Tuesday, August 3, 2010

When the Stores Don't Get It

Shopping nowadays has gotten both easier and more complicated. Easier in the sense that there are far more places where we can shop for things we want or need, both online and in regular stores. More complicated in that comparison of prices is a necessity if you don't want to be overpaying, and overpaying by a lot.

I've been doing a lot of freelance work this summer and as part of that work I needed to prepare a lot of printed material. A check of our printer showed that it would be a good idea to have an extra toner cartridge in the house. I was near Staples so I walked in hoping to get the cartridge in one easy step--didn't happen. The cost of that cartridge was $126 in the store. My eyes bugged open. How much was that cartridge at Staples' online store? $123. Okay, not going to happen. My husband was working from home so I called and asked him to get online and find a cheaper source. By the time I got home he'd found the source and ordered the toner. At a reputable site a comparable cartridge to the "name brand" one sold at Staples was a whopping $29 including the shipping charges. Even if we were to surmise that the comparable cartridge was not going to give me as many copies as the more "reliable" branded one was going to give me(and in my experience they DO work just like their branded cousins), it would make no difference--the off-brand one was the best buy by far--4 for less than the price of one.

And then there was the printer paper. As I walked into the store they were showing a "mega sale" on individual packs of paper. Full price was $7.79 per pack. Minus "sales savings" that price dropped to $7.19. Minus a mail-in in-store rebate of $5.00, the price dropped to an "amazing" $2.79 per pack, limit of one pack per customer. Checking in the paper aisle I found no individual packs of printing paper of any kind that were less than $$5.69 per pack. However, if you bought a full case of paper you were going to save money--maybe. Those cases of paper all used to contain 10 individual packs of paper, so figuring the price per pack was really kind of simple. But not all of those cases contain 10 packs any more. Some of the cases have as few as 6 packs per case. The 10-pack cases were going for about $34-37 per case, a cost of $3.40 to $3.70 per pack. But those "cheaper" cases, going for $29 per case, only contained 6 packs of paper, an actual cost of $4.83 per pack.

Down the block from that Staples store Shoprite was having a school supplies sale. Printer paper was on sale for $2.71 cents a pack, limit of four. Regular price of that paper in the store? $2.99 per pack. King Kullen also had the paper on sale. Spend $25 in the store and get a pack of paper for only $.99. Regular price $2.99.

I had to be back at Staples a few days later because they are the only ones locally that carry the grading/marking book that I like using. Surprisingly the cost of the marking book was more than competitive, and I bought it. I did, however, mention to the manager who was up front by the registers that the store was not awfully competitive on a whole lot of other items. He shrugged his shoulders. Basically his comment was that the people who want the Staples "expertise" and quality merchandise aren't going to take a chance on inferior material sold at who knows where on line, and they prefer the ability to see what they are buying and get it right away. I couldn't help it--I had to laugh. I told him, politely of course, that he and his store really didn't get it if they have that attitude.

Oh that Staples were the only store that hasn't figured out yet that customers have a choice today, and many of them are using that choice to save money, money those stores are not going to see as long as they believe that they are still the only game in town.


G6 said...

I'm wondering if they don't have to keep the prices high in order to cover the loss leader "penny sales" that they hold around this time of year.
I mean, the virtually GIVE AWAY some of those school supplies.....

Anonymous said...

Most store managers do not have the authority to change prices or affect corporate policy. While they can pass on feedback to the home office, if you want change contact corporate headquarters. And, you really can't expect a brick and mortar store with its high overhead to be able to compete on every item with generic products sold on line. Besides, there will always be people like me who run out of toner or paper when facing a deadline and have no choice but to run out to Staples.

Libby said...

I love having all those stores available. I go in, examine the merchandise, try on if it's clothing, and then I get online to see if I can beat the price. Most of the time I do.

Anon is right that in an emergency it's good to have the store available, but emergencies don't come up all that often. And anon, you could try what we do. The second I put in a new toner in the printer I order the replacement to have. No running out ever. Ditto with the paper--down to the last pack? Order the next case.

Shira and Joey said...

Its unethical to walk into a store, try something on (or look at its features etc) KNOWING you are going to buy it elsewhere.

A Muppet said...

Not speaking from experience here, but isn't a lot of the issue that people who buy paper and toner from staples are likely to be office managers and other people who aren't paying for the stuff themselves and would need to devote extra time to comparison shopping then explain to someone else why they spent company money at shoprite? Add to that the fact that Staples Rewards is effectively a bribery scheme for such people (a friend uses his company's office supply purchases to keep his family in paper towels through the next millennium) and their pricing makes a lot more sense

efrex said...

