In March, a retail store in Brisbane, Australia, which sells gluten-free foods, began charging customers $5 for the privilege of browsing.
"I have to wake people up, everything in life is not free," the owner of the shop told the Brisbane Times. "I'm not a charity, and I'm not doing community service."
The owner faces what many bricks-and-mortar retailers face, namely, how to compete with lower prices offered by big-box discount stores or online retailers. Some large discounters, including Target and Best Buy, began addressing the issue by agreeing to match online prices during holiday sales, but have since adopted year-round online price-matching programs.
It's likely more challenging for the smaller independent retailer, such as the shop in Brisbane, to match online prices and still turn a profit.
The owner of the gluten-free shop points out that she will apply the $5 toward the price of any purchase made in the store that day and that she has no plan to charge the disabled, "regulars," "pensioners" or "kids." In fact, she told the Brisbane Times that she rarely needed to enforce the policy and has only had one person complain about it.
Still, the owner believes it's only fair that if browsers come into her store to tap her dietary wisdom about gluten-free products or to seek free samples that they should pay something.
A colleague who pointed out the news report about the "browsing fee" mentioned that she "would love to believe that independent stores can fight back in ways other than charging for browsing."
I agree that a "browsing fee" might do more to scare away new business than to strengthen the bottom line. After all, if the owner only seems to be assessing the fee to her non-regulars, then that's hardly presenting a hardy welcome to prospective new shoppers.
But does it cross ethical lines to assess a fee for just looking around?
While it may represent a self-sabotaging marketing strategy, there's nothing inherently unethical about the idea of assessing a browsing fee.
Problems could arise, however, if the policy is applied inconsistently. Already, it seems the owner makes exceptions and waives the fee for a variety of categories of people. Her exceptions might seem sensible now, but they quickly could be viewed as arbitrary, particularly by groups not included.
If store owners are going to entertain establishing similar "browsing fees," then the right thing is to make sure the policy is made clear to customers, that it is consistent in its enforcement, and that it isn't used as a way to discourage particular groups from entering the store at all.
But if a store owner truly wants to survive in a hyper-competitive environment, then the right thing is to ask herself if charging "browsing fees" really accomplishes what it sets out to do.
Providing great selection and expert advice tailored to individual customers could go a long way toward converting browsers into regulars. It might not win all of their business from the competitors, but capturing some with great service and selection is a good thing.
Besides, just because a policy isn't, on the surface at least, unethical doesn't mean it isn't silly.
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) 2013 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.