line at all, but more so a mob of people.

The mob eventually funneled into a single-file, at least at the extreme front anyway, where someone was passing out tickets. So there were 150 tickets being distributed, numbered in groups from "1" to "5". I assume 30 tickets in each group. I managed to get a "2".

My ticket. I took this photo in case they took it away once I got through the line.

After that, I felt a big weight off my shoulders. I was set to get an autograph. So far, so good. We then all went into the store, where we’d wait for Wes to arrive and then our group number to be called. The group numbers were to at least somewhat be able to organize the line inside the store, as they could call up the fans by group numbers. They had said “like an airline” is how it would work.

I later found out there were a set of 35 "VIP" tickets as well, given out to customers who purchased a Christmas tree beforehand. Those were sold-out when I had first arrived at the store, though. I also heard a rumor that someone bought a tree only to get the ticket, actually leaving the tree behind at the store. I did later read, though, that some left them behind to be donated to needy families. There may have been an additional 15 VIP tickets for other contest winners, making a total of 50, but I can’t be certain.

So that makes 150 + 35 = 185 tickets distributed total. Or that is what I thought, but I later read that it was only 150 total. I really don’t know for sure then. It could be anywhere from 150-200. The store contradicts itself all over the place.

Inside the store in the signing line was unfortunately not much different from the mess outside. A little better, but still with its faults. To start, there were people milling all around the aisles, and shoppers had a tough time getting their carts through the masses.

Wes entering the store

Wes finally arrived at 5:40 pm. He came in through the front door, and everyone cheered. He then almost immediately sat down and started signing a bunch of whose items I don't know. It wasn't anybody in the line yet, not even the VIPs. So what exactly was all that stuff setup on the table for him? Maybe employee stuff? I don’t know, but hope not. Not after all this.

Wes starting to sign items at the table

They went through the VIPs, and then through the “1”s. Finally they called the “2”s. We were lining up down one of the aisles, to be reused by all the groups in turn. When I was in line, I noticed someone with a "VIP" pass who in with us "2"s. We all told him to go forward as he was first. Why was he so late, though? When he reached the front of the line, the Employee Marybeth wondered who he was, "Where did you get this?", she said, "I handed out all these myself but never saw you". Not sure what he said, but whatever it was, it was to get around the fact that he had bought the pass outside from someone who had just left. And after this point, they started ripping off all the numbers off the ticket corners as people passed through.

Much more easily, all they really had to do was collect the passes at the table as people went through. Easier than ripping, and this procedure still prevents: 1) re-selling outside, and 2) re-using yourself to go through the line twice. I read later that some with big grins had performed this #2 tactic as well. And for people who want to keep their passes as mementos? (yep, I’m one of them!), you just put them in a pile after Wes leaves where people can take them back again. Also they wouldn’t be ripped. I bet half would go unclaimed anyway.

Back to the signing, I had to keep showing my ticket over and over again as I stood in line, and quite a few more times as I made my way up through the front of the line and finally being next for Wes under the tent. Understandable, I guess.

Posted "One Item" notice

Each autograph ticket got you one autograph. The handler asked for my item, and I showed him my football which was tucked under my left arm. He said great, and handed it to Wes. The next thing I see is Wes holding a blue sharpie up to the ball. I quickly exclaimed, "Noooo!, I have a silver", as blue won’t show up very well at all on a football. He noticed and said he also had a silver. I was trying to give him mine, which I had been prepping the whole way through the line, but he still went with his.

Wes holding my football after signing it.

When I asked Wes to inscribe “The Natural” on it as well, he told me, “I think they want to speed this along”. So there was no time and they wanted to rush through all this. I must’ve been in front of him for only about 5 seconds. And there was no chance for photo ops with him, either. He was tucked behind the table anyway, so I couldn’t even really snap it myself.

Wes signing for the next person in line after me. The only way to get good photos was when you were at the table up close to him. Otherwise there was too much commotion going on.

I then left the tent area and stepped aside in the store, to look at the graph. It was nice, but kind of a thin silver. Mine was thicker, but oh well you can control only so much at these things. I did get my item signed, and that was the biggest thing here. I was happy I was able to get my football signed! The is the first real football I've ever gotten signed, actually. I did have Joe Montana sign a 49ers Nerf football for me back in 1999, but that's it as far as footballs are concerned.

Wes finished up through the “3”s, “4”s, and “5”s. The line was moving fairly quickly. There were people left behind the “5”s hoping to get in, too, but to no avail.

Now when Wes was done signing, he gladly posed for pictures with a number of employees and cops who were present. What about the fans who had been waiting all day to meet him?! Who was he there for anyway? Not only that, but they were doing it right in front of everyone, the fans who never got theirs and the extra people who were trying to get into the line if Wes had more time to stay to sign more.

