Sunday, April 12, 2015

Being undercharged taught reader a lasting lesson

"I confess," a reader writes. "I am a miserable person."

The reader takes great pride in trying to do what's right. Quite frequently, he's found himself being undercharged at a store or restaurant.

"Mostly, I tell the people and they correct the bill," he writes. But, "before I get too high and mighty," he confesses that he hasn't always made the effort to set things straight. About 41 years ago, when he was "young and poor" and living in Denver, the reader spent quite a bit of time hiking and camping. Living on a shoestring budget, he tried to stretch every dollar.

He'd saved enough money to buy a propane backpacking stove that sold for $19.90, the kind you can still pick up for about $25 at most sporting goods stores or discount retailers. At the checkout counter, the cashier placed the decimal point in the wrong place and erroneously charged him only $1.99.

Eying the receipt, the reader, who was unemployed at the time, contemplated whether to tell the cashier he'd made a mistake. He decided not to. "I was dishonest," he writes.

Granted, there are stores that might sell you an item at a lower price if it's mislabeled or scans wrong. But my reader's experience was in the days before scanners were in wide use. (The first item scanned at a checkout is reported to have been a pack of chewing gum at a grocery store in Ohio in 1974, the same year as the reader's propane stove purchase.)

That he didn't pay the correct amount has always nagged at the reader.

Last fall, he found himself with four friends at a restaurant in New York City. When the bill arrived, he discovered they hadn't been charged for a round of drinks. Without hesitation, he told his friends they needed to let the waiter know, and they did.

It wasn't the experience 41 years ago that taught the reader that correcting someone who undercharges you is the right thing to do, although it might have heightened his determination to set things right in similar situations. He knew as soon as he saw the receipt for the propane stove that he should have drawn attention to the error. The fact that he was nearly broke shouldn't have made a difference. He did, after all, go into the store expecting to pay $19.90.

Does this make the reader a miserable person? No.

We all make errors of judgment, and the reader recognizes that he made one 31 years ago. Ever since then, he's tried his best to do the right thing when faced with similar situations, as well as predicaments that could have had far more dire results.

I've written before that what should really drive us is to understand that in making choices, our actions define us. Only then can we consistently strive to do the right thing. 

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Sunday, April 05, 2015

Spilled soup offers a lesson in effective human relations

Should you expect others to treat you well when you treat them well?

That's not something you can count on. Expecting something in return for civil behavior can be a frustrating game. The motivation for behaving well toward others should fall more in line with the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them to do unto you.

But sometimes a good deed done can yield a good deed in response -- and even a healthy dose of mutual respect.

G.L., a reader from Boston, writes that he often buys his lunch at a burrito cart parked in the lobby of a nearby government building downtown. About a year-and-a-half ago, G.L. bought a bowl of chicken vegetable soup at the stand. Granted, this was an unorthodox choice at a burrito stand, but he had a hankering for a nice cup of soup.

G.L. paid for the soup, then walked back to his own office building. Unfortunately, when he got into the elevator, he dropped the soup and watched it spill all over the floor. He took care of getting the mess cleaned up, but was still hungry so headed back to the burrito stand. The owners expressed surprise at his quick return, wondering if something had been wrong with the first bowl of soup.

G.L. admitted what had happened and was surprised by their response. They handed him another bowl "for no charge," he writes.

Ever since then, G.L. makes a point of leaving a small tip -- anywhere from a quarter to $1 -- when he buys something at the burrito stand.

"I like the people who run the stand," he writes.

Last week, G.L. bought a chicken burrito for $6.75. Feeling particularly generous, he handed the cashier what he thought was a $10 bill and told her to keep the change.

As he started to walk away, he heard the cashier shout, "No!"

"You gave me $20," she said. She handed him his change, of which he took $10 and gave her the rest as a tip, thanking her profusely.

"I was touched by her doing this," he writes, "especially since I'd explicitly said, 'Keep the change,'"

G.L. writes that he believes the cashier's actions prove that "good deeds spur other good deeds and build relationships." Sometimes they do. And the cashier went above and beyond to do the right thing even when, given G.L.'s instructions to keep the change, she didn't have to.

Would G.L. have felt so generous had the elevator soup mishap not happened? Would the cashier have done the same thing for a customer who hadn't been such a good tipper and loyal customer? Perhaps not.

But the right thing is for both burrito stand buyers and sellers to treat each other well, regardless of whether they receive anything in return. The same goes for each of us. Do unto others and sometimes what others do unto you will warm your heart. Enjoy the soup. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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Sunday, March 29, 2015

Yard sale sellers and 'pickers' should both play by the rules

As spring arrives, yard sale season can't be far behind. It's time for some people to clear out their unwanted "stuff" and others to go searching for bargains.

Several years ago, I wrote about my son-in-law finding a classic old fan made by Diehl at a yard sale in Somerville, Mass. He paid the owner 25 cents, took the fan home, cleaned it and fixed the motor. Years later, he sold the fan on eBay for $150.

My son-on-law had no idea what the fan was worth when he bought it; he just liked the look of it and figured a quarter was not too much to spend. Had he known the device was actually worth 600 times what he paid, was he obligated to tell the seller she'd woefully underpriced it?

A similar question arrived in my email this week from D.A., a reader in Ohio: "Occasionally, I come across a story about someone who found a treasure at a garage sale," D.A. writes. "If the person who's put an item up for sale doesn't have a clue as to the actual value, but the buyer knows it at a glance, what's the right thing (for the buyer) to do?"

For D.A., not saying something when you know an item is worth far more than what is being asked constitutes "stealing that treasure." It makes no difference, in his mind, if the seller is a child or adult, destitute or a millionaire.

My stance on yard sales remains the same as it's always been. The seller should try to get as much as possible for all items on sale, and the buyer should try to pay as little as possible. Generally, the seller and buyer meet somewhere in between.

Seasoned yard sale hunters have all sorts of bargain-hunting techniques. Some get to sales early in hopes of having first pick of the best items. Others like to wait until the sale is winding down and the seller might be willing to negotiate on price.

On television shows like American Pickers, buyers occasionally offer a few dollars more for an item than what a seller is asking. However, the responsibility of making sure the seller knows the real value of sale items doesn't fall on the buyer.

With easy access to online auction sites and other databases, it's simple enough for sellers to research what their items might have sold for elsewhere. Those concerned about underpricing should do the research.

If a seller asks a buyer if he or she knows what an item is worth, the buyer shouldn't lie. However, it's not a lie to simply suggest a price.

When it comes to yard sales, the right thing is to play by the rules. Sellers should try to get as much as they can, but price their merchandise well if their true objective is to sell everything. And buyers should go looking with a clear conscience for the best bargains they can find. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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