Sunday, June 24, 2012

I can see clearly now

Chris, a reader from Columbus, Ohio, knows a good deal when he finds one. The challenge is that he needs his reading glasses to be able to spot a good deal close up when shopping.

That's no problem, since he's managed to find a great deal on reading glasses at the dollar discount store he frequents. There, he regularly purchases a pair when he needs one. They generally range in price from $4 to $6.

"I keep the package and receipt in case I need to return them," writes Chris. "Sometimes the pin will fall out. Sometimes the lens will fall out or the lens will get scratched."

He maintains he is not a "skinflint" nor does he want to make waves, but he has regularly returned a pair of glasses for an exchange if something goes wrong with them.

Over the past several months, Chris says he returned about six pairs with no problem in making the exchange.

A few weeks ago, however, the dollar store manager told him enough was enough. The returns are entered onto the cash register, so after his sixth return, the manager decided to step in and put a stop to it.

Chris explained to the manager that it said right on the package that the reading glasses are good for one year. Given the inexpensive nature of the product, Chris wonders whether he was in the wrong for trying to return glasses for a new pair when something went wrong with them.

Granted, the dollar store may be banking on the fact that by charging such a low price for its reading glasses that readers will be more likely to purchase a new pair if something goes wrong than to ask the store to make good on its returns policy. (I suspect that I'm not alone in purchasing several pairs at my local discount store so that at any given time I have a half dozen or so lying around in case one is lost or broken.)

But as long as whatever goes wrong with his reading glasses is based on regular wear and tear, Chris is doing nothing wrong by seeking a replacement. If there are no stipulations on the package about how often the reading glasses can be returned, or anything about the returns being based on a store manager's discretion, then the right thing is for the store to honor its return policy and give Chris a replacement without moaning about how often he has made such a return in the past.

The challenge for the consumer when purchasing such low-cost glasses is that the quality is likely not to be great and regular breakage may not be all that uncommon. It can be a hassle and a waste of resources to continue to have to replace the reading glasses. The challenge for the store is that if it is going to sell things that are cheaply made and offer a money-back guarantee on those products, then the store's management needs to honor that commitment regardless of how few customers take advantage of it.

It takes a shortsighted manager to try to make a customer feel guilty for taking advantage of the store's own policy.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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(c) 2012 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.


Anonymous said...

Come on, this is an example of someone who takes advantage of a "return" policy to continue to exchange a fairly cheap item and always have a "like new" item. One time returning this cheapie and getting satisfaction is enough. We read daily about people getting all the freebies without working, here is someone who should know better taking advantage of a return policy. The store should kindly show him to the door the next time he tries to get another freebie.

Charlie Seng

Phil Clutts said...


I agree with Charlie. From a purely ethical standpoint, the store manager has an obligation to fulfill a written warranty. Personally, I might have taken the glasses back for a refund the first time, but, like Charlie, if they broke again in a matter of months, I would just allow as how it was a shoddy product and buy glasses elsewhere in the future. Your reader returned the glasses SIX times in a period of months! Too much, already.
The manager has an ethical obligation to the enterprise’s owners, too. If lots of people are complaining, management should have the glasses pulled from stock. If only one guy is complaining – and doing so frequently in a short period of time – the manager is reasonable in being skeptical. Does the customer keep them in a glasses case? Does he handle them roughly (as opposed to however one defines “regular wear and tear”)? And how are the lens scratches the fault of the manufacturer?
We would all be hard-put to agree where to draw the line between ethics and common sense in some situations. If everybody seized the opportunity to repeatedly take advantage of a warranty on a cheap product, there would probably not be as many discount stores.
I liked your “shortsighted” pun and Charlie’s suggestion to “show him the door,” but I lean towards “seeing him out.” :<)

William Jacobson said...

I disagree thoroughly with both the customer's and your analysis. There are two guarantees that come into play - the store's return policy and the manufacturer's warranty. The store's return policy (which doesn't appear to have been stated in your writeup) is usually quite limited - of the nature of 14-30 days. The manufacturer's warranty tends to be longer - usually 90 days to a year although it could be longer. Unless the customer is in the store's stated return policy, then it is an issue for the customer to take up with the manufacturer, not the store.

Manufacturer's warranties cover defects in workmanship. Return policies regularly require the item to be returned "in new condition". Neither covers wear and tear.

Return policies are privileges,not rights and can be withdrawn. Exchanging a cheap pair of glasses six times is definitely excessive and the store is right to cut him off. If I were the store manager, I would refund his money, inform him that clearly we can't serve his glasses needs and turn him out.

William Jacobson
Anaheim, CA

Anonymous said...

thanks for sharing.