Monday, October 5, 2009

Ethics And Honesty

At some point, we have all been overcharged by a store or a business. I'm not talking about sky high prices on items we know are actually worth a portion of what we are being charged. I'm talking about those accidental overcharges where we are charged regular price over sale price or charged for two or more items when we only bought one or we are given the wrong change. It isn't that unusual. Stores and the people running them make mistakes all the time - even with UPC scanners and registers that calculate and dispense the change.

What do you do if you are overcharged? Do you let it slide if it is under - say a dollar? Do you try and get your money back even if it is only a few cents? I think it is fairly safe to say that most of us will try and get our money back. Some stores actually give you an additional discount if they overcharge you. I had one store manager give me a $2 item for free after I showed him that I had been charged $2.49. I said that wasn't necessary, I just wanted my $.49, but he insisted due to the inconvenience. I'm still a regular customer at that store!

Unfortunately we can't always prove we have been overcharged. Here are two examples:

A friend and her daughter spent a long, tiring day shopping at a mall on the other side of the city from their home. They were in a fashion boutique and had picked out several items and then spied a display of earrings on sale by the register. It was near closing, so they quickly picked two pair to go with the rest of the items they had picked out. After paying, they ran to catch their bus. On the way home, she was thinking about the purchases and adding the amounts in her head. She wasn't able to make the amount she thought it should be match with the amount charged. Sure enough, when she checked the bill, she found she had been charged for 3 pairs instead of two. It wasn't a huge amount - only $6 plus taxes, but it was maddening. This wasn't a mall she shopped at more than a couple of times a year. The store had other outlets, but she had no way to prove she HADN'T bought that third pair unless she talked to the same clerk and the clerk recalled the purchase. Unfortunately for my friend, she had to let this incident pass and absorb the overpayment.

Another friend was luckier. She had purchased a couple of cards while shopping for groceries. When she got to her car, she checked her bill and realized she had been charged for more cards than she had bought. She went back into the store and talked to customer service. The clerk who had bagged her groceries was nearby and was able to verify that she had only bought 2. She got her money back.

I've been overcharged several times over the years and luckily have almost always been able to prove it and get my money back.

A couple of weeks ago, I was shopping at one of my usual grocery stores. I picked several apples from a bin that listed the price at 78 cents/lb or $1.72/kg. I had a number of items that day that were weighed, so I wasn't completely sure what my total would be. When I got home, I checked the bill - as I always do - and realized that I had been charged $1.49/lb or $3.29/kg. I had been overcharged $1.57 by my calculations. I kept the receipt and the flyer with the advertised sale price and planned on taking it with me the next time I went to that store.

Before I got back to that store, I was at another grocery store and the other side of the overcharge fell into play. I purchased a few items and thought my bill would be about $20-22.00. My total was $19.41. Oh well, maybe I missed a sale tag or something was cheaper than I thought. I examined the bill when I got home. To my amazement, I had not been charged for my dozen large eggs - $2.05 even though I watched the clerk as she slid everything across the scanner.

This was an interesting dilemma. Overcharged by $1.57 at store A and undercharged by $2.05 at store B. So far I was ahead by 48 cents! Both were good sized stores that really wouldn't notice such small amounts over the long term. They probably wouldn't care. The question was could I let both slide with a clear conscience?

Several years ago, I was also undercharged at a small grocery chain. I bought a package of cheese for about $4 and wasn't charged. I took the unopened cheese and the receipt back a couple of days later. The clerk called the manager who was a bit dumbfounded that someone was actually admitting they hadn't been charged. He shook my hand and thanked me for my honesty.

I asked several friends what they would do if overcharged. All said, if they could prove it they would get their money back. Some said down to the penny and others said if it was only a bit of change they wouldn't bother.

Then I asked them the other question. You are undercharged at a store - do you go back and pay? Most said that had never happened to them, but admitted they would be tempted not to - especially if they had gotten poor service or if it wasn't a store they shopped at often. Only a couple of people I asked said they would go back for both overcharges and undercharges. For them it was more about honesty than anything else. It was just the right thing to do.

The amounts weren't very much in the grand scheme of things and I'll admit, I was tempted to let both incidents go. I even contemplated going to store A and if I didn't get my money back then I would forget about going to store B!

So what did I do? Well, I was at both stores this past week doing my usual grocery shopping.

I went to store A on Wednesday and went to customer service with my receipt and the flyer from two weeks earlier. The clerk checked the flyer, apologized for the error and gave me my $1.57.

On Thursday, I was at store B and asked to see the manager/supervisor on duty. I said "This may be a bit unusual, but..." I went on to explain what happened and that I wanted to pay for my eggs. She was a bit shocked and said, that I really didn't have to have to do this. I briefly explained my previous experiences and said that I still wanted to pay. She took my money, gave me a receipt and thanked me.

A lot of people will only go back if overcharged and see it as a windfall in their favour if undercharged. What they don't get or perhaps fail to acknowledge, is that in the long run, we all end up paying for those who are undercharged or due to shoplifters.

I know I didn't have to go back to either store, but it really is a question of personal ethics and honesty. It is the way I was raised and I can sleep with a clear conscience.


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