Sunday, August 19, 2007


When Joan Todd saw that her local office-supply superstore in Orange County, Calif., was having a back-to-school sale, she pounced at the opportunity. When else could she buy pencil sharpeners for five cents each or a package of pencils for ten cents?

Since signs in the store read "limit three per household," Todd asked her husband to purchase the limit for each item and then did the same herself. "Technically," she asked me in a recent e-mail, "since my husband and I are one household, should we follow their rule?" She asks if it makes any difference that they donate all the items to a local tutoring center.

It's a testament to her charitableness that she donates the goods, but what she does with the stuff once she buys it has no bearing on whether flouting the rules of the sale was ethically justified.

It's hardly likely that someone from the office-supply superstore will ask each customer to prove someone else from her household hadn't already purchased a sales item. And come on, we're only talking about inexpensive items here. But rules are rules. As long as they're clearly stated, the right thing to do is to follow them.

Ah, but there's the rub.

When Todd got home, she checked the store's online advertising, which stated that the limit on the items she purchased was "per customer" not "per household." Based on this, Todd and her husband were clearly following the rules. They just didn't know it at the time.

Because it is sending out conflicting messages, the store needs to get clear on the rules of its own sale. When companies send conflicting messages about what's appropriate behavior, at best they can expect confusion. At worst, it can result in customers or employees assuming they are free to interpret the rules any way they want.

If she wanted to play by the rules, the right thing for Todd to have done was to ask a store manager if the sales limit was indeed per household or whether she and her husband could each buy the item. Short of that, she should have checked the online advertisement before making the purchase.

But the office-supply superstore has a larger responsibility to do the right thing. It should make sure that its rules are clear and consistent in all of its stores and advertisements.

Todd tells me that that process might have begun. A couple of weeks after she and her husband purchased the items in spite of the "per household" limit sign, the in-store signs have been changed to read "per customer per day." The trouble is that the print and online ads place limits on the same items at "per customer" without any indication that it would be OK to return the following day to make the same purchase.

It may seem a small thing. But sending a clear message to customers will go a long way toward letting them know that management really cares about their behavior in the store.

c.2007 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Messages should be clear, especially if you expect customers to understand and follow them. The importance of rules is determined by it's enforcement. The bottom line in business, however, is making the sale. Most of the time the limiting of items per customer or household is done to excite the customer and make the sale. Think about it!