Sunday, January 28, 2007


One challenge of buying things online is that you don't get to handle the goods. You rely on an image on your screen, along with a description, to judge what the seller is offering for sale. You're at a disadvantage if you want to know the look or feel of an object before you buy it.

That's one reason that a reader from North Carolina and his wife drove 30 miles from their home to shop for an area rug at a store.

"We found one we liked the other day," he writes, "but my wife wasn't sure that it was just right for the designated spot."

No problem, the salesman told them: They could buy it, take it home and, if it turned out not to suit them, return it for a full refund.

Since it was a rainy day and the rug would have stuck out from their trunk, my reader and his wife wrote down the rug's dimensions and the name of its manufacturer, and told the salesman that they'd think about it.

After they got home, however, his wife discovered that the manufacturer offered the same rug online for $100 less than the store's price.

Their son and his wife were also in the market for an area rug, so my reader called his son and told him about the rug and about the price discrepancy.

"The thought occurred to us that we could get it from the store, try it out and, if we liked it, return it to the store, get our money back and then order it online," he reports. "I didn't think it was worth the effort, plus I thought that it would be taking inappropriate advantage of the store and the salesman."

His son, however, felt that "a hundred bucks is a hundred bucks" and was worth any inconvenience to himself or disappointment to the salesman.

My reader asks: "Is it wrong to look out for No. 1, as long as the consumer is not breaking any laws?"

The salesman's offer to refund the full purchase price of the rug is generous, but does this generosity mean that my reader is obligated to pay more for a rug that can be purchased for significantly less online?

No, it doesn't. Walking through the door of a store implies no commitment not to buy elsewhere, regardless of how accommodating the sales staff may be. Comparison-shopping between a store and an online outlet is no more unethical than comparison-shopping between two stores next door to one another.

That doesn't mean, though, that my reader should go to the store and buy a rug that he has no intention of keeping, simply to see how it looks on his floor. If he knows in advance that he will either return the rug to buy its duplicate online or, if not satisfied, return it and buy another rug elsewhere, he's essentially lying to the salesman.

What the salesman has offered my reader is the implied deal that, if my reader is satisfied with the rug as it looks in his home, he will keep it and buy it from the salesman. If there is absolutely no scenario in which my reader will buy the rug from the store, then he should not accept the deal, and should not subject the store's rug to wear and tear for which he has no intention of paying.

If he wants to proceed with the clearest conscience, the right thing for my reader to do involves a somewhat riskier course: When he returns to the store, he should tell the salesman that he'd like to take him up on his trial offer, but that in the interim he's found the same rug online for $100 less. Can the salesman match the online price?

Sure, there's some risk in this course: The salesman may say no and withdraw the try-it-out-on-your-floor-and-return-it offer. If that happens, my reader and his wife will have to decide whether or not to buy the rug online without benefit of the free trial.

But in that scenario the salesman will lose the sale altogether. Ideally he and my reader can agree on a price that will get the rug out of the store and onto my reader's floor to the satisfaction of everyone involved.


yawningdog said...

I live in a very small town and I do try to buy locally. Sometimes the stores make that hard to do by pricing things so high that it is worth it to drive over the mountain and shopping from a chain.

When I was shopping for dining room furniture I found something I liked and called the manufacturer to see if they sold through either of our two local furniture stores. They had just signed with one of them. I went to that store, told them what I could buy it over the mountain for and that if they could come close to that price, I would buy from them. The deal ended up about $100 more, but I got free delivery from the local store.

For $100 on a large purchase, help out the little guy with better service.

Anonymous said...

Here is the real ethical problem in this: they raised a son to say that money is money, and never ask the question about the ethics of it. However, stores that make tempting offers open themselves up to problems. So the younger generation has learned to devalue the honest as well as the marginal offer. How sad.

Anonymous said...

What a cynical response the previous poster makes to blame the parent for not teaching a child well (What about "a penny saved is a penny earned"?) or the "younger generation" in general for devaluing honesty instead of just saying what the poster would have done in the same situation. Strikes me that the parent in this example did a terrific job of raising this son if they're still having such heated discussions as this one over buying a rug.

danny khatib said...

So my thoughts...

Buying something with the sole purpose of using it and then returning it for a full refund is exploiting a generous offer. What if someone buys an expensive shirt or a pair of shoes just to wear for a night on the town, all the while planning to return it the next day? This doesn't seem too different from the rug example.

I'm all for getting the best deal possible, but I'd rather be creative in negotiation and risk over-paying than take up an offer I have no intention of sticking to.

Besides, negotiating can be fun :)

Anonymous said...

The salesman's offer to return the rug, if it did not suit them was fair. Taking the rug, knowing it wouldn't suit them would not be the right thing. 'Viewing' the rug is fair play, even if you end up purchasing it elsewhere.

For my part I would view the rug and see if the store could make an accomodation. I too prefer to buy locally when possible.

Wendy Hagmaier
Fullerton, CA

fantomesq said...

