Sunday, May 19, 2024

Is misshelving items lazy or a necessity or both?

Is it possible for someone to view an act as despicable while another views it as perfectly acceptable?

A couple of years ago, I wrote about a reader who was troubled that more and more items at her grocery store were misshelved. “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, or if it’s because the store can’t find enough workers to keep the shelves properly stocked.”

I empathized with the reader and suggested that whether the customer misshelved an item out of laziness or out of a desire to find it later before anyone else might buy it, it was wrong. “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,” I wrote, “maybe they can embrace it as a self-interested way to get a few more steps in.”

“People misshelving items in a store disturbs and even angers me,” wrote K.C. in response. “It’s part of people’s increasing laziness. People just don’t care about doing the right thing and it’s discouraging, disgusting, and disappointing.”

But another reader, R.B., strongly disagreed. “Your recent column offended me,” wrote R.B. “I occasionally misshelve grocery items, either because I find a similar item for less or it does not fit my budget.” R.B. went on to report that she is an “older, single disabled lady who stays as active and independent as possible.” But, she wrote that “walking hurts” and that she would love to be able to walk 100 yards easily to be able to reshelve an item she decides not to purchase. “I am not in a hurry or lazy,” she wrote, and took issue with my suggestion that those who misshelve items likely are.

Both K.C. and R.B. make valid points. It can be annoying for both customers and store clerks if items in a store are regularly misshelved. But R.B. could be correct in observing that reshelving items can prove a real challenge for some customers for whom mobility is an issue. Nevertheless, the incidents of misshelved items persists.

Perhaps then it falls to the managers of grocery and other stores to do the right thing by providing customers with an option to place unwanted items in one area of the store before they check out. Doing so would enable clerks to know where to find the items to reshelve them. It would also cut away any guilt that shoppers might feel about having a change of heart about a product but not the wherewithal to return it to its original place.

Granted, an unintended consequence of providing customers with the option of putting unwanted items in one area might result in more customers being indecisive and subsequently loading up the change-of-mind shelf. That, however, might be a small price to pay to try to get things back where they belong. And even though there might be more items to reshelve, it might actually take clerks less time to do so since they won’t have to hunt the entire store for randomly misshelved stuff.

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, emeritus, at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues.

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Follow him on Twitter @jseglin


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