Consumer Ethics

Good customers realize that the relationship between a business and its customers is mutually beneficial.

A. M. Rogers is an attorney and physicist living in Florida.

Are you a good customer?

People often talk about how a business should treat its customers. But how often do they talk or even think about how customers should treat a business?

Yet, there’s no denying that success in doing business is a two-way proposition. It requires more than just the business treating its customers fairly. It also requires customers who treat that business fairly.

The Trusting Salesclerk

Almost everyone has had the experience of standing at the cash register in front of a long line while a salesclerk struggles to find a bar code or price tag. Instead of taking the time to call for a price check, the clerk may turn to the customer and ask, “Do you know what the price is?”

For every customer who shakes his head “no,” forcing the salesclerk to call for assistance, there is a customer like Irene, a gray-haired widow, who loves to get into these situations. Though Irene knows the exact price of everything she purchases, she won’t tell it to the salesclerk. She’ll say “it’s $1.98" even when she knows it costs several dollars more. The fact that the salesclerk believes Irene isn’t her problem, Irene says, though she’ll admit it is one of the few benefits of looking like a nice old lady.

Though stores train their sales staffs on what to do when these situations arise, and the salesclerks are not taught to ask the customer for the price, it still happens. While it’s true Irene hasn’t committed a criminal act, even if the clerk punches in the price given, she certainly has displayed the intent to defraud the store. She takes advantage of a clerk’s earnest attempt to keep the line moving. At the least, she has proved herself not to be a very good customer.

The Salesclerk Who Doesn’t Know Math

Despite the sophistication of computerized cash registers, salespeople still make mistakes. They may give too much change or too little, or they may do something even more costly.

Nancy, a math teacher, will never forget the time she was buying clothes for her four children. All of the items were reduced 20 percent from the clearance price. The salesgirl punched in the first item’s price, then took 20 percent off. So far so good. Then she entered the price of the second item, subtotaled, and took 20 percent off again. Nancy stood there unable to believe her eyes. Yet, each time the clerk added another item, she subtotaled first before taking 20 percent off. What she was doing, Nancy immediately realized, was taking 20 percent off what she had already discounted. When the final bill was a little over $10, even the salesclerk seemed puzzled. But she just quickly shrugged her doubts aside.

As for Nancy, she paid the bill without saying anything.

She told her husband later that many people wouldn’t have even noticed what the clerk was doing wrong. “Why should I be penalized for knowing math?” she argued.

As Nancy sees it, it’s the store’s responsibility to have a well trained sales staff and, obviously, if a store doesn’t, it won’t be around long.

But there’s another viewpoint to consider.

The store manager argues that the same people who are absolutely furious at a store when they feel they’re not being treated fairly will turn around and cheat at the first opportunity.

What, for example, would Nancy have done if the salesclerk had instead charged her much more than she owed instead of less? Wouldn’t she have been willing then to share her mathematical knowledge?

Good customers realize that the relationship between a business and its customers is mutually beneficial. Good businesses produce desirable products at reasonable prices. Good customers appreciate them.

Taking Advantage of a Good Offer

A recent college graduate, Jeffrey, can’t afford everything he wants. When he got an offer to receive free issues of a very expensive magazine he liked, he immediately signed up for a subscription. From the very beginning he planned to cancel the subscription as soon as the free issues ran out. And he did. The problem was that the magazine kept coming anyway and, eventually, Jeffrey was billed for a year’s subscription. He even got a dunning notice from the publisher when he didn’t pay.

It took more than a few months of correspondence to get the whole mess settled. And, in the end, Jeffrey did get quite a few issues of the magazine without paying anything.

Technically, Jeffrey was just taking advantage of a good offer. He wanted the free issues and nothing more. Legally, a person is not required to pay for unsolicited goods. However, the offer was intended to introduce the magazine to people who might actually be interested in subscribing to it and, at the time, Jeffrey wasn’t.

Someday, though, Jeffrey may be able to afford that subscription. And when he can, I hope he will subscribe and become one of the magazine’s good customers.

