Sunday, March 31, 2013

Is haggling over price sometimes wrong?



In early March, a California reader returned from a trip to Uganda to visit the mountain gorillas there. Her tour was quite expensive. She traveled with many of the same people on this tour, most of whom travel throughout the world at least once a year, if not more.

While in Uganda, they visited the Batwa people at a small demonstration village they have established in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.

"In a country where many adults earn less than one dollar a day, the Batwa are considered much more impoverished," she writes. "Many of the children we saw appeared malnourished. All children and adults were very, very thin."

The Batwa people had displayed an array of handmade items for the tourists to purchase, including beaded jewelry, wood carvings and handmade baskets. "All prices were well below what would be charged in a village shop or in a U.S. fair trade business," my reader writes.

But she takes issue with the fact that several of her fellow travelers insisted on bargaining down the Batwa peoples to half the price they were charging for their goods or less. "One Batwa woman was asking the equivalent of $7.20 for a lovely hand-woven tray," my reader writes. "She was offered and accepted $3.60.

After she raised her concern about negotiating the prices down on the goods being sold one of the women on the trip with whom she had traveled before explained to my reader: "They love to bargain and expect to come down in price. They'd be very hurt if you didn't bargain and they'd think you were stupid."

My reader responded: "Sure, they'd rather get half the amount than have the money to feed their kids or to purchase firewood for cooking. I don't care if they think I'm stupid." She reports that the conversation went downhill from there.

Later in their tour, their tour leader who -- a biologist who has spent a good deal of time in Africa -- thanked her for paying the asking price for the goods offered.

"Was I wrong?" my reader asks about paying the asking price rather than negotiating -- and raising the issue with her fellow travelers.

My reader wasn't wrong to pay full price. She also wasn't wrong to raise the conversation with her fellow travelers about the ethics of negotiating already low prices down with people who seemed like they could use the money. They each saw similar situations in the village and could determine whether it was appropriate to haggle or not. That my reader chose to pay full price in an effort to pay what she deemed to be a fair price for the goods received is laudable.

What's curious, however, is that no one on the trip, such as the tour leader who had spent a good deal of time in the region, saw fit to give the tourists guidance. That she thanked my reader for paying for full price suggests the tour guide had an opinion on the right thing to do in the situation. The right thing would have been for her to share that opinion with the tourists she led through the marketplace. The choices they made based on that opinion would have been entirely theirs to make. 

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: @jseglinhttps://twitter.com/jseglin 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@comcast.net. 

(c) 2013 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.


Saturday, March 30, 2013

Should airline passengers be charged by weight?

Appeared on HuffPost Live on Friday, March 29, to discuss Norwegian economist's suggestion that passengers pay airlines based on their weight:
 

A. Pawlowski writes about the issue on NBCnews.com: "Should Fat Fliers Pay More?"

Hosted by: Josh Zepps
Guests:
Jesse Ziglar (Hollywood Beach, FL) Aviation blogger
Elizabeth A. Hoppe, Ph.D. (Seattle, WA) Associate Professor of Philosophy at Lewis University; Editor of Ethical Issues In Aviation
Jeffrey Seglin @jseglin (Cambridge, MA) Writer of "The Right Thing" Ethics Column
Rick Seaney (Dallas, TX) Air Travel Analyst at FareCompare.com
Victor Matheson (Worcester, MA) Associate Professor Of Economics, College Of The Holy Cross

Sunday, March 24, 2013

I sure can't help you



My wife's smartphone was stolen last week. Suspending the number on that stolen phone so no one else could use it was simple enough.

But since she uses the phone as her primary work phone, it was important for her to get another phone set up with the same number as soon as possible. A quick call and a long wait on hold with our cellphone service provider got us to a service representative who wanted to help us. We told him the situation and asked how much it would cost to buy a replacement phone.

"$649," he said.

We pointed out that we were three weeks away from being eligible for an every two-year upgrade at a discounted price. He pointed out that the same phone would cost $199 in three weeks.

Pointing out to him that the only reason a new phone was needed was because the old one had been stolen resulted in a lecture about how they could not make exceptions because their contract with the phone's manufacturer could be canceled if they did.

We hung up and hunted around to see if we had an old phone lying around the house that my wife could have her cell phone number transferred to for three weeks while we waited. Having successfully found a very old phone, we called our cellphone service provider back to ask about the temporary switch. My wife would have to wait the three weeks to be able to have her contacts switched over since it was a very old nonsmart phone. But saving the $450 seemed worth the three-week wait.

When a different service representative answered, we told her what we wanted to do.

"Why do you want to do that?" she asked.

We explained that even though the phone had been stolen, that we have been customers for years, and that we were willing to sign on for another two years and three weeks if need be, we were told we had to wait until we were eligible for an upgrade and didn't want to spend an extra $450.

"We can do better than that," she said. And then she proceeded to move up my wife's eligibility date so we could qualify for the lower price.

No talk of concern about the phone manufacturer canceling the relationship. No questioning of any sort. She heard what had happened and responded by trying to provide service to a customer in need. She even texted us to make sure the phone had arrived and was working.

So who did the right thing? The first representative who claimed nothing could be done? Or the second who worked to find a solution?

Customers should not have to resort to asking to speak to a manager when a service representative refuses to try to solve an issue. And it shouldn't take repeated calls to different service representatives to hope one among them might be amenable to resolving an issue.

