Sunday, November 14, 2010

You read it, you buy it

Every morning, a woman who lives in a wealthy suburb outside a major city in the Northeast region of the United States, moseys into her local Starbucks coffee shop.

The well-coifed patron is well off financially. She and her surgeon husband own three homes, travel extensively and have put each of their children through exclusive private boarding schools and Ivy League universities.

She always orders a grande latte extra hot, plunking down three-plus dollars for her drink of choice.

On her way to a table, as has been her practice for years, the well-coifed patron picks up a copy of The New York Times from the sales rack. She proceeds to sit down, spreads the newspaper on the table, and reads every section, taking care not to rumple the pages of the daily paper. She then folds the paper back up, making sure that it looks almost unread.

A reader who happens to frequent the same Starbucks every morning questions the wealthy patron’s behavior.

“If she were indigent, I’d offer to buy her the newspaper,” my reader writes. “But she’s not even close. Perhaps this is how the rich get richer by saving a dollar here and there.”

My readers asks: “Is she stealing?”

Good question.

There’s a coffee shop in a bookstore near where I live that has a well-stocked magazine section. The owners of the bookstore make it clear that it is OK with management to peruse the magazines while drinking a cup of coffee, as long as the magazines are returned in pristine condition to the rack. It doesn’t, however, have the same policy for the newspapers it sells. You read those, you buy them is the policy on newspapers. The policy is made clear to all patrons.

My reader’s local Starbucks has no read-and-return to the sales rack policy. The assumption is that you are to buy the newspaper before poring over it, whether in the shop or at home.

By returning the read and refolded newspaper, the wealthy patron might assume she shouldn’t have to pay for the paper, but she’s wrong. She’s read the newspaper through and through and should pay for the product she used. Just as most people know it’s wrong to take an extra paper from a newspaper box when they’ve paid for just one, the wealthy patron should know better than to think it’s OK to read from cover to cover a newspaper she’s expected to pay for but hasn’t.

Granted, I may appear to have a bias here since my compensation for this column is directly tied to the newspapers that carry it making money. But my response would be the same for any item for which a customer was expected to pay if she took it and consumed it and then put it back on the rack or shelf without paying.

The Starbucks baristas may not want to make a scene because they don’t want to anger a regular customer and because they’re likely busy brewing and selling coffee.

But the right thing is for the wealthy patron to pay for what she uses. And the right thing for the local Starbucks is to make it even clearer to patrons that they are expected to pay for newspapers they take and read.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today’s Business, is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics.

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Marie Cloutier said...

Maybe Starbucks decided that the right thing for their business is to allow a courtesy or two for their customers. Or maybe the person who bought the paper thought the right thing was to leave it for someone else to read, so the resources used to make it stretched farther, rather than throwing it away after a single use. Do you think the right thing to do would be to abolish libraries, since people use and put away books and magazines all the time without paying for them? Or maybe that libraries should have some kind of income requirement so that middle class (or however you define wealthy, since you seem to putting yourself forward as the arbiter here) people can't use them? What do you think is the right thing to do there?

Anonymous said...

I don't see how you could fail to interpret the use of a newspaper at Starbucks the same as magazines they offer. Put another way, unless the instruction signs tell you different, you should assume a feature offering magazines and newspapers free as long as you don't get marks on them, is free for both types of items.

Charlie Seng
Lancaster, SC

M. Lawrence said...

Libraries are paid for with tax money - there is no co-relation between them and taking a paper that is for sale, using it, and then returning it unpaid for. It doesn't matter that the woman can afford the paper or not. If she wants to read it, she should pay for it.

Sheila Siler said...

It seems to me the question is not whether Starbucks offers free newspapers or not. It is the patron's behavior. The fact that she folds it back carefully as if it had not been read at all indicates she is intentionally trying to "cheat". It would appear she believes she is "stealing", and trying to cover it up. I believe that is the core issue.

Shmuel Ross said...

Sheila: I fail to see how behaving courteously indicates underhandedness. Are you seriously suggesting that if newspapers were in fact being freely offered for the public to read, one would take no care in making sure those reading it after oneself would find the paper the way you got it?

(If so, I shudder for those who use your library.)