Sunday, March 16, 2014

Is there a by-the-book way to buy a book?

Are we obligated to buy something from the first place we discover it?

After requesting a catalog, a reader received it in the mail. He thought he might be interested in some of the products the catalog had to offer.

He perused the catalog and found a book listed that he really wanted to read. He writes that he'd never heard of the book before and wouldn't have known about it if he hadn't seen it in the catalog.

Once he knew he'd like to read the book, however, he searched around a bit to see if he could find it more cheaply than the catalog price.

"I found that I could buy it cheaper somewhere else," he writes. He also checked his local public library and found that the book was available there, as well, and on the shelves.

Since he wouldn't have known about the book if he hadn't discovered it in the catalog, he wonders about the propriety of going elsewhere to either buy the book at a cheaper price, or borrow it for no direct charge from the library.

Some readers of the column have taken me to task in the past for arguing that there's nothing wrong with browsing for a particular item one place, then buying it online or in another retail establishment if you can find a better price. Those readers and I continue to differ in our opinion.

In the case of the catalog browser, I'd make a similar argument.

It's up to me and other shoppers to decide if we want to buy an item from the place we first saw it, or if we're willing to shop around and buy it elsewhere at a better price. Or we can buy the item from a catalog or online seller and have it shipped to us at a better price. And it's up to bricks-and-mortar store owners, catalog purveyors or online sellers to decide how to make their products and service so good that we're not tempted to go elsewhere.

The right thing is for my reader to decide how he wants to spend his money and where he wants to spend it, or if he wants to spend it at all. He has no obligation to order the book from the catalog simply because that's where he first discovered it. If he decides there's some added value to doing business with the catalog supplier -- whether in the form of a special reader's guide, frequent buyer plan or other perk -- that's his choice. 

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Anonymous said...

This is different than browsing in a store. He looked at a public ad, just like a TV or Billboard ad, which perked his interest. Stimulated by the ad, he makes a purchase later after shopping around. Nobody is put out as a store owner may be in the earlier scenario, because most people ignore the ad mailings and the seller is hoping some will buy from them.
If you see a Pepsi ad and get a Coke, so be it. Pepsi expects that.
Alan Owseichik
Greenfield, Ma

Anonymous said...

All things considered, I don't believe Jeffrey's column is the place for persons who have such guilt-ridden thoughts after doing what any normal person would do, that is to inquire publicly about a book, and then later, having discovered other and better places to buy it, goes elsewhere for the purchase. What we are discussing here is a question from a person who has gone overboard in "trying to do the right thing".

Charlie Seng

William Jacobson said...


As one of the readers who allegedly took you to task previously, my analysis of this issue mirrors that of the last even though the value proposition is different here.

Your reader is under no obligation to buy from the retailer whose advertisement first introduced him to the item. However, the retailer does spent considerable money sending out such advertisements with the hope that they will spark greater sales (and thus profits) in response. If the ads fail to do so, the ads may cease and potentially the retailer may decide to close shop. If your reader gets value out of the ads and retailer, then he should reward the retailer with the business, even if it costs more. If he doesn't, then he should not complain if he fails to see such benefits in the future.

William Jacobson
Anaheim, CA

Anonymous said...

I think the ethical argument is essentially correct. We are free to purchase from anywhere we want. If I walk into an electronic store and see a TV, and then walk across the street and see it again for cheaper, I can buy it there. Isn't it the same with advertising? Should you be buying items you see on TV only from the place you saw it advertised from?

However, ethical concerns are not the only consideration. What kind of world do you want to live in? Do you want a world where there are only minimum wage jobs, where children are exploited as labourers and where you are devalued as a commodity? If you want to be reducing our communities to the bottom dollar, than you can expect you are devaluing yourself.

A reader shouldn't feel guilty because they walked through a store and saw shoes one place, and bought them at another. But if they are trying them on, and then ordering them online - they should feel ashamed. Even if you're on ethically shaky ground, you're still a parasite on our community.

But drawing where the "parasite" line is an individual response. If you ask about a car at one dealership, and they offer it to you at $5000 above (the already super inflated) MSRP, walking across the road isn't a bad idea. Each person has to figure out where that line is, in conjunction with what type of community they want to live in.

Do you want the car dealership to treat you fairly? Great! They should. Does the shoe salesman want you to treat them fairly? Great! They should.

Treat others the way you would want to be treated. We don't want communities where people rip other people off -- seller or buyer.

Although, it could explain why the American economy and social world is in ruins.

Ann said...

As a catalog and online bookseller, I was particularly interested in your “Is there a by-the-book way to buy a book” piece of March 16.
Having been in business for over 31 years, the Chinaberry catalog was originally comprised of over 90% books. It is no exaggeration to say that for every book that made it into the catalog, we’d read at least 100 others. As years passed, the catalog, by necessity, diversified from mostly books to a combination of books, toys, games, and other items for family life. And still, we not only read thousands of books, but enlist children to play with the toys to ensure they are of high quality, as well as the games to weed out those that simply aren’t fun or whose directions are inadequate (of which there are more than you would imagine). Staff is paid to help with this testing and then write the catalog copy describing these “cream of the crop” items. Add the cost of catalog paper, printing, postage, our eCommerce department, and everything else associated with operating a mail order/online business, and you have a snapshot of what it costs to provide customers with the results of our efforts to find and sell the best of the best. We have thousands of emails and letters from over the years expressing appreciation for our discernment in choosing items to offer to families.
We also receive emails and letters from those who thank us and then admit to using the information we provide as a resource -- “showrooming” -- then purchasing the item for less elsewhere. Not surprisingly, this happens more and more frequently as the availability of sources for the same, but lesser-priced, items becomes widespread. We thank these writers for their expressed respect for our selection and remind them that it is their orders that allow us to stay in business, to pay the staff that are dedicated to the vetting the shopper has come to expect from us.
So, while you say that “The right thing is for my reader to decide how he wants to spend his money and where he wants to spend it, or if he wants to spend it at all. He has no obligation to order the book from the catalog simply because that's where he first discovered it. If he decides there's some added value to doing business with the catalog supplier -- whether in the form of a special reader's guide, frequent buyer plan or other perk -- that's his choice,” I respond that the very fact that you rely on a company to do the research and legwork to be selective in their offerings is reason enough to give that company your business. It’s not a question of “obligation,” but of whether you value what the company provides enough to keep it in business with your purchases.
Ann Ruethling
Spring Valley, CA

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