It falls on companies -- cellphone companies, banks, credit card companies, cable television companies -- to empower their employees to do what's right by the customer as long as it doesn't cheat the company. That's both the right thing to do and a good business decision if companies don't want their customers to take their business elsewhere. 

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 rightthing@comcast.net. 

(c) 2013 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.


Sunday, March 17, 2013

Return to sender, please, return to sender already



B.P., a reader from Ohio, moved into his house more than four years ago. Even after four years, however, he continues to receive mail addressed to the house's former owner. The occasional junk mail addressed to the previous occupant he doesn't mind. He can simply toss that out. But he's still receiving first-class mail containing financial and retirement statements from a mutual fund company addressed to the former owner.

"I am asking you for guidance on what is the right thing to do," writes B.P.

B.P. doesn't know the former owner. He had already packed up and moved to Missouri a few months before B.P. moved in. B.P. had heard he moved there for a new job. For a while, the former owner's mail was appropriately forwarded by the post office, but that no longer seems to be happening.

So B.P. started writing "Return to Sender-Does Not Live Here" and placed the former owner's mail in his outgoing mail.

But the mail kept coming. And B.P. kept returning it. About two years ago, he called the mutual fund company to let them know that the person they were trying to reach no longer lived at the address.

He's told his letter carrier that the addressee hasn't lived there in years. The carrier acknowledged that the mail should not be delivered and told B.P. he would issue a stop notice so it wouldn't be delivered again.

The mail kept coming.

Two weeks ago, B.P. emailed the mutual fund company again and was thanked in a return email by what he believes was an "actual human being" and assured that they would forward the issue onto the "privacy team."

He's since received another piece of mail address to the former owner.

"Maybe I am getting grumpy in my ripe old age of 38, but I feel that it isn't my responsibility anymore to fix what others are not taking responsibility for. When is enough, enough?" he asks. "What is the right thing to do?"

B.P. has gone above and beyond what most people would conclude was a reasonable effort to get this mail situation straightened out. But if it's first-class mail, simply chucking it in the trash is not the right thing to do. It's hardly more difficult to stick it back in the outgoing mail than it is to toss it in the trash -- more frustrating perhaps, but still the right thing to do.

The responsibility is on the former owner to notify the mutual fund company that his address has changed. Short of that, the company should honor its commitment to change the address from his former Ohio home to his new place in Missouri. And the post office should stop delivering mail to an address it knows is incorrect.

Each of these things should happen. But B.P.'s patience is wearing thin because the right thing is not happening. In the meantime, the right thing for him is to continue to return the mail and hope that one day soon it will find its direct way to its intended recipient. 

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 rightthing@comcast.net. 

(c) 2013 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.


Sunday, March 10, 2013

Day-old food takes on a new life



I love this idea. Dough Rauch, the former president of Trader Joe's, is launching a new business built around selling food that has passed its official sell-by date but is still perfectly consumable. The idea is to make quality food available to people who otherwise might not be able to afford it.

The Department of Agriculture estimates that $47 billionof food is wasted by retailers in the U.S. every year.

Rauch's Urban Food Initiative plans to launch a 10,000-square-foot store in a neighborhood in Boston where many low-income families live. If the goal is to reach lower-income families with affordable foods, that seems to make sense, at least on the surface.

A big challenge, however, is whether lower-income people will warm up to a store if the perception is that they're buying castoffs from more well-to-do customers. A hairstylist working in the same neighborhood toldThe Boston Globe that Dorchester does not need food that others consider undesirable.

But what if, instead of putting these markets solely in low-income neighborhoods, Urban Food Initiative tried to locate them in areas where a broader cross-section of the population lived and shopped?

That seems to be the model used by Ron Shaich, the CEO of Panera Bread, when he launched PaneraCares, a nonprofit offshoot of his public bakery company that is built on the premise of customers paying what they can afford for food. Each PaneraCares is a full-service cafe just like Panera Bread, but instead of a cash register, there's a donation box.

Some of the food at PaneraCares comes from unsold goods at the for-profit cafe. But just like the food that's passed its sell-by date, the food is still healthy and safe for consumption.

Rather than locate the PaneraCares cafes in low-income neighborhoods, part of the company's mission is to locate in areas that are economically diverse. Ostensibly, there's a practical business reason behind this since the premise is that those who can afford to pay will, while those who can't might pay less or nothing at all.

"We can't sustain it if we go to a neighborhood where there are only poor folk," Shaich told a TEDx conference in St. Louis when the nonprofit was launched.

But another consequence of locating in areas that lower-income and higher-income people might frequent is that the stigma of buying someone else's castoffs is softened. It becomes, as Shaich told his TEDx audience, "a cafe of shared responsibility."

On average, Shaich says PaneraCares takes in about 80 percent of what the full retail price on items would be. He suggests that that's enough to sustain the effort and open new stores.

I love the idea of lowering the amount of food that retailers waste every year. And when hunger remains pervasive among families, launching efforts like the Urban Food Initiative and PaneraCares suggests how strong entrepreneurs like Rauch and Shaich can truly effect change.

If the ultimate desire is to help the poor with such initiatives, however, then the right thing is to try to do them in a way that doesn't stigmatize the poor, but instead emboldens dignity with efforts that attract all segments of the economy. When the Urban Food Initiative opens, I hope to be among the first to shop there, and I hope others of all levels of income follow. 

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 rightthing@comcast.net. 

(c) 2013 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.


Talking Politics Over Turkey

For those wrestling with how to have a civil discussion over a holiday meal, a discussion with HKS PolicyCast