On Thursday, Alan Comley will get the holiday gift he never knew he always wanted: two minutes at a Texas Costco.
The 27-year-old wasn't even a member of the wholesale warehouse store until a few days ago. But his employer, coupon website RetailMeNot Inc., takes a cue from the game show "Supermarket Sweep" when it comes to rewarding employees. As a prize for his work as a software engineer, Mr. Comley will have 120 seconds to run unbridled through the big-box store's aisles, grabbing a plasma television, a videogame console and almost anything else that he can hoist onto his cart.
"I'm looking to break a record," he says.
At a time of year when many workers anticipate a Christmas bonus check or a holiday ham, some companies say one of the best ways to reward outstanding performance and inspire employee loyalty is a chance to shop 'til they drop.
Jordan, Nicholas, Elliott Inc., a Florida company that runs several restaurants, unleashes high performers on a Lakeland, Fla., Winn-Dixie, where they get two to four minutes to fill their carts as co-workers race alongside. Still other companies hit the mall—one gives workers $150 and an hour to buy what they like, while an Ohio health-care system awards 20-year employees a $300 trip to a shopping center, after which they strut down a red carpet to the applause of their top executives.
Shopping sprees allow people to abandon restraint and indulge primal desires for abundance, says Kit Yarrow, a professor at Golden Gate University who studies consumer psychology. When the boss is footing the bill, people feel especially cared for, viewing their employer as "magnanimous and parental," she says.
Workers watching the spectacle get a jolt of motivation, too, she says. "It's a fantasy that everyone can participate in."
Angela Wong, a 30-year-old graphic designer at RetailMeNot, rang up almost $25,000 at the register in three minutes during the company's first spree at a South Austin Costco last year. Clad in sneakers and workout clothes, Ms. Wong and a designated helper, her husband, piled computers, cameras, bottles of Dom Pérignon Champagne and three Roomba robot vacuum cleaners onto a flatbed cart.
In a company video, Ms. Wong can be seen grimacing with the strain of heaving a giant television into her cart and panting when time is called.
"I wish I had physically trained. I wish I had gone jogging or something," she says.
Both Ms. Wong and Ladan Ezadi—a 27-year-old recruiter who did the Costco run last December—visited the store beforehand to get the lay of the sales floor and strategize. Ms. Ezadi's two-minute trip total: $17,496.12.
At Jordan, Nicholas, Elliott, the occasional Winn-Dixie outings double as a corporate pep rally. Co-workers run alongside the chosen employee as he or she stocks up on groceries, cheering at some selections.
"Corn pops, yeah! Get the corn pops!" one worker shouted as Sharon Caruthers, currently an office manager for the company, hit the cereal aisle. Fresh cheers exploded as she neared a cooler holding bacon, according to a YouTube video posted by the company.
Ms. Caruthers, a 35-year-old mother of three, filled two carts with about $900 in groceries, including 10 pounds of crab legs and lobster tails, during her four-minute spree.
Offbeat rewards allow companies to make a big gesture without spending too much, says John Bremen, a managing director with human resources consulting firm Towers Watson. "What may sound weird to one company is money in the bank for another," he says.
Generosity has its limits, though. Cotter Cunningham, RetailMeNot's CEO, was surprised by Ms. Wong's haul during the first Costco run.
"When I handed over the Amex, my heart did kind of flutter," he says. "I was like, 'Oh God, my board is going to give me grief for years over this.' "
After that first contest, he shaved a minute from the Costco spree, and added a charity component after worrying that the event was turning into "kind of an orgy of consumerism." He also limited employees to one item per category—only one TV, for example. Jewelry and gift cards aren't allowed.
Jordan, Nicholas, Elliott CEO Jordan Dorsch forbids his workers from "clotheslining," sticking an arm out and sending an avalanche of food into the cart. He has also tried to impose a limit on the amount of meat contestants can grab—but usually just pays for it anyway.
"When they hit that meat section up, it gets expensive quick," he says.
Some companies simply take workers to the mall. Hospital system OhioHealth Corp. sets veteran workers loose in a Columbus shopping center with an envelope of cash. Afterward, they are ushered into a lunch reception with a red-carpet entrance.
"You're the star for the day," says Lianne Dickerson, a nurse who bought a gem-studded bracelet on her trip in June. "You feel great. This is a paid day, too," she adds.
Last week, employees at Akraya Inc., a staffing firm in Sunnyvale, Calif., received $150 in crisp bills from the CEO's hand and one hour at the nearby Valley Fair Mall. Co-workers usually reconvene at the office to show off their purchases—except for the worker who last year declined to reveal the contents of her Victoria's Secret bag.
RetailMeNot's Mr. Comley, who found out he won the shopping spree in October, has been training to ensure he is in peak physical condition for his Costco run, first by running drills around his apartment complex, practicing sprints and quick stops.
In late November, he began hitting the gym, running 2 miles on the treadmill and doing bench presses and biceps curls with 40-pound dumbbells in each arm. He has tapped a friend, a 6'5" former college basketball player, to help him grab the 80-inch plasma TV, laptop and sound system on his list. They plan to hit the store the night before the spree to plot their route.
No matter how well shoppers prepare, odd items find their way into the cart. Ms. Caruthers accidentally picked up a cow tongue that she mistook for "some kind of pot roast" as she ran through Winn-Dixie.
RetailMeNot's Ms. Ezadi also ended up with a white elephant. "Apparently, we got a sewing machine," she says. It is still sitting, unopened, in her closet.
Write to Rachel Feintzeig at email@example.com
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