Sunday, September 27, 2009


A couple of Christmases ago, the husband of a reader from Ontario bought her a Blackberry telephone as a gift. Because her husband wanted to make sure that my reader got the telephone she wanted, she came along when he made the purchase at the store.

"As part of the price, we were told, we were entitled to a $250 rebate," she writes.

When they got home, however, my reader looked through the packaging for a mail-in rebate card and couldn't find one.

She returned to the store to ask about the rebate card, but this time she spoke to the store's owner rather than to the sales clerk with whom she and her husband had originally dealt.

The owner proceeded to tell her that the clerk had "messed up" the original transaction. The rebate wasn't really a rebate, he said, but instead a $250 credit toward monthly bill payments, something my reader and her husband had never been told. And here's the kicker: The owner insisted that the sales clerk had taken an extra $250 off the Blackberry's price when they purchased it.

"Essentially he said that we owed him $250," my reader writes.

The owner told her that he would make sure that the credit toward monthly charges would be applied, and my reader left the store. She did end up receiving the $250 credit to her bills, and eventually forgot about the owner having said that they owed him an additional $250.

Several months later the husband returned to the store to buy something else. He was confronted by the store's owner, who told him that they still owed him $250.

"We are of the feeling that we paid for what we were expecting to get," my reader writes, "and it is not our fault that the clerk messed up. Is the owner right that we owe him money, or should he just bite the bullet?"

My reader works in retail herself, so she has seen this sort of scenario from both sides.

"If I make a mistake in a transaction, even if it means I lose money, I stand by it," she writes. "That said, I also refund money if the mistake goes the other way."

As regular readers know, I believe that it is ethically wrong to take advantage of a mistake by a shopkeeper or clerk. If you are given too much change, or if a clerk rings up your $500 purchase as $50, you are ethically obligated to point out the error and not to capitalize on it for your own advantage.

That would be the case here, if the higher price had been agreed upon between the sales clerk and my reader's husband and the clerk had then mistakenly entered the lower price at his register. In that case, error or no error, the right thing would be for my reader's husband to pay what he had agreed to pay.

That isn't the case here, though. As a representative of the store, the clerk quoted a price to his customer. The customer agreed to the price and payment was made. There was no deception on the part of my reader's husband, nor any error on the part of the clerk. He charged them exactly what he intended to charge them and they paid that amount, so the right thing for the store owner to do is to honor that sale.

If the store owner has an issue with anyone, it should be with his clerk. If indeed the clerk sold the Blackberry at a price lower than he was supposed to, the owner is fully entitled to be angry with him and even to fire him, if he considers the breach serious enough.

It's wrong for him to go after the customer, though. My reader and her husband did nothing wrong, and are in no way to blame for the store's internal problems with this transaction.

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)


Bill Jacobson said...


As a general rule, I would agree with you. Certainly from a legal perspective, the deal is whatever the customer and salesperson agreed to at the time of purchase. The owner can not alter that deal post purchase... but in this scenario the customer received $250 in phone credit that was NOT part of the original deal. Surely the -right- thing to do would be to insist that the phone company not apply this unconsidered benefit to his account, correct?

But it sounds like the customer did no such thing and in addition to the $250 instant rebate on the phone, gladly took the $250 in credits also. Surely the 'right thing' would then to pay back the overage, right? The customer is not legally obligated to do so and the shop owner can not come after him for the money (see statutes of limitation) but if we are talking about what is right or ethical, surely you aren't suggesting that he is right or ethical by keeping the money. I don't see how the second $250 credit is anything other than a lost wallet situation.

William Jacobson
Cypress, CA

S. said...

"The owner can not alter that deal post purchase... but in this scenario the customer received $250 in phone credit that was NOT part of the original deal."

I think you missed the bit where the original deal included a $250 rebate, without which it's entirely possible the purchaser wouldn't have agreed to the deal in the first place...

Bill Jacobson said...

Shmuel, no I didn't miss that the original deal included the $250 rebate, but the original deal did not include both the $250 rebate and a $250 instant discount and now the customer has taken both. If the customer is entitled to the deal as agreed to, so then is the shop owner. As I said the customer is legally entitled to keep the double dippings he received, but he is not ethically or morally right in doing so.

William Jacobson
Cypress, CA