While you might laugh at the idea of Staples "expertise," the reality is that many people, especially corporate purchasing people, are very much willing to pay a significant premium for a convenient supplier. Yes, you can do a quick online search to save a few bucks, but many people want their toner now and aren't going to think about getting it cheaply.

So far, the most extreme example of online discounts that I've seen is in eyewear. I bought a pair of glasses online from Zenni optical for $35 (frames AND lenses) over a year ago, and they've been serving me very well. Another pair from one of the chain optical stores cost me over $200 (and that was AFTER my company discount). For some reason, though, the latter company continues to survive. I guess having a couple of initials inscribed on your temples is worth the premium to some people...

Rae said...

Shira and Joey, I'm disagreeing with you. There is nothing unethical about seeing something in one store and then pricing that item in different places. It's called comparison shopping. There's no promise made that I'll buy in any store I walk into just because I walk in.

In large malls with many big anchor stores this goes on all the time, and the stores expect that it will. Would you say it's unethical to browse through all those big stores before you decide which one you will buy an item from? I bet you wouldn't. No different if you include online stores--they are still stores.

Shopping is about a lot of things that have to come together for the purchaser--the quality, color, size, material, availability and cost for some. In the posting the prof went to Staples prpared to buy a toner but the price wasn't what she was willing to pay so she bought it elsewhere cheaper. Unethical? Nope. And when she found the gradebook in Staples and the price was good she bought it. You could make the point, given your comment, that not looking at all the other stores was also unethical because you didn't give every retailer a chance to sell to you.

Again, walking into a store does not obligate you to buy a darned thing--browsing and looking around are part of the process of shopping.

Miami Al said...


She went in to shop, and chose whether to purchase or not based upon the prices offered, that is perfectly fair and ethical.

What is NOT ethical is to "steal" access to the merchandise (i.e. trying it on at a local store), then going online to find it cheaper. In Libby's case, she went into the store to find out what she wanted to buy elsewhere, which is unethical. If Libby decided that she didn't want the clothing at the price offered, fine.

But if she went into the store like it was a library, she's crossed an ethical line. Once she was trying on the clothing with ZERO consideration of buying it from that store, but with consideration of buying it elsewhere, she's in the wrong.

Walking into a store doesn't obligate you to anything other than ethical behavior while you are there.

JLan said...

In terms of paper- Staples has some sort of deal on paper pretty much every week (in this week's ad for Manhattan at least, it's buy 1 ream for $4.99, get $4.99 in Staples rewards). I have a 10-ream case sitting under my desk that I picked up last year for $20. Their occasional $1 deals and similar

As far as toner goes, my concern would be that something goes wrong and the manufacturer refuses to fix it (if it's still under warranty) because you used the non-name brand toner. If it's a cheap printer, not a problem, but I'd be hesitant, particularly if we were talking about a color laser, though it doesn't sound like that's the case.

A Muppet said...


I'm not sure why even that would be unethical. For simplicity's sake let's say the question of ethics would be resolved by asking what the owner would say if you asked them about the behavior. I suspect that most larger stores (say Staples, the Gap, and Barnes and Noble (the most obvious example of a store that goes out of its way to bring in customers who they know generally do not intend to buy anything)) exist to be places where I am drawn in for whatever reason, even if that only exposes me to the potential to make impulse purchases and reinforces my knowledge that store is a good place for the occaisonal emergency buy.

Miami Al said...

If you don't see how walking into a store (for which rent is paid), looking at the merchandise so that you can purchase it cheaper from someone that isn't renting space that you can browse, I'm not going to be able to explain it on a blog post.

However, if you want to read an explanation from someone who does take the time to expound upon this, read Rate and Switch from the Jewish Ethicist.

Again, going into the store with an open mind is fine, going into a store as an in-person catalog is wrong.

A Muppet said...

To elaborate and take the extreme example, Barnes and Noble sells books, they also put out chairs and encourage people to read those books in their stores. It is certainly no secret that any number of people walk into those stores, read the books and magazines there, despite not intending to purchase them and then leave, purchasing nothing. Allowing people to do this is actually part of Barnes and Noble's business model and as such cannot be unethical.

I think it's at least debatable if the Gap feels the same way about the clothes it sells, but I'm not sure why you take it as being obvious that they don't. The store's first goal has to be to get you into the store, whether or not you intend to buy anything there. You can't buy less from them than you would have if you'd never come in. And I'm not sure why rent, a fixed cost, would play any role in that calculation.

Anonymous said...

While everyone is fussing about trying on clothes one doesn't intend to buy, I am more concerned about Muppet's friend who uses Staples rewards on her employers' purchases to get personal items for herself. That is only ok if her employer has given permission. This became a big issue with frequent flier miles and rewards programs from hotels when the points/rewards are the result of business travel paid by the employer. Many employers say those points/rewards belong to the employer.

Aviva said...

