Sunday, February 15, 2009

THE RIGHT THING: THE ETHICS OF SHOPPING

My 7-year-old grandson, Lucas, doesn't watch much television. He is, however, a connoisseur of infomercials.

For several months Lucas went on about the Iron Gym pull-up bar.

"It slides right over any door frame, Nana," he would tell my wife. "Have you seen it, Nana? It's really cool. If you act now, instead of two payments of $29.99, it's only $29.99 total."

My wife, of course, had no idea what an Iron Gym was. We decided to get Luke one for Christmas, though, and looked up the ad online. Before we purchased it, however, we shopped around a bit and saw that our local bed-and-bath store had the same product on sale for only $23.99.

We had done all of our research online and Luke had seen the product on television, but -- strange as it may seem -- the lowest price we could find was in fact at the "bricks and mortar" alternative, the bed-and-bath store, though it had done nothing to make us aware of that fact or to woo us as shoppers.

I was reminded of our Iron Gym experience when I received an e-mail from Jeff Eales, a reader in Mission Viejo, Calif.

He wanted to buy a certain item for his son, so he went to a store that he knew to have good prices and online specials. Unfortunately that item was out of stock, so Eales drove to a second store that had the product in stock. His son tried it on and decided that this was indeed what he wanted, but the price was quite a bit higher than the first store typically charged. No sale.

After returning home, however, Eales decided to look on the first store's Web site. He ordered the product online and had it delivered to the first store, where he picked it up about a week later. He ended up spending about 15 percent less than he would have paid at the second store, where his son actually tried on the product.

His son didn't believe that they were cheating the second store by going there and "touching, feeling and trying on the product" before buying it elsewhere, my reader writes. Eales, on the other hand, had some misgivings, since the second store has rent, employees and other costs incurred in displaying its wares.

"But since the price was about 15 percent more there," he says, "we knew we wouldn't buy it there. In a sense we were `using' the store."

Since they knew they were ultimately going to buy the product at the first store, Eales asks, was he ethically wrong in his visit to the second store?

Retailers may cringe at my answer, but no -- Eales not only acted ethically, but also acted sensibly. As a frequent patron of the second store, where he has spent thousands of dollars through the years, he might have told its manager that he had seen the same product offered for 15 percent less elsewhere and given him the opportunity to match that price. He was under no ethical obligation to do so, however.

Shopping for the best price is smart and ethical. Eales did the right thing by finding a place where he could let his son try on the product, to make sure that it was indeed something he wanted, and then to go buy the product where he could get the best price.

When Lucas opened his present at Christmas and saw the Iron Gym, he was downright gleeful. He and his father went off to assemble it, but he quickly returned to the room with a question for my wife.

"You didn't pay $60 for this," he asked, "did you?"

He may be only 7, but Luke is a strong shopper.

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

3 comments:

Debbie in Corona CA said...

Your column brought a smile to my face. I am every retail manager's worst nightmare, especially when it comes to grocery shopping. I'll scour each week's ads for all of the local markets, comparing them to what coupons I have, and use that as the basis for my shopping list. Since all of the major markets have stores within a couple of miles of my home, it is actually economical for me to make several stops, shopping what are called the "loss leaders" (the super-specials each store runs in hopes of enticing you to do all of your shopping there) at each store as I go from one to the next.

Grocery stores aren't the only places where I do this; I also use the method successfully with drug stores, large discount retailers and even department and specialty stores, many of which will include coupons in the "junk mail" so many people throw away.

My husband used to give an amused chuckle and chide me about wasting my time (and his!) with this exercise. That ended the day he sat down with me and went over the grocery receipts. When he saw that we spent $120 between three separate grocery stores, but had come home with more than $350 in groceries and merchandise (including two live lobsters), he became an enthusiastic participant in our weekly bargin hunting.

Kudos to your grandson for being such a smart shopper at such a young age. The apple definitely didn't fall far from that tree!

Anonymous said...

I read with more than a passing interest your column concerning the purchasing decisions surrounding the "Iron Gym", and while your showing how a smart shopper tries to find the best deal possible by doing research on line etc. I found the dilemma of looking at a product at one store while buying from another incomplete in looking at cause and consequence. If in fact a person goes to a retail store and merely examines the item I think you are on solid ground as all retailers must commit to having product available to the purchaser and must be competitive with other stores, however when it comes to trying/using/ asking for an opinion which might require specialized technical knowledge in order to make your decision I feel you have not examined closely enough the circumstance in saying there is no obligation to the retailer ,as in fact you are using his service and in the case of many sales people their time and experience in make a purchasing decision.
This is a process being sorted out currently in the market place, and while many lament the problem of no qualified sales help in stores and other venues, most people do not regard it as ethically wrong to use a salespersons time or knowledge, and make their purchase based solely on price alone. I am currently working in such an enviornment with access to many types of products which can satisfy a customers needs, some better than others. My knowlege comes from working in the field for many years, and my reccomendations carry weight with a customer based on my expertise,. When a customer makes a decison to buy from a different source an item I have taken time to explain the advantages and disadvantes for I always feel as if I have been taken advantage of. I have no problem when a customer wants to make his purchase of an item I do not carry based on his research etc, but do when it is an item I carry and reccommend based on my experience.
The rise of the internet will in time eliminate business such as mine,and in fact threaten bricks and mortar stores as well, that is the way the system works as it is more efficient in delivering product in terms of cost. People will have to depend more on doing their own research as the system slowly eliminates people like myself. In time I feel that the companies which have superior marketing as opposed to superior product will be more successful as people will only have access to advertisng to make these decisions. Is this a good thing? Only time will tell.

Regards,

Jerry Codekas

Bill Jacobson said...

I suspect that the real case is that Eales went to the second store because he was considering buying there but reconsidered when he saw the price. As such, he was completely within the right to touch and try on the product and he always retained the right to purchase elsewhere.

It doesn't sound as though he properly considered the value that the second retailer provided in his balancing act. If he values the chance to actually touch the product prior to purchase, he should reward the vendor for that opportunity. If he does not, the retailer may not be around to provide those services in the future. Several markets are seeing this now - books, CDs, and computer supplies, to name a few.

I would hope that in this case he atleast gave the second retailer the option of winning his business by matching the price.

William Jacobson
Cypress, CA

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