Sunday, January 30, 2011

The great toy train robbery conundrum

When my now-12-year-old grandson, Evan, was a toddler until he was 6 or 7, he was heavily into wooden Thomas the Tank Engine trains. He knew the names of all of the trains — and it seemed as if there were an endless number of them — and he knew which ones he wanted to add to his collection next.

Evan would save up his money and, when he had enough, he would buy another train. For years he was focused on these trains and rarely was distracted by other toys he wanted to buy for himself. He was also riveted to a series of videos we kept on store for him called “I Love Toy Trains.” His family once took a trip to Steamtown, a National Historic site in Scranton, Pa., that featured real steam engines and train cars on its grounds and a museum chock full of everything you could imagine dealing with trains.

Trains, it seemed were his passion.

Evan’s devotion to trains at that age was not unique. An e-mail from a reader near Boston reminded me of Evan’s once consuming devotion.

“We already own a ton of trains,” my reader wrote. “Mostly through Craigslist, we have scored unbelievable trains.” When last Christmas rolled around, she did not want to buy her son any more trains. He had enough, she figured.

But she broke down and went to Toys R Us with a 20 percent-off coupon she had received in the mail with the intention of buying him the GeoTrax Christmas Deluxe Edition that retailed for $129. It was on sale for $99. With the coupon, it would run her $80. “OK,” she figured, “that’s not too bad. I’ll do that for him.”

She brought her one huge item up to the register where the cashier scanned it, took her coupon, and asked for $21.94. “I just swiped my card, took the box, and walked out of there.” The cashier was talking to a co-worker “and not paying attention either,” my reader writes.

She put the package in her car and settled into the front seat. It was only then that she read the receipt: “Ken & Barbie Accessories” that scanned for $19.99.

“I realized it was totally not my error,” she wrote. “It was theirs, but I don’t quite know what I was supposed to do.”

Even though it was the store’s mistake, the right thing to do would have been to point out the error to the store. Clearly, it’s the store’s error, but my reader knows that — rather than having been some extra-special Christmas-time discount — the price she paid was for a less expensive item. Just as if she had been handed back too much change from a cash purchase, the right thing is to set matters right. It presented little hardship to do so, particularly since she was still sitting in the store’s parking lot.

Given that the store made the error in coding the prices for its products, it’s unlikely that my reader was the first person to be charged $19.99 for a $99 item. The store management would have been wise to recognize this, acknowledge its error and offer to honor the price that was erroneously charged. After all, she’d be pointing out an error that would save the store bundles on any further errant ring-ups. It’s rarely a bad idea to reward customers for their honesty — particularly when it’s your mistake.

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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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If there was ever a situation that is a "duh" moment, this is one of them! This was not a stupid person who made this question for your column - she was well able to have understood what the results would be of the discount on her total bill. She would have known she was being charged a small portion of what it should have been and yet now plays like she has an ethical problem only. The ethical problem can and should be solved quickly - pay back what she owes. As far as her failure to realize what her final charge should have been, only she will have to live with that. She obviously had a pretty good idea what the final charge should have been and later had cold feet when she realized she took advantage of the store.

Charlie Seng