Sunday, December 02, 2018

Can I game a "free promotion" to get something for nothing?

The season of pre-holiday sales is upon us. Having survived another early morning jaunt to our local shopping mall with the youngest grandson so he could explore Black Friday day-after-Thanksgiving sales and mostly, I believe, cavort with other teenagers eager to experience the frenzy, I can feel the season of sales in my bones.

It's never clear to me how good the Black Friday mall or online sales actually are, but the frenzy seems to be real. With the season comes all sorts of online offers meant to entice shoppers to buy more.

A reader, S.L., who is fond of shoes received an email alert about a limited three-day offer of a free overnight bag from the online site of a shoe retailer she frequents. "While supplies last," the offer read, anyone who made a purchase of $39 or more would receive a free bag by typing the code "FREEBIE" into their online order form.

The only restrictions seemed to be that the bag itself could not "be returned for cash, credit, or exchange, and is not available for in-store pick-up." Beyond that, if the purchase of $39 was made and bags were still available, the overnighter would be hers.

S.L. informed me that $39 is not hard to spend when you are purchasing shoes, so it seemed a good deal, if she needed shoes. As it turns out, she didn't need anything at the moment. But she had seen a similar bag recently and really liked it.

The online site also has a liberal return policy for its shoes. The purchases can be returned for a full refund through the mail or brought to the nearest retail outlet. It's a service S.L. had used over the years when a pair of shoes didn't fit quite right or turned out to be something other than what she wanted. The returns were always without hassle.

"Would it be wrong to buy $39 worth of stuff knowing I plan to return it so I could get the bag?" S.L. asks.

Clearly, the intent of the promotion is to get people to buy more stuff or to buy stuff they might not have intended to buy so they could receive a valuable prize in return.

But there's nothing unethical about S.L. buying shoes and returning them and keeping the bag she got for her initial effort. Regardless of its intentions, the retailer placed no conditions requiring shoppers to keep the purchases made.

The right thing is for S.L. to make the purchase, see if the free bags are still available, and then follow the procedures laid out to return items if she indeed decides to return them.

The retailer might count on many shoppers intending to do the same thing, only to find that they liked the stuff they ordered to get the bag so much that they decide to keep it. That's a gamble both S.L. and the retailer take - that some purchasers might buy stuff they don't really want or need and end up keeping it and that some buy stuff and return it and keep the free promotion. 

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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