The Simple Truth About Retailers’ Integrity

After 40+ years of working in the retail world, and even more years as an astute shopper, I think I know that the intention of almost every retail establishment is very clear. Their goals are very simple. They want to make a profit (yes, it's not a dirty word!) and to make you a happy, satisfied customer so that you will return again and tell your friends to do the same. There are “rules” to be followed in many cases (they're also known as consumer protection laws), but mostly it's a common sense approach to resolving issues and shopping mistakes.

The Simple Truth About Retailers' Integrity

As upfront as that sounds, things do occur that can prevent such simple goals from being achieved. What happens in reality often leaves a bad taste in the shopper's mouth and prevents the goal of mutual satisfaction from occurring. Why? Well again, it's not complicated. Sometimes an honest mistake is made by a store and its employees. Other times, it's the chain of command and the retail staff feels the need to protect the store from being taken advantage of by customers (and that does happen sometimes), which can lead to tension and customers leaving unhappy. Here are some real life situations I've experienced and what I did to resolve them from both sides of the shopping transaction.

Honest Mistakes

When your favorite store advertises something that draws you in, and they don't have what they advertised, it almost always is some kind of mistake. They sold out, underestimating the demand. They didn't get their delivery on time as expected. They received the wrong color or size. It happens. Make sure you ask why the items aren't there and ask for some redress. What I always did, as a manager, was to resolve the issue as quickly and easily as I could to please a customer. I'd issue a raincheck so the customer could get what they needed when it was available. Or a substitution of another item of equal value is also acceptable in many cases. Asking and getting the raincheck or substitute will satisfy both parties.

Errors in Signing or Pricing

This happens a lot. In fact, it just happened to me twice while shopping this week. The first time was in person. I was in a major retail chain store and was looking for some shirts and shorts. I saw a rack with a big “50% off” sign on it and it had all of the items from the brand I was looking for based on the prices in the Sunday ad. When I went to purchase the items, they rang up at the full regular price instead of the 50% off prices, a difference of about $30. At first, I was told that the items were not included in the sale grouping and I hadn't read the sign properly. But on closer inspection, the qualifications on the sign (items normally $15.99 and up) would have eliminated all of the clothes on the rack from the sale (most of which were priced at $15.98)…very misleading indeed. While I was annoyed at being misled by the sign, I realize that it was probably an error in placing the sign on that particular rack and not done on purpose. After a brief conversation with the checker, and then the front end lead, I asked to speak to someone in management.

The store manager then sent someone to the sales floor to locate the rack and saw that everything there was as I had stated. The store had erred by placing that sign there and the manager then agreed that it was the store's issue and granted me the 50% off price at the register. I was satisfied with the store accommodating me and they kept my loyalty. This kind of thing can happen any day you shop. It pays to know what you are entitled to and always ask for a decision maker to take care of the situation. Many employees are protective of the store and/or have no authority to adjust prices or substitutions.

The second problem occurred when my wife and I were shopping at a very large online retailer. My wife won a substantial gift card to the site a few months ago and we've been making a number of significant purchases there. On this occasion, we had about 15 different items in our cart, including some sold directly by the retailer and others sold through their affiliates. Only one of the items had a shipping charge ($5) while the rest were eligible for free shipping if you purchased $35 or more (which we were doing). However, as we proceeded to checkout, despite selecting the free or standard shipping on all items, the shipping charges totaled $20. Frustrated, I went back and checked the items a few more times before assuring myself that indeed we were being overcharged. I sent an e-mail to customer service and waited. Within 2 hours, I received the reply stating that I was correct, that the problem was being fixed, and in the meantime I could place my order, give them the order number, and they would manually refund the extra charges. Even better, when I went to check out again, the problem was already resolved and there was no need for the manual action. I was very pleased with the quick resolution of my problem. But I wonder how many people would have even noticed the extra shipping and done anything about it.

Straight-Up Deception

Although it is rare, there are times when stores are actually breaking the law. I'm ashamed to say that this happened where I worked as a store manager and I had to take action to have the store's illegal practice changed. The company (a large regional department store) advertised a page of reclining chairs at special sale prices (all at $279.99 on sale). The problem occurred when the chairs were sold. We also charged a delivery fee of $30 which wasn't disclosed in our ad. The customers who purchased the chairs had to take delivery since we didn't stock any of the chairs; they were only available from our warehouse for delivery. When it came to my attention, I called our merchandising manager in the buying offices to let him know that what we had done was illegal, angering the customers, and we needed to deliver these chairs with no extra fee. That's exactly what we did and saved our reputation and any bad publicity or fines at the same time. Future ads featured the delivery fee disclosures.

The bottom line here is this: You don't have to study consumer law to know what's right, wrong, and fair. The idea that a fee was to be charged with no notice in our ad was simply unfair. Customers notice these things and aren't happy. But don't just walk away from something you want and need. Ask to talk with someone about an error or a deceptive practice and be persistent (but polite!). You will find that in order to make things right, action will be taken. If not, learn about filing a consumer complaint.

Stores spend a fortune in advertising and sales promotion to get you and keep you. Losing you and the people you might tell about your bad experiences will cost them even more in lost revenue. They don't want that to happen and that's why they will make adjustments to satisfy you if they know you're not happy. Always ask for a manager who can and will help you before you walk out the door.

What experiences have you had talking to a manager when shopping? Have you seen a deceptive practice or even an honest mistake?

Image courtesy of Worakit Sirijinda on (with changes)