Cops getting their stuff signed

He finished through those, signed a few more autographs for the police officers and maybe employee friends/family were in this coterie, too? Then what happened? To top it all of, Wes leaves early. The signing was supposed to be from 5-7 pm. He arrived late at 5:40 pm and left within an hour of that. That left another 300 or so fans hoping he'd do more than the set 150 out in the cold, literally. There was still a line of hopefuls outside the store as well. No wonder those customers were found using “foul language” back there.

Now I heard Wes was late coming in due to Patriots practice, but then later heard it was a car accident on the road. Ok, but then why did he leave early then? Apparently at least from Twitter he was having dinner with the event group.

I also heard a rumor Wes was paid $75,000 by the snack bar company to make this appearance and sign 150 autographs. I’m not sure the figure is true or not, though. I did read he has invested in the company and is now part-owner. So why would he pay himself then? If true, though, that rate of $75k/hr is 36x his normal rate for playing with the Patriots, given a standard 40-hr work week at 50 weeks/year anyway (and $4.125 million salary for 2011).

As two cops walked Wes out the back door, I was right behind him. I called him and asked if he'd take a quick picture with me before he left, but he never even looked back. I was really the only one there, too. I went as far as I could go, before spinning around and running to the back of the building with a couple of friends. Unfortunately, this Whole Foods is in a big shopping complex, and it took almost 5 minutes to get all the way around on foot. By the time we got there, his car was gone.

This was not a "Meet and Greet" as billed. It was a very impersonal "Rush Sign and Go".

And for the 200 people or so who were outside in the cold waiting and who never got in? All the store had to do was put a worker at the end of the line, after the 150 marker point, who said this is end of line as he can only sign 150 today. Then the people would understand as they arrived, well before the 4:30 pm point even, and not waste their time in the cold. But this was not organized in such a way nor apparently ever communicated to them. False hope, I guess.

I'm not complaining that Wes was set to sign only 150 autographs. I already said fair enough. It was the disorganization, miscommunications, and downright rudeness of the employees to the customers.

Although Whole Foods is a great market, and I shop there all the time, I think they need to take a lesson or two from the bookstores on how to operate and organize a signing. They do them all the time and have experience.

I'm an autograph collector, and have been doing this for over 15 years now. I’ve been to 75-100 signings over the years, but I have NEVER seen anything more disorganized than this one. It will go down as my story of worst organized signing ever.

Yeah, I did get an autograph, and I'm happy about that. But it may have been only my experience that helped me to obtain it. But for all the stress involved, I'm not sure it was really even worth my time and aggravation.

It’s funny, I even went grocery shopping after the signing. When I went to check out, I was trying to use the pizza coupon on the back of my Wes ticket. But when they had ripped off the number on the front corner, they had consequently ripped off a crucial part of the coupon on the back which now the clerk couldn't even read!

Whole Foods is awesome. We do 80% of our grocery shopping at Whole Foods. My impression of the chain itself cannot change in general, but with respect to this particular location it can. I don't like this location at all and am pretty sure I will never return there ever again. If I were to, all I would have is memories of this horrible day.

Reading the Whole Foods Bellingham Facebook page in the couple days after the signing, it is clear that a lot of people feel the same way, that it was a poorly executed signing. A list of complaints include VIP ticket-holders who were supposed to have gotten a picture with Wes, fans who got yelled at in line for whatever reasons, kids who were denied autographs at the table since someone in their party had already gotten one (we’re talking kids here, come on, guys), parents whose kids were so upset they didn’t get to meet Wes that they came home crying, and fans who waited out in the cold for 2 hours for absolutely no reason at all. And you can work your way back to things the store said in the posts, like “We promise that this will be an extremely well-organized event.” Oh my god, no it wasn’t!

Now a lot of people are upset. Most of those people didn't even get Wes' autograph. I did get it, but I'm still upset, at how things were run, and how stressful the whole day was. That should say something about how bad it really was for the other people.

Now was any of this Wes’ fault? Probably not. I’m sure he was just following along with whatever the event administrators were saying to do. We can rack up the mess to a poorly run event.

Whole Foods should be thankful that nobody got hurt over there. All kinds of children were there, there was gridlock in the parking lot with cars all blocked in by a big line of people, and the mob scene in general.

Anyway, Thanks Wes for signing my ball! :)

My signed ball back in its protective box

UPDATE (12/31/11):
Whole Foods Market sent me the below Direct Message on Twitter on Dec 27:

"So sorry for your experience. We've let the store know about it. Wes is a popular guy but still."
from (@WholeFoods) to (@ms_9)

in response to my public tweet to them on Dec 23:
@WholeFoods You might want to look into @WFM_Bellingham store wrt rudeness of employees @WesWelker signing. My story..

And here is my response back to them per Direct Message on Dec 28:
"Well, thanks for reading my concerns and responding. That is good customer service. We shop at Whole Foods all the time."

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