Long before curbside recycling, she sorted cans and stacked newspapers in the garage, then hauled them off somewhere. She harped on us about turning off the water when we'd brush. This was in the days of the TV commercial with the Indian crying over pollution, but my mom was no hippie. She's a former Girl Scout leader and Junior League president, reared by postwar parents who taught her not to be wasteful.
So I grew up a bit neurotic about that kind of stuff. During a perfectly enjoyable afternoon of shopping on the Plaza, for example, I'll descend into depression when I see stores with the air conditioning cranked and the doors wide open. Retailers might think this sends a big "Come on in!" message, but to me, it says: "Don't reward stupidity by helping pay their electric bill!"
It takes a willful obliviousness to leave your front door open when the AC's running.
Worried that I might be missing some reasonable justification for this practice, I called Dave Wagner, the manager of commercial and residential sales for Kansas City Power & Light. He knew what I was talking about and said it wasn't just a Kansas City phenomenon. He mentioned air-conditioned buildings with open doors in Las Vegas, which made me want to cry. "If you've got a door standing open, you have a big hole in the side of your building," he said. "From an energy standpoint, it is wasteful."
Last Tuesday around 1 p.m., with the temperature in the mid-80s and the humidity about that high, I took a cruise through the Plaza. I counted 20 stores with doors open: Restoration Hardware, American Eagle, Discovery Center, LattéLand, Anthropologie, Urban Outfitters, The Limited, Bath & Body Works, J. Jill, Hudson & Jane, Eddie Bauer, MAC, Ann Taylor, N. Valentino, Classic Cup, Function Junction, Kaplan's, Kona Grill, the Children's Place. And, paradoxically, Images of Nature.
I imagined all of these doors open for a few hours a day all summer. And sometimes in the winter, with the heat blasting. And multiplied by every outdoor shopping mall in the country.
Then I called Bob Housh, who's the executive director of the Metropolitan Energy Center, a nonprofit that works to make Kansas City more energy-efficient.
When I told him about my observation, Housh joked, "It really keeps the sidewalks cool." Then he got serious. "There is not a big, overwhelming push to get stores to stop this. I think most people don't even think about it, as is the case with a lot of energy-related things."
Housh agreed to meet me on the Plaza a couple of days later. He brought along John Sommers, a mechanical engineer with Lenexa-based Henderson Engineers Inc.. Sommers is one of the engineers helping Wal-Mart green up. Wal-Mart's goal is to make its existing stores 25 percent more efficient and its new stores 30 percent more efficient. Sommers has been studying whether it would hurt Wal-Mart's business to put doors on refrigeration cases. He disputes the idea that open cases improve sales. "We're finding it really doesn't impact the impulse buys," he told me.
We set out on a sweaty walk. Sommers kept pulling at the front of his knit polo to get a little breeze inside his shirt. "This is a pushing-design day," he said, which was mechanical-engineer speak for a hot day that strains a building's cooling system.
Sure enough, several stores had open doors.
At Eddie Bauer's entrance on Nichols Road, one door was wide open. Cool air flowed out onto the sidewalk, so we stopped to enjoy it.
"They're throwing it away!" Sommers said of Eddie Bauer's air conditioning.
He and Housh were being extremely good sports, walking around the sweltering Plaza and talking about plain common sense.
"Over the last six or eight months, we've had a lot of calls from retail clients wondering what they can do, because there's a heightened awareness of global warming," Sommers said. He noted that businesses are beginning to understand they can use their green status as a marketing tool.
At Restoration Hardware, double-doors were agape at the store's east entrance; just inside, a display of patio furniture made a smooth transition for customers strolling in from the heat, unobstructed by anything as oppressive as a door. Farther inside, fake antique fans — evocative of those carefree days when none of us had to worry about global warming — were all turned on, blowing the A/C back toward the open doors.
This was bad.
"I'll be eager to see what the store managers say," Housh said as we headed back toward the Classic Cup, where he and Sommers stayed to have lunch.
At my office, I made some calls.
Eddie Bauer manager Petra Swift sounded concerned. "We have company guidelines that say if the temperature is hotter outside than inside, the doors have to be closed," she said. When I told her the north doors were open, she said, "Let me check on that." A moment later, she came back. "You are correct," she said. "I assume that's because a customer walked in and opened the door. It's hard for us to follow each customer in or out."
Sheesh, I was glad I'd called, because the door had probably been open for a couple of hours by then. Apparently, no one on the sales floor had noticed.
Then I called Restoration Hardware. Hillary, the young woman who answered the phone, told me she was a manager.
"I don't know if it's corporate policy or what," she told me, "but I know we don't keep doors open all the time. And I can tell you we're probably one of the only stores on the Plaza that recycles everything we possibly can. We take cardboard to the recycling center, cans from the break room, everything."
When I asked for her last name, she told me she wasn't authorized to talk. She put me on hold. Another woman came on the line and wanted to know what the problem was.
The second woman told me I'd have to call corporate headquarters for the answer to my question. She'd identified herself as something like Marti or Marnie but wouldn't give me her last name, either. "You're hostile," she said.
I protested — calmly — that I wasn't hostile. "I'm just trying to ask a question about why it's a practice in the retail industry to leave doors open with air conditioning on."
"It gets customers to come into the store." (I want to note that she hissed these words, but that might be hostile.)
"OK, you've just answered my question. Can I get the spelling of your name?"
"No, you can't. It's my personal opinion. If you want to find out what our company policy is, you'll have to call our corporate headquarters."
I did call last Thursday, but the California headquarters never called back. It didn't matter anyway.
I just figure next time my mom's in town, I'll take her over to Restoration Hardware and introduce her around.
Editor's Note: The store referred to above as The Limited is The Limited Too.