Sunday, March 02, 2008


Jennifer Schwanke, of Columbus, Ohio, spent about $200 to buy a half-chest freezer at a large discount retailer. After paying, she asked the sales clerk if someone could help her load the freezer into her car.

It took a wait of about 30 minutes, but finally a young man came up to Schwanke and introduced himself as "the helper." They wheeled the freezer to her car, but as soon as the young man saw her vehicle, he stopped.

"There's no way we're getting this freezer into that car," he said.

The young man then stood and watched as she tried to lift the freezer into the back seat, into the front seat, into the trunk -- anywhere that it might fit, Schwanke recalls.

"Don't get that thing turned or it won't work when you get it home," he helpfully advised her.

Finally Schwanke gave up, and the young man said, "Well, ma'am, it looks like you're not going to get a freezer today."

Undeterred, Schwanke then asked the "helper" about other solutions. Did the store have a trailer that she could rent and hitch to her car? Could she buy some tie-downs to put the freezer on top of her car?

To each suggestion, the young man shook his head.

"No way," he said. "Sorry. Not going to happen."

"Faced with no other alternative," she says, "I returned the freezer to the store."

Needless to say, she wasn't happy about it.

"I was angry about how I was treated at the store," she says. "I felt dejected, deflated, frustrated."

She was unwilling to give up on her quest for a new freezer, however. She moved on to a different store, where she bought a similar freezer for a comparable price. It was delivered to her home within six hours.

Now comes the ethical quandary: When Schwanke made her abortive purchase at the first store, she was given a long strip of coupons that came out of a rapid-coupon printer. The coupons represent at least $50 worth of free food from other stores in the area.

Schwanke believes that she has no right to use these coupons, since they were given to her for purchasing a freezer that she returned almost immediately thereafter. A friend disagrees, however, arguing that, since the coupons are from food merchants rather than from the freezer store itself, they are intended to promote the food products regardless of who receives them or why.

Does it make a difference that she received terrible customer service from the store, and might have kept the freezer if she'd been given anything like real help?

As rotten as the service seems to have been, it should have no effect on whether or not Schwanke uses the coupons. It's apples and oranges -- one store's bad customer service and another store's coupons.

Is Schwanke right in thinking that she shouldn't make use of the coupons? Yes, she is. Having returned the purchase, the right thing for her to do was either to return the coupons or to toss them out. To redeem them would be ethically unacceptable, since they were given to her as a reward for a purchase that ultimately she did not make. Granted, the retailer and the food merchants probably would never realize that the coupons were being used by someone who didn't actually make a purchase. But Schwanke knows, and she knows better. While she might take advantage of the situation, her ethical compass guides her well in steering her in another direction.

c.2008 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)


Anonymous said...

I also agree with Seglin's decision on this. 'Fruits of the poisonous tree' is used in my favorite Law & Order TV show and, although it isn't quite perfect here, you get the jist of the results: Rewards for a purchase that you return are not rewards that you have earned. In anger or frustration at such wasted time and effort at store #1 does not mean you are entitled to the bonuses. How many wish, though, that when the return was made and explanation given, that the Management would offer those coupons as a sort of apology for your inconvenience! Better advice: Stick to a Mom and Pop store, get to know one another, pay a few bucks more and know that they would bend over backwards to make your merchandise purchase/service a positive one.

Anonymous said...

It drives me crazy when I hear.."toss them out" as a solution in just about any instance!

Wouldn't "give them to charity" always be the better answer?

The "throw them out" response is used on soooo many shows---home renovation shows, people makeover shows--they throw out cupboards, furniture, clothing!!!!! All of which could be donated to people who need them!

So please, I agree with almost every thing you say, but if it is act of conscience ....then make the options...give them back or 'donate them to charity"!!!!!!!!!
Some person might stretch their budget just one more week with $50 in coupons!


Norene Nungester

Anonymous said...

