In distant years past, there always seemed to be a flurry of last-minute in-person shopping leading up to Christmas. I often found myself in downtown Boston on a cold Christmas Eve night searching for a gift from one of many department, jewelry, or independent (and often quirky) stores.
But as online shopping became simpler, my last-minute in-person trips grew fewer. As the pandemic limited the desire to be among crowds, I found online shopping to be even more attractive within last year.
Apparently, I was not alone. Online sales during the holiday shopping period of Oct. 11 to Dec. 24 were up 49% over the previous year according to Mastercard. Overall, online sales accounted for 19.7% of all sales during that period in 2020, up from 13.4% in 2019.
Unfortunately, everything, even convenient e-commerce, has a flip-side. With the ease of online shopping came the ease of making what turned out to be ill-advised purchases on a whim, in the middle of the night, without paying particular attention to the details of what was being purchased.
"I received a beautiful yellow print scarf for Christmas in the mail from an old acquaintance," writes a reader we're calling Chris. But when Chris took a closer look, she discovered the print on the scarf was a replica of a flag used during the Revolutionary War which had more recently been used as a banner by political groups whose political views she vehemently disagreed with.
"It's beautiful," writes Chris, "but there's not a chance I'm going to wear it."
Chris doesn't believe her acquaintance is a member of any of the political groups using the flag as an emblem. She has no desire to ask her friend, "What were you thinking?" She suspects the acquaintance knew Chris wore unusual scarves, saw a print that looked unique and purchased it online since the present came directly from the online store, wrapped and with a printed note from her acquaintance.
"I don't want the scarf," Chris writes. Initially, she put it in a pile of clothing she plans to donate to a local shelter. But Chris had second thoughts.
"I don't really want to encourage anyone else to wear the scarf either," she writes. "It seems a waste just to throw it out."
"Thoughts on the right thing to do here?" she asks.
Chris has a few choices. If she doesn't want to wear the scarf, she certainly shouldn't. If she doesn't want to encourage someone else to promote something whether it's deliberately or inadvertently then she's right not to donate it. She could, however, contact the return address of the online vendor from which the package was shipped and ask if she could return it to them. Or if she wants to have one less flag she finds offensive in circulation, the right thing might be to simply take it out of public circulation by finding a use for it around the house where only she sees it. (Surely, Pinterest users have posted some ideas. Cloth-wrapped hangers?)
The right thing is not to wear the scarf if it promotes a cause she doesn't support. As for the rest of us, including Chris' acquaintance, this should be a reminder to take the time to scrutinize the gifts we buy closely even if we purchase them online.
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 www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.
Do you have ethical questions that you need to have answered? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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