Sunday, January 24, 2021

Relieving the headache of a self-checkout gone awry

It's safe to acknowledge that many people have felt a bit distracted since this past March when the pandemic threw their routines, schedules and lives into a bit of disarray. Adjusting to working remotely, managing children's in-person and online education, timing shopping trips to avoid crowds, and generally learning to live safely while avoiding exposure to the novel coronavirus has resulted in many instances of unintended forgetfulness.

A reader we're calling Johnson wrote of one such instance of recent distraction that leaves him in a bit of an ethical quandary.

"I had to make a quick run to the store to pick up some items," he writes. "Batteries, vitamins, lightbulbs, paper towels, Band-Aids and Tylenol were all on my list."

As was his practice to avoid as much contact with others as possible Johnson took his goods to the self-checkout area to scan, bag, and pay for his items. He figured it would be a quick trip.

"After I got home and checked the receipt, I discovered I hadn't scanned the Tylenol or the scan didn't go through," he writes. "What should I do to make good on the error? Or given that it's only about four bucks, should I just forget about it?"

Deliberate self check-out theft costs retailers a bundle. An article in "The Atlantic" magazine a few years ago suggested that about $850,000 worth of items leave stores without being paid for every year. Even though he might not have intended to, Johnson's taking of the Tylenol home without paying for it adds to that loss.

"I heard about companies like Amazon doing these returnless refunds where you can get a refund for an item you don't want but you can keep the item," Johnson writes. "If big companies do that, should I worry about going back and paying for the item I inadvertently took?"

Johnson shouldn't equate what companies like Amazon might do in terms of refunds with his situation. For one thing, he's not trying to return anything. But more importantly, whether or not he pays for his item should not be up to him, but to the retailer who made it available to him.

He also shouldn't assume that because the small bottle of Tylenol only cost about four bucks that it doesn't matter as much as if he, say, inadvertently neglected to pay for a $400 flat-screen television. What matters at the end of the day is that he left the store with an item he didn't pay for.

If Johnson is embarrassed to admit his mistake to the store's manager, I suppose he could return to the store, scan in another bottle of Tylenol, pay for it, and then leave the item at the store. That, of course, is likely to affect the store's inventory, but on Johnson's end, it would definitely settle things up.

But that approach is not the best, most transparent way to resolve his issue. The real right thing is for Johnson to return to the store, let a manager know what happened, and offer to pay for the Tylenol he brought home. People make mistakes and the store manager should thank Johnson for his honesty and for making things right. Getting square with the store will likely ease any guilt Johnson may be feeling about his error. 

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 to have answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin. 


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