Free Refills and All-You-Can-Eat Buffets

A retired couple, Jean and Bill, order only one cup of coffee when the refills are free. It might appear that just one of them is a coffee drinker. Rather, they are coffee sharers. They also do things such as having one of them order the all-you-can-eat salad bar while the other one orders a regular entree. Then they share the entree, which is perfectly legal, and they share the all-you-can-eat salad bar, which isn’t legal.

Restaurants know these things happen. Some of them put up signs on their buffets: “Don’t cheat.” They may even have the people working in the dining room keep watch. It’s true you may get away with it. But if you like a restaurant enough to eat there, why not pay for what you eat? A good customer realizes that when a restaurant advertises an all-you-can-eat buffet the “you” is singular.

The Price of Admission

Everyone knows that a store sets an item’s price without regard for who is purchasing the item. A rich person pays the same as a poor person. And no one would tolerate a store that changed its prices at will.

Yet, how about people who change the ages of their children according to how much they want to pay?

Leslie is a mother of two children who believes she is an exceptionally honest person. But when it comes to giving the ages of her children at a ticket counter, she can lie as quickly as a con artist. If it’ s cheaper for her ten-year-old to be eight, then suddenly he’s “tall for his age.”

It’s the very nature of doing business that allows her to do this. No business can afford to demand that its customers first produce birth certificates or other documentation. It would drive customers away. And, even if some customers take advantage of a business’ easygoing ways, and even if this is taken into account as part of the cost of doing business, good customers won’t.

Dress for the Occasion

Gloria takes great pride in not appearing in the same party dress twice. She enjoys making a grand entrance and having everyone turn to look at her. But those glances might not be so admiring if it were known how Gloria manages to appear in a different stunning dress every time.

Gloria tells people she’s a smart shopper. What she doesn’t tell them is that she picks out the dress of choice just a few days before the scheduled party or event. And then after she has worn it and garnered her share of appreciative looks, she returns it to the store for a full refund. “My husband didn’t like it,” she lies. Since most stores have extremely liberal return policies, in which returned items can even have the sales tags removed, a customer can get away with this. But a good customer wouldn’t.

The Outlet Store

Maureen just bought a house and she wants to replace the kitchen stove. It’s a customized stove, which she had to order from the catalogue of a major department store. When she is finally notified that the stove has arrived, she suddenly cancels her order. Did she not want the stove anymore? Not exactly. Maureen is hoping her canceled order will arrive at the store’s nearby outlet store where she can then purchase it at a substantial discount.

Many major department stores have outlet stores where regular items are sold at big savings. Sometimes the items are irregulars or returned goods. Often they include furniture, appliances, stereos, and television sets all crammed into a hodge-podge section of the outlet. People who shop outlet stores generally understand it is a hit or miss operation. At least, that’s what it’s supposed to be.

If the store finds enough people who behave like Maureen, it may begin to require a non-refundable deposit before ordering certain merchandise. And this would only penalize those persons who order and then cancel merchandise because of circumstances outside their control.

Taking Supplies Home

Many fast-food restaurants give their customers access to a variety of valuable items. Customers can help themselves to napkins, straws, ketchup, plastic spoons, and other supplies. If a customer doesn’t use everything he takes, he is encouraged to take the unused supplies home. It is wasteful just to toss leftover napkins and unopened ketchup containers into the trash can.

But it’s another matter for customers to take extra items with the intent of using them at home. Helping yourself to a wad of napkins or straws so you don’t have to purchase them at the store is not part of the service fast-food restaurants are providing. That’s the business of supermarkets. Good customers know the difference.

What does it take to be a good customer? In short, good will.

Good will means a customer treats the business honestly and fairly even when he doesn’t have to. Good business policies and good consumer protection against fraud are necessary, but not enough to cover all the possible situations arising between a business and its customers.

It takes good will to fill in the cracks.

It takes good will to make both good businesses and good customers.

Further Reading