Sunday, October 02, 2011

Many happy returns (Y2K edition)

Eleven years ago, the world was in a bit of a tizzy over the prospects of the calendar turning from 1999 to 2000. Predictions littered the landscape of a major technology meltdown that resulted from chips in computers somehow finding themselves baffled as the old century gave way to the new.

Business folk loaded up on stuff that enabled them to back-up their data. Consumers, worried the year switch might result in the meltdown of the municipal power grids, stocked up on flashlights, foodstuffs, and portable electric generators.

Doing my own part, I decided to prepare for the Y2K meltdown by avoiding my laptop for the month and instead pecking out my writing on a 1916 portable Corona typewriter. My findings? Slower writing, but fewer interruptions . . . essentially a wash.

But questions linger for many about how some people prepped in the wake of the hype and fear and dire predictions about the collapse of industries and services.

A reader in Ohio is still wondering about the actions a family member took to gird his loins against the ravages of Y2K. "Fear led my brother-in-law to take actions I considered unethical," he writes. "He disagrees."

A few weeks before 2000 hit, the brother-in-law bought a portable generator from a local merchant. He made the purchase knowing that the merchant had a 30-day return, full-refund policy. His plan was to keep the generator in its box unopened and then return it for a full refund if he hadn't needed to use it.

A week after 1999 gave way to 2000 without incident, the brother-in-law returned the generator and received a full refund.

"I told him his actions were unethical because he bought the generator in bad faith," my reader writes. "Moreover, he denied the merchant the opportunity to sell the generator to a legitimate customer."

My reader asks: "Was his behavior ethical? I say not."

If the merchant offered a 30-day return, full-refund policy, the brother-in-law did not do anything wrong. Just like his customers, the merchant knew that Y2K was upon him and that there might be some folks who would load up on stuff only to return it after the year turned, they didn't need the stuff, and they were still within the 30-day period. If the merchant didn't want to risk such returns, he could have changed his policy.

The brother-in-law's actions are decidedly different from the practice of purchasing, say, an expensive item of clothing, wearing it once, but leaving the label on so the item can be returned the next day. In such a case, the item is used and the customer is trying to disguise this fact to get a full refund. The brother-in-law, however, never opened the item and therefore could return it under the agreed-upon policy with absolutely no guilt.

My reader questions whether his brother-in-law's intent changes the situation. No more than the intent of the merchant in not changing his return policy during the 30 days leading up to Y2K. Perhaps the merchant thought the risk of getting returns was worth it since some of his customers might decide to hold onto their purchases even when Y2K-ageddon never struck.

It doesn't matter. What matters is that the customer and the merchant each honored his side of the deal and could enter the new century with a clear conscience.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing:Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business," is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to

(c) 2011 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.


William Jacobson said...


I agree. Both sides to the contract contemplated the possibility of his brother returning the generator within the return policy. In fact, that possibility is built into the price for the unit, so availing himself of a stated contract term is not wrong. It was nice of him to return the product in the same condition in which he bought it.

The retail industry sees a lot of 'return policy renting' and it gets FAR worse than this - buying an air conditioner and returning it after the hottest days of the summer, purchasing seasonal items and returning them after the season, purchasing and returning and then repurchasing computers every 29 days so to stay within the return policy.

While I see nothing wrong with the brother's actions, the brother's brother might want to consider the value of holding grudges for nearly a dozen years...

William Jacobson
Anaheim, CA

Anonymous said...

Jeffrey, I prefer to use common sense to solve this riddle. Any purchase we make in the work-a-day world is made between ourselves, independent of any thought process as to intent for use of the purchase. We don't worry ourselves about what the place we made the purchase is doing or thinking about why we bought the object. Take Y2K out of the equation and this purchase was just like any other purchase. Sometimes we keep the purchase. Other times, we return it. The seller doesn't ask why we want to return the object, so why did this particular return create something suspicious in the relative's mind. Seems to me the relative is looking awfully hard to find the purchaser had ulterior motives, even though it appears he did.