Sunday, January 31, 2016

Should customers gladly pay for a $130 sandwich?

Not long ago, M.N., a reader in Massachusetts, was waiting to order a sandwich at the deli counter at a small gourmet food store during lunchtime. Ahead of him was a woman waiting for the sandwich she had ordered. The deli man was taking longer than typical and the woman's sandwich order seemed to be quite involved.

A line slowly built behind the woman who had ordered the sandwich. When the deli man finished preparing her order, he wrapped it up carefully in white paper on which he wrote the price so the cashier at the front of the store could ring it up.

The woman thanked the deli man. Then she looked at the price he'd written, looked back up at him, and asked if he had made a mistake.

"No," he said. "You ordered the Catherine the Great. It's $130."

M.N. took a look up at the sandwich board and saw that among the ingredients in the Catherine the Great were Sevruga caviar and crème fraiche. The price seemed clearly marked on the board.

"I would never order a sandwich for $130," the woman said. "You should make the price clearer so people can see it better."

M.N. thought the price was quite clear.

Now, there was a line at least five deep of customers waiting to place their orders. The deli man asked the woman if she would still like the sandwich. She said no and then the deli man asked if she would like something else. She placed a new order.

M.N. wondered if the deli man had done the right thing by not putting up more of a fuss. He also wondered, given that he and others had been waiting on line while the woman's refused sandwich was being prepared, if it was right for them now to have to wait longer while the deli man built a new sandwich for her.

The right thing would have been for the deli man to have confirmed the price of the sandwich when it was originally ordered and for the woman to take greater care in reading the price board. Now that the woman claimed that she hadn't been aware of the price, it may have been her mistake, but the deli man did the right thing by not insisting that she pay for a sandwich she now claimed she never would have ordered had the $130 price tag been clearer.

Since the sandwich was taking so long to build and a line was forming, the right thing would have been for the deli man to call another clerk at the store to help him fulfill other customers' orders. While he shouldn't have insisted that the woman return to the back of the line to place a new order, rather than make the other customers wait while he built her a new sandwich, the right thing is for him to serve her while he asks for another clerk to come to deli counter to help others.

The store may have ended up eating the cost of a pricey sandwich, but the deli could have assured all customers received good service by calling another clerk to take orders, and the deli counter would have built good customer relations for the long term. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

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

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 



Anonymous said...

Once she refused, she should have went to the back of the line (or have been refused to take another order).
There may not have been another deli person. That would have helped but does not change the above response.
She is an arrogant idiot and ought to get a can of SPAM and a piece of bread because she might know what that is.
Alan Owseichik
Greenfield, Ma.

Azalea Annie said...

Pretty amazing story.......amazing in that there IS a sandwich priced at $130. Also amazing that anyone would make such a mistake and not read the price of the sandwich.

Were I in the line, I believe I would have suggested to the woman that she go to the back of the line......and that everyone else who had waited would have agreed. The woman behaved badly (I'm a woman and don't mind saying this).

The deli operator provided wonderful customer service. If their sandwiches are half as good as the customer service, the deli should be swamped with orders!

Phil Clutts said...

I have to wonder if THE sandwich in this small store topped a listing of sandwiches in the, oh, $60 to $130 range, followed by those offered as cheaply as $25 for gourmet sandwich eaters on a tight budget. In that case the woman should have known what she was in for and suffered the consequences.

If everything else on the menu was in a normal price range for similar stores in the area, the woman might be excused for her oversight in the belief that a sandwich at that preposterous price couldn’t exist. Since it did, the deli man should have confirmed with the woman that she knew the price, as Jeffrey said. His failure to do so makes me less sympathetic to his “loss.”

In any event, I favor the “back of the line” approach over meting out the spam and bread punishment.