Sunday, July 28, 2013

You look, you pay

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. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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

(c) 2013 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Striking out to set the record straight

What do you do when someone else gets blamed for a mistake you made?

An assistant coach of a Babe Ruth League baseball team had to make that decision after an erroneous report in his local newspaper.

In an article about the retirement of a long-time umpire of youth sports throughout Cape Cod, Mass., the reporter mentioned an incident that occurred during the final game of the umpire's 36-year career.

With runners on first and third, the reporter wrote that the coach of the team shouted out to his pitcher that if the batter should decide to bunt the ball, the pitcher should "throw it at his head." Strategically, the coach may have had good intentions, but from a safety and sportsmanlike perspective, his instruction to his pitcher was egregiously inappropriate.

Still, the reporter noted that the umpire stepped in after the opposing team's coach started yelling at the offending coach about his instruction. The umpire broke up the argument and observed that the coach "didn't mean to say what he said," but had been caught up in the excitement of the moment.

Perhaps a questionable observation by the umpire who could have thrown the offending coach out of the game as a signal that such behavior is unacceptable in the league.

The worst part? The reporter got the name wrong of the coach who made the questionable instruction to his pitcher. He erroneously attributed the shout to throw the ball at the batter's head to another coach in the game. The coach who actually challenged the instructions given was the coach who got mistakenly blamed.

Eventually, the reporter caught on that a reporting error was made. A corrected story was posted to the online version and a correction was published in the print version the following week.

Was that enough? Granted, the wrong coach had been pegged for giving such bonehead instructions to his young pitcher, but by virtue of the correction being publicly made, the record had been set straight. Did the coach who actually shouted the instructions have any obligation to do more?

He appears to believe he did. In a lengthy letter published in the newspaper right after the event but before the correction appeared in print, the offending coach immediately identified himself as the coach who gave the instructions.

He went on to apologize to readers, acknowledged that he never should have given the instructions, and that he should have been thrown out of the game. He called the father of the batter to apologize and then spoke to the child who was at bat to explain to him how wrong he was.

He finished his letter by explaining that the game in question was his last as a youth baseball coach -- wishing it had ended under better circumstances. Still, he wrote that he hoped his mistake could be used to help future coaches not to repeat his error.

Was the coach obligated to offer a public apology? No, but in trying to set the record straight and make sure that a fellow coach wasn't excoriated for something he didn't do, he did the right thing by owning up to what he had done and articulating why it was wrong. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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

 (c) 2013 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Conversation with Maria Stephanos (Fox 25 News) over Rolling Stone cover controversy

I spoke with Maria Stephanos of Fox 25 News this evening about the controversy over the Rolling Stone cover. The full text of the article without pictures appears here. A video of the discussion with Maria Stephanos appears below. Boston News, Weather, Sports | FOX 25 | MyFoxBoston

Monday, July 15, 2013

San Francisco TV station incorrectly reports Asiana pilot names

I spoke with Jarrod Holbrook of Boston's Fox 25 News about the mis-reporting of Asiana pilot names by a California television news station. Boston News, Weather, Sports | FOX 25 | MyFoxBoston

Sunday, July 14, 2013

How table squatters can ruin a perfect cup of coffee

Many of us have found ourselves in a crowded restaurant or fast-food establishment where there is self-seating. We find ourselves waiting in line, hoping that some of the occupied tables will become free by the time our order is complete.

Theoretically, if we and other patrons wait until we each get our food before occupying a table, then it's possible that the flow of traffic will be such that there will be enough available seating for everyone -- or at worst, a short wait for a spot to open up. 

But many of us have also found ourselves in these establishments witnessing customers grabbing empty tables as soon as they walk in and well before they order or pay for anything. 

These folks, writes T.D., a reader from Boston, Mass., are in the wrong ... or at least he believes them to be and he would like some validation.

He writes with (I hope) some exaggeration: "I'm desperate for an answer to this everyday dilemma. If I don't get an answer soon, there may be an incident."

What's eating at T.D. is whether or not it's acceptable to simply take an open table at a coffee shop before getting in line or purchasing something at the shop. "Isn't this action an outright affront to those waiting in line?" he asks.

