Sunday, September 13, 2015
Who's responsible when customers pig out on a sale?
How good a neighbor does a neighbor need to be?
A friend of R.H. "gleefully" posted to her that she saved $169 on a pork roast special price of 69 cents a pound, only spending $36 for several roasts that at full price would have cost her more than $200.
"Lucky you," R.H. told her friend, but then pointed out that the circular she had seen for the same grocer's special specified a limit of two pork roasts per customer at the 69 cent per pound sale price.
The neighbor told R.H. that she hadn't noticed that limit until R.H. pointed it out.
R.H. told her neighbor that she got a great deal because neither the clerk nor the "fancy computerized cash register" point-of-sale (POS) system caught the error.
But R.H. writes that her conscience tells her she should contact the local supermarket chain about the programming error in its POS register.
While the supermarket chain has stores in two states, R.H. observes that its slogan is something along the lines of "your neighborhood store."
"I try to be a good neighbor," writes R.H. So she wonders if she should contact the store so it can correct its error.
Since the sales change week to week, it's likely that the sales price will no longer be in effect by the time R.H. contacts the store. But her intentions are good.
If she believes there is an error, then she has a few choices. One would be to rush to the store and load up on pork roast at the special price. She might stock up on enough at 69 cents a pound to last her a year.
But that would be wrong.
The right thing would be for R.H. to notify the store of the error and hope that the managers would work to correct it. In pre-computerized-sales-register days, an alert cashier might have caught the error and only rung up two at the special price, or might have pointed out to R.H.'s friend that there was a limit on the sale.
Now, that most supermarket chains use POS systems, the prices ring up automatically when scanned at the register.
If R.H.'s friend knew about the limit of two pork roasts per customer at the special price and had said nothing that would have been wrong. Some stores, however, have a policy that if a lower price is charged after an item is scanned; the store will honor that price.
It's the responsibility of the store to make sure it is charging its customers the right advertised prices for the items they buy.
R.H.'s friend can rest with a clear conscience if she didn't know she was being offered something beyond what was advertised. She needn't rush to the store and return all but two of her pork roasts. (And needn't the other customers who might have unknowingly received the pork deal of the decade.)
While it's not R.H.'s business to tattle on one particular neighbor, her desire to do right by her neighborhood market is well placed. But ultimately, the right thing is for the supermarket management to make sure that it has taken the time to properly code its items and neither over- or undercharge its customers.
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 email@example.com.