Sunday, July 08, 2012

Correcting a shelving error

A couple of weeks ago, a reader from northern New Jersey ordered a large bookcase from a major discount retailer. "I still love my books and have not given in to a Kindle or Nook!" she writes. The bookcase was on sale for "an excellent price" and the reader also received a discount by using her store credit card for the purchase.

A couple of days after she placed her order, a huge, heavy box arrived on her doorstep. "I was delighted to begin filling up the bookcase," she writes.

Then, two days later, another huge, heavy box arrived. She and her son dragged the box inside.

"It was another bookcase!" she writes. "I immediately checked my account online to see if I had been charged twice, but a charge for only one bookcase appeared."

Her dilemma, my reader figures, is: "Do I keep the extra bookcase without reporting the store's error or should I return it?"

The reasons for not keeping it without reporting the store's error include not feeling guilty every time she looks at the bookcase. On the other hand, she feels this bookcase is a "drop in the bucket" for a store as large as the one from which she purchased it. What's more, she would need help to return it since it is so heavy. Even if the store offered to pick it up, "that would require the inconvenience of someone being here for the pickup."

"As you can see," she writes, "I am trying to justify just keeping the 'free' bookcase, but I have that nagging feeling that it would not be the right thing to do."

She says she has "this thing about karma," and she doesn't want "to get a knot in my stomach every time I take a book off one of the shelves," so she wants to do the right thing.

My reader faces a common conundrum. It wasn't her mistake that led to the extra bookcase being sent, so why she wonders should she have to return it. Still, she knows it doesn't feel right to just keep it and not acknowledge the error.

She's right to want to acknowledge the error. Most readers know it would be wrong not to notify a bank if its ATM gave out too much money when you went for a withdrawal. But it doesn't always feel as clear cut when a retail store makes an error. The error may be the store's, but the right thing is still to notify the store that the extra bookcase has been sent in error.

It's perfectly reasonable to make the case to the customer service department that she's been a longtime customer of the store, hopes to remain one, and that the hassle of having to return the bookcase is significant. If the store personnel wants to let her keep it, that's up to them.

Ultimately, the right thing is to call attention to the error and find the best solution about which both sides can agree.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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(c) 2012 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.


Anonymous said...

Notify the store and see what happens.

Anonymous said...

First and most important: Notify the store - you will have the satisfaction of doing the right thing.

As to the statement that she "feels this bookcase is a "drop in the bucket" for a store as large as the one from which she purchased it", let's compare this from two points of view:

Keeping the bookcase w/o paying for it is similar to shoplifting. Certainly she did not shoplift the bookcase. But honesty says we do not keep something without paying for it.

Remember this point of view: "No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible." (Voltaire). Every retail store marks up goods to cover theft of goods, whether beans or bookcases. Every theft and every store error helps to create the markups.

Anonymous said...

One of Jeffrey's easiest contests ever. Obviously, and first, you should notify the store of the mistaken extra delivery. Second, if ever an attitude deviously developed by the current generation applies, it is that "this loss from the store's viewpoint is but a drop in the bucket for it". This is the mantra of the "me" generation, the "everyone else got their's on the backs of the poor" complaint exhibited by the writer of the question in this week's column. I'm surprised the writer had the bravery to write such a question to Jeffrey!

Charlie Seng
Lancaster, SC

William Jacobson said...

Jeffrey, you're throwing softballs today...

Character is what we do when no one is looking. It is quite likely that your writer could get away with the second bookcase for free, but, as often is the case, anything we need to "get away with" is not the right thing to do.

Mistakes happen. Surely, your writer would be upset if the retailer had charged her but failed to deliver a bookcase. Give the retailer the same consideration by notifying them of the error. Given the relatively low cost of the bookcase, coupled with the cost in labor of picking up the mistaken delivery, there is a pretty good chance the retailer will offer to let you keep it but let the retailer make that decision, as the bookcase still belongs to them.

I agree with Charlie. The drop in the bucket comment is pure greed and lost me any sympathy for the writer. Surely she would not think it a drop in the bucket if her bank chose to withdraw $100 simply because they thought she could afford it.

William Jacobson, esq
Anaheim, CA

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