Argument about the ethics is way too narrowly focused and everyone isn't arguing about the same thing. Clothes shopping, where you try something on, is a very small part of shopping. You don't try on a toner or sheets or any other item. You just look at them or maybe touch them or you see a picture of something or you read about it. Same difference.

Al, you don't think that online retailers don't have rent expenses in paying for their sites and storage for the items they sell you? You think that when you browse around online you aren't doing the same thing you would to a store in a mall? When you email the site's help desk or get on the phone to speak to someone about the products being sold you aren't taking up some salesperson's time? Of course you are. According to your logic, if I ask those questions and take up the time of the person on the phone or who is sending me the email and I don't buy from them I'm being unethical because I had no intention of buying. What I have is no intention to buy unless everything I want/need/am looking for comes together with that one place. But how would I know if that was the case unless I checked out other places also?

I walk into a store looking for a soup pot. I vaguely have an idea that I'm willing to pay around $40 for that pot. I see the pot and examine it. Maybe I even ask the salesperson a question about it. Let's say I buy it at the store's price of $42 dollars. When I get home I go to check on something else online and I happen to find that exact same pot being sold for $24 including shipping. Am I obligated to keep the pot from the store just because I bought it and asked a few questions? No, I'm not, and it's not unethical if I return the pot to the store.

Sometimes I need something right now and I can't comparison shop and I have to pay whatever is being asked because I just may have no choice. But for most things shopping is about choice and about looking around, and all retailers know this, online and in physical stores. It's built in as a cost of doing business. It's not unethical behavior. It's built into the definition of shopping.

Anonymous said...

JLan it's strange that you bring up whether the manufacturer will fix the printer if you use an off brand toner and something malfunctions. I asked that question when I was buying a new printer this year. The salesperson looked through the entire booklet and all sales material that came with the printer and there wasn't any mention of this at all. I bought the printer and the off brand toner, which the store also sells for a lot less than the branded toner. When I mentioned this to a friend who is an attorney, he looked at the papers that came with the printer and his opinion was that unless specifically stated in the warrantee the printer manufacturer would have to fix the printer regardless of whose toner was in it. The manufacturers can't claim lack of knowledge about there being no name toners available (a lot of them actually manufacture these no name toners under a different brand so they can catch the customers who won't buy the expensive name brand).

A lot of car manufacturers specifically state that if you use an off brand part in their cars that can void the warrantee on the car. The printer manufacturers may not like it but unless they specifically state what voids the warrantee they can't refuse to fix the printer. Well, they could try but they won't win.

Leahle said...

So how about this situation. Someone tells you that they want to buy you a gift for a birthday or anniversary. They give you a choice of two items. You don't have either of these items and only vaguely know about them. According to Al it would be unethical for me to walk into a store to look at those items and certainly would be unethical for me to ask a single question to a salesman about them because I know I'm not going to buy the items. Probably Al wouldn't consider it unethical for me to search all the online sites and maybe ask questions there, but I'm not going to buy from them either. So am I supposed to just pick one of the two items and say I want it without knowing which one I might really want or be able to use?

Miami Al said...

No, Al specifically laid out a SPECIFIC scenario where it is unethical, and you have constructed a bunch of unrelated straw man arguments to attack it.

If you want a full service experience, expect to pay the full service premium. If you want a discount service, pay the discounted price. However, getting the full service experience and paying the discounted price is definitely a gray zone, and doing it intentionally is unacceptable.

If you are using a store's resources, you should do it honestly, meaning that you are contemplating doing business with that store. What is NOT ethical is going into a store KNOWING that you are buying it elsewhere, and using the resources.

Walk around the store, look at merchandise, consider, that's all fine. I certainly go into stores, browse merchandise that I'm not buying that day, etc.

Take a scenario with woo online stores, one that offers online chat, and one doesn't, and you ask all your questions from the online chat store (running up their support costs), but buy from the other store because it's $1 cheaper. Is that ethical?

It is completely ethical to buy from the lowest cost provider.

It's NOT ethical to use the resources of their competition solely to get the pre-sales support that you need but don't want to pay for.

Leahle, that's a contrived scenario and you know it. If you go to a store that you frequent, find, you're a customer, nobody minds helping a customer. Same with the Barnes and Noble scenario, B&N has set that up for you to do so.

The department store is NOT setup so you can do your research for online purchases.

Ethical behavior means doing the right thing EVEN WHEN it ISN'T the most advantaged course of action to you.

JS said...

I'm kind of surprised by the fast and loose ethics some people here subscribe to.

Would people at least agree that this is unethical? You go into a store where the sales associates work on commission with no intention of buying anything. You just want that person's knowledge and expertise so you can see what you want to buy. Once you know this you intend to leave and search online for the best price. You talk to the associate for 20 minutes, get the information you came in for, and leave.

