Sunday, September 30, 2012

Making sure the owners get paid

In the course of writing an ethics column over the past 14 years, some questions seem to arise from readers more than others. Although the occasional truly complex, gut-wrenching conundrum does come my way, the most frequently common questions have to do with everyday issues such as whether it's OK for someone to take recyclable bottles from someone else'strash.

One question that arrives more frequently than others is whether it's acceptable to go to a bookshop that sells coffee, buy a cup of coffee, choose a publication to read while you drink your coffee, and then place the publication back on the shelf without paying for it.

Several months ago, in a response to reader whose friend told her she was a thief for her "borrowing" of magazines while she drank coffee at a local bookshop, I wrote that since the shop did not prohibit the casual reading of magazines that she was in the clear.

Soon after, I received an email from a reader taking me task. "Wrong," writes L.K. from Ohio. "Double wrong."

Surely, I knew that even if the bookshop didn't care about the reader reading the magazine and placing it back on the shelf, the magazine's publisher certainly would if the bookshop eventually returned the manhandled copy to the publisher for credit.

My critic used the analogy of a clothing consignment shop to make his point. He envisions a high-end women's clothing consignment shop that also has a wine bar. The wine bar contributes significantly to the shop's profits.

On one occasion, a customer asks the shop's owner if she can "borrow" an evening gown. He concedes, not wanting to upset a good wine customer. She returns the gown to the store the next day. Over time, her friends do the same.

"No one was harmed, so what's the big deal," my critic asks. "Those dresses didn't belong to the store!" he responds. "In time, the store may mark down the dresses because they didn't initially sell. They may even tell the owner who consigned the clothing that she can have her clothing back."

But he points out that the dresses were never the consignment shop's owners to use as a promotion for another sales line.

Aside from giving me an idea for a unique consignment store startup that sells wine and loans gowns, L.K. makes a very good point. Of course, in his fantasy consignment shop if a dress is not in the store and a potential customer happens to walk in, the sale is lost. At the bookstore, there are typically multiple copies of magazine for sale.

Nevertheless, if a bookshop wants to signal to customers that it has no problem with them reading magazines while they drink their coffee, the right thing is for the bookshop management to make sure those magazines are purchased by the store for such use. That way the publisher gets paid, the customers get a good read over a cup of coffee and the bookshop retains loyal customers.

I still believe the onus is on the store to make clear to customers what the rules are about reading unpaid merchandise while sipping their coffee, but I agree with L.K. that attention must be paid to the rightful owners of the goods. 

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 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

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


Anonymous said...

Correct, like a doctor's office, a stack of magazines can be put available to read and the others are off limits. This makes the most sense to me however the store owner may choose to allow differently.
Either way, clearly identified rules need be made. A magazine store that sells coffee on the side may treat it differently than a coffee shop that sells magazines on the side. But this should be the decision of whomever owns the magazines as he is the one financially affected.
Alan Owseichik
Greenfield, Ma.

Anonymous said...

hello--the combo of magazines and coffee is NOT an accident. the purpose is to sell more coffee,more magazine or both.Some wear and tear is expected.


"Step 3

Place comfortable chairs around several tables in the area where coffee and pastries will be sold. It should be well-lit so customers can browse through books and magazines while sipping coffee. ...:

William Jacobson said...


L.K. from Ohio is wrong on several counts. First, at the point that the coffeeshop reader reads the magazine, the magazine is in fact owned by the bookstore. Easiest way to determine this is if the magazine is stolen from the bookstore, it is in fact the bookstore who takes the loss. Same if the bookstore burns down. The magazines are not consigned. They are purchased.

Bookstores do not return unsold magazines, they return the covers of unsold magazines and receive purchase credit. Thus the publisher is not receiving a lesser good for it having been read.

Bookstores are out to drive business and make profits. It could be that this is done by using coffee to sell books or using books to sell coffee. The bookstore's liberal reading policy tells you that it is pursuing the latter. Thus it is not unethical to do so.

William Jacobson, esq
Anaheim, CA

Anonymous said...

My, oh my, don't we have a group of opinionated people reading the column today? So ready to accuse our fellow men and women of petty thievery, or errors in judgement, so sanctimoniously making value judgements of everyday situations of which we have little real context and understanding! Going from innocently leafing through a magazine to getting coffee stains on it, while as much as taking possession of it while sitting at a table! I think Jeffrey had it correct the first time around - considering that shop owners do expect a certain amount of "free" reading by customers. It all boils down to the particular situation, whether it's a small shop or a large bookstore, or newspaper rack, normally, customers seem to take advantage of whatever arrangements are available, with the occasional "cheater" going a little too far. It also depends on the management of the shop, whether they are willing to provide "free" reading versus a person obviously taking advantage of the situation. It all shows that little everyday situations "bug" us when we hear about them and realize that we, too, might have gone over the line in taking advantage of a store owner.

Charlie Seng

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