Jeffery Seglin,
I enjoy reading your column every Sunday and today was no exception.
I do have to disagree with you regarding the coupons from the other stores. As an owner of an independent pizza shop, I have a different take on someone contemplating using a coupon they received. There are only a few proven concepts of how to build your business. One of them is to, of course, broaden your customer base by getting new people to try your product. That is why cross promotions such as handing out coupons at a retail store exist (two unrelated businesses sharing and benefitting from their customer bases). Jennifer Schwanke received an "added value" to her purchase even though she did not like the end result (poor customer service). With the $50 in coupons she may consider patronizing that store again, hoping this time for a different helper! I cringe at the thought that she had the coupons in her hand, wanted to use them, but did not. She could have become a regular customer of a restaurant that she has yet to try. From my perspective, I don't believe it is unethical to patronize the unrelated business. I am quite curious what the retailers thoughts are on this.

Rachael Ritchie
GoodFella's Pizza
Athens, Ohio

Anonymous said...

I don't understand who she should return the coupons to. The store? Or should she mail the coupons back to the individual companies who gave her the coupons? I mean, she didn't buy the coupons, they were really a gift that she wasn't expecting when she bought the freezer. There wasn't any kind of formal offer where in order to get the coupons, you had to buy the freezer. The coupons were just a surprise gift that printed out when she paid for the freezer. And was there really anyone who would take ownership of the coupons instead of throwing them away when she did return them? It seems to me that it's like if you're shopping at a grocery store, and as you're checking out, you see a couple coupons that were printed out when someone else used their store loyalty card. The coupons were meant for someone else, but they just didn't pick them up. That doesn't mean you're stealing them if you pick them up and use them.

Anonymous said...


I suggest you need more facts before deciding.

In the more likely case, the merchants that issued the coupons may well prefer that she use them – as they may want someone with a freezer to try their products and hopefully become repeat customers. All they care is a qualified prospect; not who she bought the freezer from. In which case, she should definitely feel free to use them.

Or it could be that there is some revenue share arrangement (which I highly doubt), so that if she were to use any of the coupons, the original freezer merchant would have to bear some of the cost. In this case, she should not use them.

Best of all, you could check with the companies that issued the coupons to find out what they would prefer.

Luis Villalobos

Newport Beach CA

Nicomachus said...

She doesn't have to helplessly stand by and hope the store offers her the coupons as an apology. She can, herself, take them as an apology, and if she feels she is hiding something, she can call up the store owner or manager and tell him/her what she is doing.

She can take her destiny into her own hands, in other words, and in my opinion, she should. Her explanation to the store manager might also prevent similar suffering of other customers of that store in the future, so her action would not merely be preventing a wrong, but it would be doing some good, for both her and others.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Seglin,

I own an independent coffee house and I am struggling to get people in my door in these tough economic times. I would not have cared where Ms. Schwanke got her coupons - whether she purchased an item, got them from a friend, returned an item, etc. - because her using the coupon would get her into my store when she might not have otherwise come in. This visit to my store might make her a regular customer, which is what we all strive to have. As a retailer, we purchase those ads on the back of receipts in order for people to use them. If a person throws them away without use they are throwing away the money the retailer spent to have their ad there. You noted that the retailers that advertise on the receipt should not be punished because of the bad service she received from the freezer store, but, I believe that her not using the coupons is punishing the food merchants. Please reconsider your stance on this matter. If she does not want to use the coupon because she is not interested in visiting the food merchant, that is one thing. In my opinion, it is unethical not to use the coupons if she wants to use them.

Laurie Marshall
Kelly's Coffee & Fudge Factory
Anaheim, CA

Anonymous said...

I know this isn't the question being asked, but I'm more perplexed by the perception of bad service than the question of coupons. (I say use them, that's what the merchants want you to do.)Not all stores offer delivery of large items, in which case, the customer is responsible for getting the item home. If she drove a car that was clearly too small to carry the item she had purchased, what did she expect the "helper" to do? Surely she didn't seriously think you could tie a freezer to the top of a car. She was just fortunate that the other seller had delivery service. Why is it "bad service" that the first company couldn't do the impossible?