To T.D.'s way of thinking, tables are for paying customers, or more specifically, customers who have already paid. "Regardless of their intent, I hold that people who have not yet ordered anything, much less paid for it cannot be considered customers."

He wants some validation.

"Taking a table in this manner is objectionable and should not be allowed by staff or true patrons," he writes. "Right?"

I agree with T.D. that custom at most self-seating restaurants would have it that you wait until you've placed your order and paid for it before claiming a spot at a table. It's certainly the courteous thing to do.

But there are times when it seems clear that it's simply impractical to engage in the customary practice. An adult with a half dozen or so toddlers or small children in tow, for example, might actually be doing other customers a favor by finding a place to seat the kids as soon as possible rather than have them scramble under foot. Few would find fault with allowing someone who is using a cane or walker to sit upon entering the establishment. It might be equally acceptable for a woman who is clearly pregnant to sit while a companion places their food or drink order.

But for most of us, if the custom is to order and pay and then find a place to sit, that custom should be honored. It's one of those times that how we decide to behave when we are together comes clearly into focus.

If that custom is not clear to other patrons, then the establishment's management might make it clear to patrons that the expectation is that they will order and pay before sitting down. Customers shouldn't be expected to confront one another with their disappointment in others' inability to show common courtesy.

Will the world come crushing down if we have to wait a bit longer because someone breaks custom? Not likely. But it would make T.D. happy to know that others show him the same courtesy he shows them when he wants to sit and enjoy a cup of coffee. 

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 Apartis a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin

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

(c) 2013 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Comparison pricing doesn't always mean leaving the store

About a year and a half ago, I wrote a column about how useful smartphone apps were to compare prices of goods when you were shopping. I concluded that there was nothing wrong with perusing an item somewhere and then shopping around for the best price.

Enough readers took issue with my conclusion that it seemed good to revisit the issue.

A veteran bookseller commented about how frustrating it is to work hard to offer a "better than expected experience" to her customers only to have them purchase the books she recommends online. "It is disheartening to work so hard only to have the store used as a showroom for online purchases."

Keith Bouldin, a reader from Santa Rosa, Calif., commented that "if you want bricks and mortar stores to be around to look at and try on products before you buy, then you need to buy things from them." Besides, he says, he finds the idea of buying wearable items online problematic if you expect to get the correct fit. So he buys his motorcycle helmets and gear from a local shop.

"There really is no substitute for hands-on personal service that you get at a bricks and mortar store, and the prices need to reflect that," writes Bouldin.

"If you value the services that the retailer provides and want to see them continue, then reward them with the sale, even if you end up paying a bit more," agrees William Jacobson of Anaheim, Calif. "After all, you have gotten more for your money." And, he points out, these retailers pay for rent, utilities, insurance, labor and inventory, all of which are designed to be repaid through sales.

But other customers who want to be loyal to their bricks and mortar stores sometimes find the price differential for the same product to be too great. A reader who regularly shopped the same auto parts store noted that a tie rod end he needed cost $49 at his regular store, while the same one cost $7 online. Another local shop sold it for $21. Since the reader didn't want to wait for it to be shipped, he bought the $21 rather than stay with his regular supplier. Even when you want to be loyal, "things are not always easy."

Chris MacDonald, a reader from Toronto who writes about and teaches business ethics, commented that "lots of information basically means that the market can be truly competitive, and that sellers aren't relying on customer ignorance."

MacDonald makes an excellent point. In my original column, I did not argue that we should never pay a little extra for the service and quicker availability we might receive at a bricks and mortar shop. I agree with Jacobson who argues that "good faith" from both the seller and buyer is essential, if we don't want our favorite local stores to close shop.

But being able to shop around and compare is, I still maintain, a good thing and it's the right thing for consumers to take advantage of comparison pricing apps that allow them to do this.

It's also great to see some independent retailers creatively compete with the trend. On a recent visit to the Strand Book Store in New York City, a table featured several physical books with a sign that read: "Lower Priced than E-books." We picked up a bag full.

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 Apartis a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin

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

(c) 2013 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.