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.
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) 2014 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by TRIBUNECONTENT AGENCY, LLC.