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. 

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Anonymous said...

Jeffrey, in reading through the year's subjects and comments, it would seem that in certain situations, people seem to have their own idea of what constitutes ethical behavior, not the generally accepted concepts of ethics. No wonder our country is so messed up. Here we've got a column read by run of the mill people, but what we find is that some generally accepted ethical behavior is frowned on by people who have their own ideas of "their" understanding of doing the ethical thing, when what they're really advocating is, while they try to do "the right thing", they easily revert to their own idea of what doing the right thing is all about.

Charlie Seng

Anonymous said...

Charlie Seng is correct in that ethichal behavior is subjective. But nothing is going to change that in the short term. And, If so, who is to be the final determiner: The Pope, Obama, the Congress, the Muslim Brotherhood. Someone has to make the final call or it is all left to a little little interpretation.
As for the issues of the year, here are my ethical beliefs:
On line vs stores. I think Jeff may be pushing it a little. Go to the extreme case, buy a new car after the local dealer let you try one out for the weekend and showed you all the features, etc. No good way around it but the salesman/dealer is getting a bad deal.
Advanced book sales. No issue with certain in the know folks cherry picking before. I doubt there was a list of what would be there and the earllier the bird, the fatter he becomes. If all that is there is junk, so be it. Don't go next year.
The saw isue. If the guy did not feel he did anything wrong, and the store did not either, and the policy is approved, who is to challenge it. The maker of the saw may take a little hit but it goes into next years price.
And most people who buy cheap small tools do not know as much as a 40 year vet (the guy may have unknowingly been at fault).
The cell phone is OK. Many companies are somewhat flexible on stuff like that to keep a customer. It is their choice to bend or not and the final sales rep made the call. And that was not really much of a sweet deal. It is called customer service where I work and often it gets rediculous but it is a judgment call by the seller.
Hope you didn't fall asleep.
Alan Owseichik
Greenfield, Ma