Friday, March 15, 2019

It’s Only Fair

Astonishingly, organizations can violate their own mission statement without any manager or non-supervisory employee being aware of the violation. This can happen even when the people in an organization really do take their mission seriously. At Goodwill, the mission is to end poverty, a laudable goal. It follows explicitly (i.e., according to a sign in the stores) that “every customer has an equal opportunity to purchase any item for sale.” Although the sign bases this point on the fact that the goods “come from public donation,” I submit that ending poverty by giving the poor access to relatively low-priced merchandise is hampered if some customers are permitted to fill their carts with on-sale (i.e., color of week) items when the doors open. Certainly allowing those resale-minded customers to deprive other customers of a selection of items on sale (especially clothing, which even homeless people need) is not fair.

According to the sign, possible violations include any employee or volunteer of a store being able to purchase items in the store whether for themselves or others. “Nor may merchandise be reserved or set aside for anyone.” To be sure, recognition is also given to the possibility that a customer might think that the organization is not being fair. When I interviewed a store manager about whether allowing customers who resell items on sale in “garage sales” conveniently misconstrued as businesses to buy in such bulk that effectively deprives other customers, whose use for the clothing is for personal use, she dodged the question itself but took my point implicitly by admitted that she knew of no way in which the practice could be thwarted. I told her I had a few ideas, but she was not interested in them. I topld her I am a business ethicist and would be writing on this case. Patronizingly, she quipped, “Have fun writing your paper!” In retrospect, I wish I had replied, “Have fun managing!” How interested would the organization’s management be? I wondered at the time.
Goodwill could indeed have stepped in to prevent the obviously unfair practice of certain customers, who actually compete with each other in going around—as part of their re-selling businesses—to different Goodwill stores to swoop up as many shirts or pants on sale. 

A "garage sale" of a reseller open for business at her personal residence. Beyond the cars is the Goodwill store at which I had observed the opening of a major, half-off, sale on shoes and clothing (and misc) just a week earlier. Some of the athletic shoes, which sold for $7 without any negotiation (a sign that a reseller is hosting the "garage sale"), I had seen in a cart full of such shoes at the beginning of the sale at the Goodwill store. 

The personal-use customers can have little chance, or practical opportunity, to get an item on sale because Goodwill allows customers even at the opening of a sale to fill their carts entire of one kind of item (e.g., athletic shoes). Even if a wife/mother is buying athletic shoes for her husband and teenage kids, a whole cartful is suspicious. I witnessed a woman head immediately to the shoe section when the doors open and quickly throw as many athletic shoes in her card as she could before other customers had a chance to take advantage of the sale. Clearly, the monopolistic character of the woman’s behavior and that her commercial interests could eclipse the personal-use interest of other customers who would do without as a result not only reek of unfairness, but also violate the “equal opportunity to purchase any item in the store.”

A reseller had her cart full just seven minutes after the Goodwill store opened with a sale that would practically guarantee that the reselling would be lucrative. The number of men's shorts alone in this cart points to something beyond personal use. The resellers do not pay taxes on their profits because the sales, primped as "garage sales," are easy not to report. Legally, the income from genuine garage sales is taxable.

Meanwhile, Goodwill looks the other way undoubtedly because more revenue and less risk of having items unable to be sold are obtained when the re-sellers buy in bulk. In other words, the lack of recognition of the tilted status quo and of ideas on how to restore balance may not be accidents. A false premise that the status quo must be balanced, or that the status quo does not justify effort to achieve balance may also be in the mix. A policy could be put into effect that limits the number of same-classification items on sale that can be purchased by each customer.
Already I can think of ways in which the commercial customers could get around this limitation, for profit-seekers hate limits, whether internal or external. They could bring along family and friends to divide up the quickly stashed merchandise. They could fill their respective carts when the doors open and carefully stash their carts so to be able to make multiple trips to different cashiers.
At some point, however, store employees and even managers can be relied on to help enforce the policy by being on the lookout for such tricks. A customer’s claim that she needs a cartful of sneakers in order to try them on to find one that fits can be easily rebuffed. Only six items are allowed in the fitting rooms anyway. Such games and how to deconstruct them could be incorporated into training. It is not difficult, for example, to see people quickly filling their respective carts with one or two item-classifications shortly after the doors open. The store manager with whom I spoke had no problem in identifying the re-sellers who buy in bulk. Her hands’ off, laissez faire attitude was problematic as it did not fit with the organization’s mission to reduce poverty in a fair way, which in turn requires equal access to the merchandise. Hiding behind the relatively effortless status quo, as if it were intractable or even as fair as possible, evinces a willingness to live with an unfairness that could otherwise be reduced even if it cannot be eliminated. Not having any ideas when imperfect measures could make a dent evinces an unwillingness to think too far from the status quo (i.e., outside the box).