The message from customers: Quit with the self-congratulatory T-shirts. Just focus on getting the trains to run on time.
The backlash was a small example of a larger problem the transit agency is only beginning to grapple with after years of chronic lapses in reliability and safety. Metro has a branding problem.
“Twitter’s interesting,” Metro board Chairman Jack Evans said of the ridicule that followed the promotional effort. “They’re always pretty negative on everything we do. I think this is a very positive thing. Metro has, for so long, not done things to promote itself.”
Metro is looking at opportunities such as the retail shop, station renaming and corporate sponsorships as ways to increase revenue. But it is finding that the mixed feelings associated with the Metro brand have diminished those opportunities.
Self-promotion has become a big part of General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld’s plan for reviving the system’s popularity and increasing ridership.
He commissioned a glossy video, part of a $400,000 advertising campaign, to extol the ways in which Metro was getting “back to good.” The campaign backfired, with many riders and elected officials — some on Capitol Hill — criticizing the agency for spending money to improve its public image instead of focusing on improving service.
Then, late last year, Wiedefeld convened an international transportation conference in Washington focused on how transit agencies can boost revenue through entrepreneurial efforts such as using station mezzanines as retail space for outside businesses.
It has been tougher than expected.
The agency has had trouble finding corporate sponsors to subsidize the cost of after-hours service and special events. Last year, for example, MillerCoors dropped its years-long tradition of paying for Metro to stay open late on New Year’s Eve.
The Metro board has pushed the transit agency to pursue the idea of selling station naming rights — allowing companies or institutions to attach their brand to the official name of a Metro station, for a price. And yet, when Metro sought out potential station sponsors, there were no serious offers.
And that’s how an innocuous thing like a gift shop with train-themed souvenirs became a lightning rod. Tweeted one rider at the news of the shop’s opening: “We need ideas what the #wmata gift shop should sell to better capture the spirit of expensive and crappy service.”
From another: “#wmata are y’all selling oxygen masks for when the trains and station go all smoky at the pop up shop?”
Of course, there are fans. On opening day, there was a line out the shop door. But the endeavor still rubbed some people the wrong way, a symbolic victory lap for a system that has not yet completed its turnaround.
There’s a sizable amount of money to be made from the shop. Metro did not respond to a request for data on how much merchandise has been sold from the store to date. But its profits would add to the money Metro already receives in royalties from branded merchandise and souvenirs sold at third-party establishments such as Target and Bed Bath & Beyond. The agency gets about 10 percent of those sales — roughly $50,000 annually.
That’s more than the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority in Boston, which made about $21,224 from sales of its swag last year, both from items sold online as well as a third-party transit-themed store that carries the agency’s merchandise. A holiday pop-up shop brought in an additional $3,000, though most of those items were purchased by MBTA employees.
And even amid growing dissatisfaction with the troubled New York subway, its merchandise remains popular. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority earns about $250,000 a year in royalties from souvenirs, merchandise and advertising, according to the agency’s recent budget documents.
Nick Zaiac, a fellow in commercial freedom at the R Street Institute, said he wasn’t surprised to see so much ire raised by a gift shop.
“When people see any effort that is not put toward running more trains, they’re not looking at it from the perspective of, ‘We can do that, and we can do this, too,’ ” Zaiac said.
Still, Zaiac said, he’s a fan of Metro’s efforts to experiment with ways to increase revenue, and to drum up some rah-rah feelings about the transit system.
“It’s a low-cost way of adding to the quality of the Metro experience,” Zaiac said.
He wants to see Metro pursue other ideas for generating revenue, such as repurposing Metro parking lots on weekends to serve as a venue for open-air markets and community events, or to more aggressively pursue outside retailers interested in setting up shop inside stations.
“A little retail on station mezzanines could go a long way,” Zaiac said. “There are a lot of underused nooks and crannies.”
Zaiac said the agency has an uphill battle to counter the negative images that come to mind when people think of Metro — single-tracking and extended delays, fires, derailments and deaths.
“But just as much as the negative stuff, there is a positive brand, too,” Zaiac said. “There are going to be people who are skeptical about Metro, and the struggles are well documented. But that doesn’t mean that people don’t find images of these trains and stations compelling.”