As for Barnes and Noble, is it unethical to go in the store at 9AM when it opens, go find that novel you've been meaning to read, pick it off the shelf, find a nice cozy chair, and sit there and read it all day until closing without buying it or even a coffee from their cafe? How about if you didn't get to finish it that day, so you come back the next day to read that last 150 pages?

How about going to an open house and spending an hour looking around when you're not even looking for a house, it's just an activity on a lazy Sunday afternoon? Does it matter if there is a realtor there or if it's just the owner to show you around?

Just because a store won't kick you out or tacitly allows such behavior doesn't make it ethical. Just because they calculated that enforcing a "no freeloaders" policy would hurt business more than it helps it doesn't mean it's ethical either.

If I had to pin down the ethical problem, I'd compare it to the contracts law issue of whether a contract was formed between two people. There needs to be a "meeting of the minds" - agreement as to the purpose of the contract such as what each side gives up and gains from it. A store makes certain things freely available on the premise that it will attract customers. Money and time are spent by the company to get you to make a purchase. When you walk in with zero intention of making a purchase, there is no meeting of the minds. You are using the store's resources in a way in which they never intended for them to be used. If you had immediately told that salesperson "I'm just hear to get your expertise and then I'm leaving without buying anything" they wouldn't talk to you. But, if there is some minuscule chance you'll buy something, talk away, this is what the store is hoping for and what they expend efforts on.

I hope the distinction is clear.

A Muppet said...

For the life of me I can't tell why it would matter ethically what a department store is "set up" for. The only question is whether they would prefer customers enter their store, even if they don't intend to buy anything, or would prefer they stayed home. And for that the B&N example isn't some sort of strawman, but an extreme case where the store clearly extends a full service experience that appeals mostly to people who don't intend to buy anything.

Put another way, car dealerships tend to do quite a bit for people before they sell them a car. I am certain a car dealership that provides free soft drinks would not want to provide them to someone who had no interest in buying a car. I am equally certain that that same dealership would love it if someone who had a lease arranged through a finance company came to the dealership just to test drive the car, because that would giver the dealership the chance to get the sale, something they never would have had if the buyer never came in. I really don't see why you think it's obvious macy's feels any differently.

Minna said...

When I go to a store and a salesman approaches me and asks if he can help me I always answer 'I'm just looking.' It doesn't matter if I am really planning on buying something in that store that day or I'm just browsing. I don't raise expectations in that salesmans mind.

But here is the thing. They come over and try and sell you something anyway. THEY volunteer a lot of information about something you may be looking at. They ask pointed questions about what you might be looking for in a product. THEY try to sell you something even if you've said you are only looking. They can't turn around then and say I didn't warn them.

There is nothing unethical about listening to what they are voluntarily saying to me. I don't have to keep repeating that I'm just looking--saying it once is enough. Sales people are plenty pushy in trying to make a sale but I don't have to buy just because they are spending time with me, time I didn't ask them to spend but that they voluntarily spent with me. And there is nothing unethical about using the information that they voluntarily gave me to decide where and when and at what price I may buy something.

I'm not the only one who answers sales people this way--I learned it from my mom and I've heard lots of others respond this way as well.

Anonymous said...


If you cannot tell the difference between the straw man scenario that you raised (which is NOT the unethical scenario ANY of us mentioned), and the scenario advocated by Libby, then continuing this conversation is pointless.

What you are describing is not the scenario that Libby brought up and caused the comments about the lack of ethics.

Read Libby's scenario, read yours, and see if you can spot the differences.

Anonymous said...

I think many store owners would tell you that you are welcome to come in and browse even if you plan to shop elsewhere. Stores like foot traffic, since it creates more foot traffic and there is always a chance you will see something else that you will buy or that you will come back to buy some other time. What would be wrong is taking up a salesperson's time if there are other customers they could be attending to who might actually buy something.
As for the open house, I've stoppen in to a few several in my neighborhood just to see what type of home gets what type of price to assess where my house stands and whether I will be able to sell it without the granite and stainless upgrades, etc., and if there has been a major renovation that has created noise or disruption, to see the final product. I always tell the realtor exactly why I am there and ask if it is ok to look around even if I have zero intention of buying. They all say yes and give me a card in case I am ever interested in selling or know someone who might be interested in the house.

I have also been on the other side of this as a lawyer. Propsective business clients often invite several firms to do a dog and pony show with little intent of hiring any one other than their current firm, but they need to show the boss that they got bids, looked at other options, etc. These presentations can take a lot of time and expense to prepare. We nonetheless take advantage of these opportunities to hone our presentation skills and make new contacts. Some times they might pay off 5 years later. However, if I was very busy and the inviter had really already made up his/her mind on who to hire, I would be annoyed.