I had an exchange at a large retailer this weekend that made me question some of the struts in my own ethical framework. Intellectually, I’m having a hard time piecing together whether my ethical instincts are on sound footing, or if I’m just telling myself a story to make myself feel better about being Evil Tod.
One of the advantages to writing for the League is that I am surrounded by people who study and write about ethics either as a hobby or as part of their job. So I thought I’d throw it out to the Hive Mind and ask for your thoughts.
In order to do this, I have to tell you two personal anecdotes.
When I was 21 I was still working my way through school. I was working one of those full time jobs where I could say that even though it was a miserable, soul-killing grind, at least it paid almost nothing. I had no savings, and was living (barely) paycheck to paycheck.
My financial situation was this bad: Some store had once given me change that included a $10 bill. Though not as rare as a $2 bill, you don’t often see a $10 bill very often. For some reason whenever I looked in my wallet and saw it sitting there, it made me feel wealthy in a way two $5 bills would not have. Because of this, if I needed to buy food or happy hour beers I would search my laundry for spare change to get what I needed so that I didn’t have to break that $10.
One day I got my paycheck and paid my rent, utilities, and all of the other outstanding bills I had accrued. Thanks to some astoundingly bad financial investments on my part from the previous week (I blew too much money taking a girl I was trying to impress to a restaurant I couldn’t afford) I discovered I was about as broke as broke could be. Once the various checks I had just mailed cleared, my checking account would be down the minimum amount allowed in order to keep it open. The only real liquid asset I had left was that $10 bill in my wallet, and I was suddenly realizing I had to make it last for fifteen days. My anxiety level shot through the roof.
I grabbed my pocket calculator and walked to my neighborhood Fred Meyer to see if it was at all possible to shop for two weeks worth of food on $10. I walked through the aisles, grabbing ramen here, on-sale spaghetti sauce there, until I had a basket full of food that would absolutely, positively not last me until my next paycheck. I took my basket to the checkout line, and as my spartan purchases were tallied by the cashier I silently prayed to Agnostic-god that my calculations were correct and the bill didn’t go over the paltry amount of money I had. The total ended up being something like $8.67. I handed the guy my last $10, he put it in the register, and then he started count out the change, saying his calculations out loud as he dropped the coins and bills in my hand:
“Here’s three cents for $8.70, thirty cents make nine dollars, ten dollars, twenty, forty, sixty, eighty, and one hundred. Here’s your receipt. Thanks for shopping at Fred Meyer.”
In his rush to make the lines move quickly he had assumed my somewhat rare $10 bill was actually a $100 bill. I stood frozen for a moment, waiting for his brain to catch up to his hands, but he was already checking out the next customer.
I took my bag, and saying nothing I walked out of the store.
It’s important for the purposes of this anecdote that you realize just how badly I needed that $90. It doesn’t seem like a lot of money now, but at that moment having it handed to me was the equivalent of Auntie Em winning the lottery hours before the bank came to repossess the family farm. Five minutes earlier I wasn’t sure how I was going to eat for the next two weeks. So please believe me when I say that I really, really needed that $90.
And of course, after stopping at the automatic door and cursing myself, I turned around and walked back to the cashier.
“Hey,” I said, trying hard to sound like I was just now coming to a realization, “I think you gave me the wrong change.”
This weekend my wife and I decided to buy one of those high-end espresso and coffee machines that uses the little pod thingies. My sister has one that makes espresso and my mother-in-law has one that makes coffee, and we’ve enjoyed using them when visiting. The drinks turn out fabulous, and they are amazingly quick and easy to use. When we found out recently that there was one that actually did both coffe and espresso, we decided to get one.
