Sunday, January 26, 2014

Lying to get a coupon discounts your values

Often, after making a purchase at a retailer, the cashier will indicate that if you fill out a survey online you will receive a coupon in return. (In some cases, you might be entered into a random drawing for a product or gift card.) The receipt typically contains a code to enter when you log onto the online survey site. Once you're at the website, survey questions typically involve the experience you had shopping at the store.

But what if someone other than the initial customer finds a retail receipt and subsequently completes the referenced survey and obtains a coupon or other related incentive for doing so? That's what P.B., a reader from Charlotte, N.C., wants to know.

"Is this ethical," he asks.

Judging from the popularity of such television shows as "Extreme Couponing" and the massive number of coupon strategy websites that exist, using coupons appears to be a popular art form for many. Some of these online coupon sites report that local stores selling the Sunday newspaper - in which many print coupons continue to be inserted - have started keeping the newspapers behind the counter so customers aren't tempted to take more of their share of coupon inserts. For the record, taking inserts from a newspaper you don't buy would be wrong.

Coupon swap clubs have also cropped up where coupon-ers trade what they don't need and collect what they do need with others committed to the craft.

There also seems to be some sort of coupon-ing etiquette practiced by some shoppers. If they hold a coupon that's about to expire in a day or so, they often leave the coupon by the product in the store so someone else might use it - a sort of paying it forward practice. Thank you to whoever left the $1 off coupon for Olivio in my supermarket a few weeks back.

And couponing is just a practical way of life for many families trying to keep their growing kids fed, clothed and shod.

But while P.B.'s situation ultimately may involve receiving a coupon that someone else might initially have used, it differs significantly from any of these scenarios. While it's perfectly fine to give someone tips on how to use coupons for maximum effectiveness, to share coupons with someone else, or even to fill out a survey and give a coupon received for doing so to someone else, it's not OK to pretend to be someone else to receive a coupon.

The retail store receipt asks for questions that are specific to that shopper's experience in the store. Since the finder of the receipt did not have that experience, filling out the survey would be a misrepresentation of an experience he did not have. So no, P.B., lying to potentially receive a coupon is not ethical.

If someone else's retail receipt with a request to fill out an online survey in exchange for a coupon is found, the right thing is either to return the receipt to the store's service counter or to throw the coupon in the trash. Finding a coupon to get a break on a product's price can be a good thing. But stick to the plenty of above-board ways there are to do so. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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Sunday, January 19, 2014

After snow, should car be towed?

How tolerant should you be when someone invades your personal space?

After a snowstorm hits and you've dug out an on-street parking space for your car, there's a long tradition in some neighborhoods in Boston where I live of marking your parking spot with some object to indicate you dug it out and you're planning to return. While it's not exactly legal -- since individuals don't own the public street -- it's a tradition that seems to be honored, albeit reluctantly.

We're fortunate that we have an outdoor parking space that clearly sits on our property. We dig out the space after snowstorms and know that it will be there without having to mark it.

But after we had dug out after our most recent snowstorm and had driven to run some errands, we returned in the evening to find a car we couldn't identify parked in the space in our yard.

As our car idled outside our house, I beeped the horn a couple of times to see if any neighbors who might have parked there would come out. A few neighbors emerged, but only to say that they had no idea whose car it was either.

For the next hour or so, I knocked on doors to see if anyone might know whose car it was. My wife texted neighbors whose numbers she had to ask them the same question.

Just in case the owner showed up as I was soliciting neighbors, I had left a note on the car's windshield to let the owner know that he was parked illegally and that a tow service would be called to remove his car.

None of the neighbors we contacted owned the car.

Did I really want to call the tow service to have the car removed? In the thirty-something years we have owned the house, we had never called a tow company to remove a car from the space.

After a day of helping neighbors clear off their walks and decks and other neighbors doing the same for their neighbors, did I really want to have some guy's car towed? Was that really the right thing to do instead of driving several blocks away and seeing if I could find an uncleared space on the street to dig out? Ultimately, I did find a space up the road that it only took me 10 minutes to dig out.

Of course, the illegal parker could have done the same thing.

I called the tow service and while I waited another hour or so for the truck to show up, I checked with other neighbors who had since returned home. No luck.

After the car was towed I wrote another note telling the car's owner that his car had been towed and what number he could call to find out how to retrieve it. I taped the note to a trash can near the parking space and pulled our car in.

Regardless of the car being parked illegally, the right thing wasn't simply to have the car towed without making an effort to find its owner. Neither was it right not to attempt to let him know what had happened to his car.