The retailer provides the services of pre-sales inspection, sales assistance, immediate gratification and post-sales support (including a return policy) that are largely unavailable through mail-order. These benefits come at considerable expense to the retailer who pays for lease, utilities, inventory warehousing and employee wages. They provide these services with the hope of making a little profit for their efforts and with the expectation that they are dealing with a good-faith customer.

A good faith customer is one who utilizes the retailer's services with an honest intent in invesigating a purchase from that retailer. The customer appears to have started in good faith and he was certainly free after his initial visit to buy from the manufacturer. The customer acted in bad faith when they returned to the store to purchase with the specific intent of returning the rug.

The bad faith customer may well get away with his $100 breach of faith but he has not done so with impunity. The retailer now has a used product which will be resold at lower value, perhaps a loss. If customers follow this lead the retailer will be forced to abandon his overly generous return policy and instate a restocking fee. If enough customers do so, the retailer will close and customers will lose the benefits of pre-sales inspection, sales assistance, immediate gratification and post-sales support.

We are seeing just such a move in book and CD sales today. Book and music stores used to be stalwarts of shopping malls but are quickly disappearing in the age of There are benefits to this model but customers who act in bad faith, as in the scenario above, are voting with their dollars that they do not properly value the benefits they have availed themselves of. It is a bit of having their cake and eating it to.

It is morally unacceptable to avail yourself of a retailers' services wholly with the intent of purchasing elsewhere. Are your ethics really for sale for $100?

Rug Sale said...

As I said in our blog aside from the ethical dilemma there is the practical dilemma. The brick and mortar store can’t afford to give the help and environment with no additional cost with all its additional overhead. There are many stores around the country that are really hurting from internet competition. Don’t get me wrong I believe in competition but if you NEED the services of a real store you may want to pay a little extra so that it is still there tomorrow.

Anonymous said...

I am the North Carolina father who wrote Jeffrey Seglin about the rug question. I agree with fantomesq’s comments about taking advantage of the retailer. However, we did not buy the rug, because we wanted to look at other alternatives. I just posed the ethics question to Jeffrey as an aside because we were rug-shopping on the same day when he and I were discussing something else. (I must say, although I didn’t know Jeffrey at all until his column appeared in our paper last year, he has been terrifically responsive to e-mails from me, a complete stranger.)

My wife of 34 years and I consider ourselves to have high moral standards who raised our children well (thank you Poster # 3). Our son and we did not engage in a “heated discussion” on the matter at all, though. I expressed my opinion to him that it would be taking advantage of the salesman to “borrow” his rug (not to mention some inconvenience for us to do so). My son, who has served as a “Big Brother” to a couple of minority brothers going through tough times, has a greater sense of commitment to his fellow man than I ever did. We take pride in that. As a nationally board certified physical education teacher, I have seen him coach, referee, and teach with consummate fairness. If he “went astray” in his comment during this very brief telephone exchange on the subject, I’ll attribute it to his current difficult financial situation. He is not “messed up” in general about money versus ethics questions.

Jeffrey said that this issue did in fact generate some “heated discussion” amongst those at his end. In any event, he and I agree on the matter. His suggestion was good, but I think we’ll just keep looking for the “rug to die for.” :<)

fantomesq said...

To the North Carolina father:
Sir, I thoroughly take Jeffrey's scenarios as hypotheticals to help exercize and help train our moral compasses. (Keep 'em coming, Jeffrey!) My comments were intended to help others see the issue from the retailers standpoint. All of us are consumers but not all of us have experience trying to eek out a living at retail... it isn't always pretty. I wasn't intending to reflect on what anyone actually did or didn't do but rather hope that my comments might help some of the next generation to stop and think about the actual harm done in these "no harm no foul" situations. Thank you for your feedback!

Anonymous said...

I really enjoy the ethics column and usually agree pretty much with the conclusions, as well as the process...
We do a lot of online shopping, mostly to save money, but also because it saves time running all over town to stores, and also because some things you can't find any other way.
(I do still appreciate having actual brick and mortar stores and showrooms to go to when I do want to see / touch / measure a real (vs cyber) item. - but this is off the point)

When comparing a real store price to an online price, you must take into account the cost of shipping - especially a heavy item like a carpet - may add onto the price significantly. Your retailer has already paid the shipping to get the item to his store. So unless the website specifically offers free shipping (which some do), the true price difference may not really be as much as it appears.

Jeffrey Seglin said...

I didn't include this detail in the column, but my reader from North Carolina told me that the manufacturer does not charge for shipping.

danny khatib said...

Rug Sale,

Interesting comment.

Your dilemma is that of the seller, not the buyer. It is not practical for the buyer to purchase insurance against future transactions of this nature (which is what you're essentially suggesting).

Ultimately, it is the seller's responsibility to adapt to competitive pressures and to satisfy customer requirements for price vs. quality (including service). Once an offer is presented, the buyer has the practical choice to take it or leave it, and the moral obligation to refrain from abusing it.

Can I skim some books from my friend's donation?

A reader we're calling Josh, owns a pickup truck. Josh seems a good enough fellow, indicating that in addition to using his truck as...