Sunday, April 15, 2007


Sometimes a single ill-considered decision can turn a minor problem into a major one.

B.M., a reader from Columbus, Ohio, learned that fact firsthand after she bought a modestly priced MP3 player as a Christmas gift for her daughter. A month or so later, the device stopped working. B.M. contacted both the store and the manufacturer, and was told that the player would be replaced if she brought it in with the original receipt.

Problem: "Try as I did," she writes, "I was unable to locate the original receipt."

Here's where things began to get complicated. Since she couldn't find the receipt for her MP3 player, which she had purchased with a bank debit card, B.M. decided to purchase a new MP3 player from the same store. She then returned the broken player with the new receipt, and received a working replacement. She now has two working MP3 players, both of which she has paid for, so she thought the outcome was a fair one.

B.M.'s 16-year-old daughter is not so sure that her mother's strategy was ethical, however.

"Because I am trying very hard to raise my children with a sense of ethics," B.M. writes, "I would appreciate your opinion, since I have begun to doubt my own judgment in this matter."

B.M. may have been motivated by a sense of justice, but using the receipt for one piece of merchandise to return another was dishonest. It's not unreasonable for the store to require a receipt for anything that's returned, and it's not the store's fault that B.M. ended up without her receipt. To lie to the store in an effort to make up for her own error is wrong, even if the final numbers worked out fairly.

In this particular case, the right thing for B.M. to do would have been to take what documentation she had -- such as the debit-card statement from her bank, which presumably showed the date, the name of the retailer and the amount of the purchase -- and bring it to the retailer and explain the situation. Then the retailer should have done the right thing by replacing the defective merchandise.

Likely the store would have done so. If retailers want to keep our business, they don't go out of their way to make it hard to return defective stuff. But it's not the store's fault that B.M. lost her original receipt, and they're entitled to stick to the letter of their policy if they choose -- though it would hardly be good customer relations to do so.

Having acted as she did, the right thing for B.M. to do is to call the store, explain the situation and see what the manager says. Granted that the store got an extra MP3-player sale out of the deal, and in light of her willingness to set things right, chances are that the store management would either leave matters as they stand or perhaps even give her a refund for the extra player.

I suggest making the initial approach by telephone, however, because this advice isn't without risk. It's conceivable that the management might take a hard line and prosecute her for the misrepresentation by which she obtained the third player. If that's the case, I wouldn't advise her to go back in person, since I'm not convinced that so severe a punishment would be a fair resolution for this wrong.

Should that be the case, she should consider her lingering sense of guilt -- and the cost of that second, unnecessary MP3 player -- a relatively small price to pay for a useful lesson: Doing the right thing may take more effort in the short term, but in the long term it's always preferable. Especially if you're trying to set an example for your kid.

1 comment:

Bill Jacobson said...

Ethical conduct in business requires that both parties to an agreement perform their duties in good faith. BM breaches her duty of good faith dealings when she misrepresents the broken first player as the second player she just bought. This misrepresentation constitutes fraud against the retailer. Retailers respond to this fraud by implementing draconian return restrictions so while BM may well get away with her deceipt, her actions will make life tougher for the rest of us.

What is more troubling here is that BM chose to defraud the retailer before she had exhausted her existing remedies. She may well have been able to rectify her situation without compromising ethical standards. She was motivativated by convenience and expedience not lack of options.

Return privileges are privileges, not rights. A retailer can revoke or curtail these privileges at any time. Furthermore, it is the customer's responsibility to maintain records of their purchases. Failure to do so does not transfer liability to the retailer.