Sunday, September 16, 2018

Is it OK to use a sales clerk's expertise to make an online purchasing decision?

Readers regularly ask if it is ethically OK to shop at a bricks and mortar store with no intention of buying something if they can find it cheaper online. Their reasoning is that sometimes they like to see and touch the item before ordering it and what better way to do this than to go to a store that has it in stock.

In the past, I've responded that while there is nothing unethical about shopping around for an item -- in both physical and online stores -- you cross a line if you take up salespeople's time and expertise if you never had any intention of making a purchase from them.

Lately, the questions have been coming from retail store salespeople who question the ethics of customers who take up their time when the customer has no intention of buying anything. Especially in a store where salespeople are paid a commission on the specific items they sell, the salespeople suggest, they are distracting them from working with actual potential customers and causing them to risk their livelihood if they spend so much time with customers who have no intention of buying anything rather than those who do.

Granted, it's a risk any salesperson takes when holding a sales job. Some prospective customers just don't end up buying anything. But at least they might have purchased something. What about those who go to a store for the sole purpose of confirming for themselves the purchases they plan to make online?

While I make an effort to support independent retailers in my community, I must confess that unless I want or need an item right away, I often shop around online to find the best price.

But when I go to my local independent hardware store, and Zack spends 20 minutes with me explaining how to carve out a piece of rotted wood from the bottom of a window frame and then walks me through the steps to repairing it along with the materials I'd need to accomplish the task, I feel obliged to buy those materials from Zack's store.

It's not just that Zack came up with a solution that was significantly less expensive than the YouTube tutorial I had previously consulted online. It was mostly because Zack and his co-workers have consistently provided me with solid advice and good service.

I know when I buy from Zack that I can go back to the store and seek further wisdom if I am running into a problem with a project. I can't expect the same level of service if I buy materials online and things don't quite work out.

While it's unlikely that the advice given by sales clerks in a bookshop or a clothing store would result in me having to return for more advice on the same items I purchase, the relationships I build with them based on their time and expertise makes me choose to buy from them.

Don't get me wrong. I still make clothing, book, and hardware purchases online. But if I expect an in-person sales clerk to continue to provide me with their expertise and service, then the right thing is to respect them enough to give them the sale when they take the time to work with me. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior 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 


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