You don’t exactly need to take out a mortgage to buy one, but they are expensive enough that we “had a talk” about it before pulling the trigger. My wife (who is the bargain hunter in the family) went online to see what kind of deals we could get. It turned out that the price point at every store that sold it (including online) was identical. However, one of the stores’ website offered her a printable “10% Off Your Entire Purchase!” coupon. This store is a ginormous, well known, big-box kitchen and home supply chain. It’s out of our way; worse, it’s in the middle of a part of the suburbs that’s just rows and rows of other big-box chain stores. It’s the kind of place I really hate to go. I hate driving there, I hate trying to park there, I hate shopping in the crowded tiny aisles there – I just hate the whole experience. But in this instance, the 10% discount was enough to make me suck it up and we drove over to Big-Box Land.
When we were grabbing the machine and some boxes of various pods, an employee came up and asked if he could help us find anything. No thanks, we said, this was all we were getting. Despite the fact that we were purchasing it, the young man started selling us on its virtues. Did we know it made coffee as well as espresso? Did we notice how sleek and beautiful it looked? We were doing that kind of “politely nod and say little” that customers do when they have already made up their minds and are wanting to get on with their day, when he said, “Did you bring the 10% off coupon for this? Because this is the one thing in the store we won’t accept the coupon for.”
This irritated us, since the only reason we had come was the damn coupon. We actually went and found another employee to verify that this was the case, and was told that yes, we could not get a discount on this one product. Apparently the manufacture did not allow the store to grant discounts on their product. We considered going somewhere else to get the machine, but eventually used the “bird in the hand” argument and decided to just get in line with the damn thing.
When the young woman rang us up we gave her the coupon. (We had also bought some new espresso cups, and at least wanted the discount for them.) She scanned it a few times, and then obviously frustrated, called a manager.
“It’s not giving them the discount on the machine or the pods,” she explained.
“Huh,” said her manager, who tried to make the coupon work a few times before giving up and using her Magical Manager Override to give us 10% off our entire purchase.
My wife and I said nothing. We paid, saying nothing, and walked out of the store, saying nothing. I am looking, right now as I type, at our new 10%-off coffee and espresso machine.
It is beautiful.
My Ethical Quandry
So here’s the thing:
When I think about that evening at Fred Meyers years ago when I was a poor student, I have no question that taking that money would have been wrong. To this day I’m still really ashamed that I walked all the way out the door with the intention of keeping that money before turing around and doing the right thing. And that was a over an amount of money that meant I was going to be able to eat.
But what happened yesterday? My wife and I getting away with something that was (let’s face it) very similar for a product that (let’s face it) we don’t really actually need? I feel absolutely no guilt at all. At all.
Why is this? Seriously ethicists, I’m curious. They do not seem remotely similar to me from an ethical point of view, but I’ll be dammed if I can tell you why that is. Am I just telling myself something something I want to hear to get a few bucks? Or are the two situations as different from an academic point of view as they feel to me?
Am I a lucky consumer, or am I a Bad Person?
UPDATE: Many of you in both the threads and emails have asked if the coupon had actually identified the coffee/espresso maker on the offer. I have obviously chosen not to identify either the retailer or the manufacturer. However, after this conversation I did go back to reread everything, which gave me more information than I had gotten from my wife. (Also, it showed that my memory was incorrect; it was 20% off, not 10%. This, of course, is not relevant to the question at hand.)
I will tell everyone upfront that none of what I am about to pass along changes my feelings one way or the other, but might very well help others better determine the morality involved – both mine, and the store’s.
The offer made on the website states that in exchange for our email address, home address and telephone number we would save 20% on our purchase on our next trip to their store. The coupon is shown on the screen, and there is a button you press to send it to your printer to print.
On the website, this is the language that is scattered over the face of the coupon:
SAVE 20%. Click the Button to print this coupon. Bring it in to any of our locations and take 20% off of your next trip to XXXX. Limited time offer for this email address only. Coupon must be printed. See store for details. Cannot be redeemed on a mobile device.
So as you can see, it does indeed let me know that I should go the store and check in first. But there’s more: The printed coupon is in fact slightly different from the the coupon as it appears on the computer screen. The difference is indeed very, very, very small print at the very bottom that gives the store the right to not give the discount for products of about thirty listed manufactures – and yes, the manufacturer for my new machine is indeed one of them.
As I said, none of this changes my feelings about having taken the discount.