The next morning the note was gone. We haven't seen the car again nor any sign of its owner. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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Sunday, January 12, 2014

The golden cone of silence

In mid-December, my wife and I stopped by a farm stand and garden center in Eastern Massachusetts. We were on our way home and intended to buy some food.

The food section of the market is indoors. There's a large outdoor area that in the summer features plants and in the winter features wreaths and other holiday decorations.

After we purchased our food and headed outdoors to our car, we noticed the evergreen kissing balls that were hanging outdoors near the parking lot. We decided to purchase one of the kissing balls to hang by our front door.

As we were choosing a kissing ball, my wife noticed some loose sprigs of evergreen on the ground along with a loose lone pine cone. She decided it would be OK to scoop up the loose sprigs as well as the pine cone. I didn't think this was OK. The pine cone was, as my wife pointed out, very close to being in the parking lot rather than the outdoor farm stand area. I pointed out that because the pine cone was spray painted gold that it had clearly dropped from a decoration rather than a tree. She remained convinced it was fair game.

I went inside to pay for the kissing ball while my wife took our previous purchases plus her newfound spoils to the car.

When I returned, I noticed a gold pine cone sitting on the ground not far from our car. I opened the car's back hatch, placed the kissing ball safely inside, and then got into the car.

We drove home without incident. But when we pulled up to the house, my wife looked quickly on the floor in front of the passenger seat.

"Where'd my pine cone go?" she asked. It was nowhere to be found.

She was disappointed, but I reminded her that I didn't think it was "her" pine cone in the first place. She disagreed, repeating the argument that it had fallen very near, if not in, the parking lot near where our car was parked.

"Oh well," she responded.

As we walked around the house toward the front door, I pointed out that I hadn't told her that I saw the pine cone lying on the ground as I walked back to the car.

With holidays approaching and company in high supply, our conversation with friends and relatives at some point centered around who was right about the appropriateness of taking the fallen pine cone. There was little consensus on that issue, but clear consensus that I was wrong not to have told my wife I saw the pine cone lying on the ground after she thought she had taken it.

They were right. The right thing would have been for me to have told her that the pine cone was lying on the ground. That would have given her the opportunity to decide whether to take the thing, as I thought she should not, or just leave it there. By concealing that information from her, I never gave her the opportunity to make that decision.

We may disagree with the choices others make and we can challenge those choices. But there's no high ground in withholding information to keep others from making their own choice about right and wrong. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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Sunday, January 05, 2014

A new year and a look back at what got your attention

Over the past year, the topics I have written about that readers responded to most are those that involve day-to-day ethical situations. Four topics seemed to generate the most discussion, the ones involving comparison shopping apps, library book sales, a returned circular saw, and astolen cellphone.

Readers continued to take me to task for arguing that using price comparison apps in brick-and-mortar stores to determine if a better price for a product could be found was perfectly acceptable. The "stores have the huge expenses of knowledgeable sales reps to help the customer," wrote one reader. "That this common practice is unethical won't stop it, but just because many people do it doesn't make it right."

I still maintain that the choice should be the customers of whether to wait to receive a product ordered online at a better price or to buy it from the store right away. It may feel good to support local commerce and I often do, but there is no ethical obligation to do so.

I wrote about organizers of a library book sale who let an online bookseller pay to have first crack at the books, then volunteers at the book sale, then those who pay an annual fee, and only then the general public. I commented it sounded like it had "the makings of a lousy book sale for the general public."

One book sale chair wrote to take issue with my statement that the sale to the public sounds like a "lousy deal." He pointed out that his sale has a relationship with an online dealer who splits any proceeds with the organization that runs the book sale. He also believes that volunteers who put in many unpaid hours aren't cheating anyone if they are permitted to buy a book in advance of the general public.

As I wrote, the organizers have the right to run their sales any way they want as long as the rules are transparent to the general public.

Many people agreed that it was perfectly acceptable for me to return a circular saw I had purchased to cut some wood for cash credit after the saw stopped working, but when I was close to being finished cutting what I needed to cut. A 40-year carpenter named David, however, wrote me a handwritten note to indicate that the saw didn't break, but that I had burned out the motor by not knowing how to use the saw correctly. "Pay the man," he wrote.

The column that seemed to generate the most attention from readers, however, was the one about how my wife's cellphone service provider reacted after her cellphone was stolen -- first not permitting her to upgrade her phone since she was a couple of weeks short of eligibility and then offering to do so when a different customer service representative got involved. One reader summed up the sentiments of many when he wrote that both reps had done the right thing: "the first by toeing the line, and the second to breaking it in the name of customer service."

As we enter a new year, I hope that you continue to send me your questions and stories that help me think long and hard about the right thing. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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