Sunday, October 02, 2022

Why can't customers put things back where they belong?

Shortly after I moved to Boston in 1978, I was introduced to the original Filene’s Basement, an off-price retailer that sat below Filene’s Department Store. Every item in Filene’s Basement was labeled with a discount price and the date it went on sale. Its automatic discount system took another 25% off after 12 days. After 18 days, the price was cut by 50%. Twenty-four days after it went on sale, the price was cut by 75%. If the item hadn’t sold after 30 days it was donated to charity.

The store was a great place to buy name-brand shirts, ties, shoes, suits and other items. There was also a legendary annual sale on bridal gowns. The markdown system resulted in some customers trying to misshelve items in hopes that no one else would buy them before the price was reduced.

The purposeful misshelving came to mind after hearing from a reader who found the incidents of misshelved items at her local grocery store to have markedly increased. “I don’t know if people are lazier than before about putting an item back where they found it if they decide not to buy it,” wrote a reader we’re calling Rochelle, “or if it’s because the store can’t find enough workers to keep the shelves properly stocked.”

Whatever may be causing it, Rochelle wanted to know if it’s wrong for customers not to return items to the appropriate shelf if they decide not to buy them. “I’ve seen people misshelve items right in front of clerks and have yet to see anyone call them on it,” wrote Rochelle. “That’s just wrong, right?”

While there’s nothing illegal in misshelving grocery store items and the action doesn’t rise to the level of world calamity, it can be an additional labor expense for grocery stores and an inconvenience for other shoppers who might not be able to find what they are looking for even if an item is in stock. A computerized inventory system might be useful to identify items in stock, but it’s useless in discovering where an item might have been misshelved.

Some simple reasons to knock it off with the misshelving: If the labor cost for a grocery store rises, it would be unusual for it not to pass the cost onto the consumer. Sometimes customers are really in need of the misshelved item for themselves or a child and they simply can’t find it.

Since human behavior is what it is, grocery stores might consider adding an area near the cash registers where customers can place items they decide they don’t want but are simply too tired to walk 100 yards to return to their rightful place, even when some of them are noticeably wearing step-tracking devices on their wrists.

At the original Filene’s Basement, which shut its doors in September 2007, customers misshelved items to try to get a better price. Rochelle’s fellow customers misshelve mostly because they are in a hurry or lazy. Whether out of being lazy or strategic, neither was right.

If customers don’t want to take the time to put an item back where they found it because it’s the right thing to do, maybe they can embrace it as a self-interested way to get a few more steps in.

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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