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Check cashing stores, convenience stores, banks: Schemas at work

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I haven’t given much thought to how check cashing stores and payday lending stores are designed, probably because I have not had occasion to go in one. I’m reading the book The 99% Invisible City, a collection of essays based on the popular podcast 99% Invisible. In one essay—"Reality Checks”—we learn that check cashing stores and payday lending stores have purposely designed their interiors to be similar to, say, a corner grocery or convenience store—think linoleum and displayed product prices—and employees in branded polo shirts. If you have experience with corner grocery/convenience stores, you have a schema for what corner grocery/convenience stores look like and how they work. When you walk into a check cashing store or payday lending store for the first time, your corner grocery/convenience store schema helps you feel less out of place.

The essay goes on to tell us that banks, in contrast, have interiors that are designed very differently—think plush carpeting and ferns and tellers in suits. If you have experience with banks—perhaps as a child you tagged along with a parent or guardian who had business to conduct there—you have a schema for banks. Now, as an adult, you can walk into a bank with your bank schema and feel at ease. You know what a bank looks like and how it works.

For someone who has never had experience with banks, walking into a bank with no bank schema can be a very scary experience. It can feel like you don’t belong. But with corner grocery/convenience store experience—thus a corner grocery/convenience store schema—check cashing stores and payday lending stores feel much more comfortable. Unfortunately, with high fees, there is a monetary charge for that feeling of comfort.

Some banks are taking a page out of the check cashing/payday lending store interior design playbook, the essay reports, and are redesigning their interiors to, well, look less like the traditional bank. Some have even added coffee shops.

In preparation for this class discussion on schemas, ask your students to listen to the 5-minute, March 4, 2011 episode of 99% Invisible—Check Cashing Stores—on which this essay was based. (The first 90 seconds of the episode is advertising.)

Next, ask your students to visit a check cashing store or a payday lending store and to visit a bank (but only post-pandemic). As a cover story, students could ask for pamphlets that provide information on lending services. During their visits, students should note how each space is designed. Is there carpeting, tile, or linoleum? Are there plants? Are there other decorative elements? What are the employees wearing? What kind of information is on the signs?

Next, ask your students to visit a corner grocery/convenience store.  Again, during their visits, students should note how the space is designed. Is there carpeting, tile, or linoleum? Are there plants? Are there other decorative elements? What are the employees wearing? What kind of information is on the signs?

During their group discussion, ask students to compare what they saw in the check cashing store or a payday lending store with what they saw in the bank with what they saw in the corner grocery/convenience store. Would having a schema for a corner grocery/convenience be of help when first visiting a check cashing/payday lending store? Would having a schema for corner grocery/convenience help when first visiting a bank?

You may also want to take this opportunity to introduce paradox of choice. In the 99% Invisible episode, the host, Roman Mars, and his guest, Douglas McGray, note that check cashing/payday lending stores provide a limited number of options. Banks, on the other hand, lead us to feel “paralyzed by the vast number of options available to” us. “And I [Roman Mars] for one always seem to leave with the feeling that I picked the wrong one.”  

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About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology in community colleges since 1992, and has been at Highline College in the Seattle area since 2001. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award . She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed.