Susan’s Horrible Shopping Trip

Susan pulled her dress out of her suitcase and was horrified to discover a large stain down the front. “There’s no way I can wear this dress to my niece’s wedding. How did I miss that stain when I packed last night?” After six hours of traveling, she’d just arrived at a remote sea village on the coast of Maine. She looked at her diamond-studded watch, “Yikes, four hours before family pictures!” Her husband had just left with their rental car to visit his mother. Instead of luxuriating in the bath and taking a nap, she shrugged off the plush robe she’d donned moments earlier and jumped back into her clothes. Ten minutes later she was in a cab on her way to the rundown shopping mall she’d seen when they drove into town. All the quaint little boutiques on Main Street were shuttered in the off-season.

Pawing through crowded racks of cheap dresses, she thought, “No wonder I never shop in malls.” “Who gets married on a Sunday?” “Why do they have to hold their wedding in the middle of nowhere?” Hoping to get some assistance, she approached a clerk at the register in the Women’s Dresses department. “Good lord, she has purple hair and a nose ring! What does she know about fashion?”

Nose pointed in the air, Susan asked the clerk where higher-quality merchandise could be found—and named a few high-end brands. She wanted to scream when the clerk gave her an empty stare and shrugged, “Everything we have is out on the floor.” Her disinterest was too much! Susan’s nerves snapped. Before she could think, she’d vented all her frustrations on the dismayed clerk.

When Susan turned to storm away, another customer gently tapped her arm. “I’m sorry, but I couldn’t help but overhear your horrible predicament. I can’t imagine how stressful it must be to find a suitable dress for a family wedding on such short notice.” Susan blushed, embarrassed that she’d made a scene, while she took in this classy, genteel woman. The stranger continued, “I live here, but usually shop in Boston for my clothes. I might be able to help you. I know the owner of a boutique in town. She goes to my church, and I just saw her this morning. I’ll see if she’d be willing to open her shop for you. I’ll drive you there. I’m going that way.”

Desperate, Susan accepted this kind offer from a complete stranger. Thirty minutes later, she was trying on dresses in a charming, exquisitely decorated shop. The owner had pulled out three gorgeous dresses and quietly waited, ready to assist. Susan exhaled her anxiety and thought, “This is my kind of store.” A half hour later, with a new dress, shoes, and accessories, she was back in a cab. A glance at her watch showed that she had ninety minutes before pictures. Phew! Crisis averted.

Using Vivid Language to Portray Characters

Mimi Sherlock and I conjured this story for our book, Once Upon an Innovation, as an example of a consumer narrative. In addition to qualitative and quantitative data, consumer stories help development teams understand the personalities and struggles of the people who will use the product or service. We derived this story from an amalgamation of real-life experiences with people like Susan, who represent the target user for a high-end retailer. My first boss, the owner of a boutique ski shop, provides some inspiration. My daughter’s experience in store operations for an elite retailer provided additional shocking stories about customers who behave like Susan.

We brought this story into a workshop at the 2019 Creative Problem Solving Institute conference. A volunteer read the story to the group before we broke for lunch. One participant got so riled up about Susan that she kept discussing the story instead of going to lunch. She argued that we needed to portray Susan as a more likable character. Other participants also stayed, intrigued with the dilemma: does empathy mean that you like a character? People were still discussing Susan an hour later, when one participant returned from lunch and said, “So Susan’s still in the room?” In that moment, I realized that fictional Susan had become real to this group.

When we debriefed as a whole group, the riled-up participant kept urging us to portray Susan in a more “empathetic way.” Another participant proposed we change the title to “Horrible Susan’s Shopping Trip.” The discussion landed when someone said, “Let’s get over it. We’ve all known people like Susan. Even if we don’t like her, we still need to deal with her.”

Clearly, this tale struck a nerve with our workshop participants. Perhaps we went over-the-top in portraying Susan’s character. Or maybe readers don’t want her to be rescued because she’s despicable? This story might be flawed, but rather than rejecting it, Mimi and I embrace its provocations as lessons in story crafting.

Vivid Language Brings Characters to Life

Literature classes teach that characters reveal themselves through what they saywhat they do, and what others say about them. Note how Susan’s character comes to life through her internal dialogue and how she interacts with others. Because this story is narrated through the third-person limited voice, we don’t know what others think and say about her.

A descriptive language workshop at the Loft Literary Center challenged me to describe characters without using adjectives or adverbs. This exercise forced me to use action and dialogue to evoke characters. Whether or not you like Susan’s story or her character, go back and look for examples of this technique.

Know Your Customer for Who She Is 

Maybe you don’t like the customers you serve. But you still need to understand them. And they don’t need to be likable to have empathy for them. That is the point of this story. Innovation teams have a tendency to champion concepts that are appealing to them as consumers―and forget about who will be using the product. Once Upon an Innovation asserts that when teams distill qualitative and quantitative data into stories that evoke characters and their struggles, they will more readily design products and services that fit their customers’ needs.

Is There Another Plot to This Story?

Perhaps Susan’s story stirred emotion because it did not resolve readers’ desire for flawed people to face a comeuppance. Would the story be more satisfying if the clerk at the store was a bridesmaid in the wedding, and Susan had to face a humiliating moment? Or if the clerk was a server at the reception and “accidentally” spilled a drink on Susan’s dress? Although finding the perfect dress for the wedding resolved Susan’s tension, readers’ tension about justice and decency were not resolved.


As subscribers to and Once Upon an Innovation, you are receiving this sneak preview of one story along with background commentary that’s exclusive to subscribers. Once Upon an Innovation is going through final proofreading and layout with target release in spring 2020.

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