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August 13, 2008


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Would they agree to the raincheck if they knew they weren't out?

If yes, then make sure they know, and you are being ethical.

If no, then you are profiting from deception, which is not ethical, even if the other person has the means and responsibility to test your implicit claim.

Jake nails it on the head.

That is totally unethical. You are basically steeling money from the store. Yes people need to keep their bills low, but business need to also make money and stay in business.

This is unethical. Not everything is ethically justifiable just because it's also frugal. Doing something to save money at the expense of others (even a big company) is selfish. If it's too expensive, you can choose not to buy it.

Taking advantage of a promotion such as coupons is clearly fine (the store receives value in the form of marketing) if you use it as the store intended, but this is on par with switching price tags or returning an item after you've used it.

Agree with Jake. Is this really worth it to save a few cents on peanut butter?

But isn't it the store's responsibility to check to make sure they are out?

If the customer hid the product to make the appearance that they are out, then it's fraud, but if the store obviously doesn't care, then why should the customer?

The customer is asking for the raincheck. The store can say no.

unethical. It's a form of stealing.

This is very unethical. When you are asking for a rain check you are effectively lying to the store and saying they are out of a product. Lying is almost never ethical and is never ethical when done for personal gain at the expense of another (including businesses).

Is it "technically" unethical if you don't actively represent to them that the reason you are asking for a raincheck is that they are out of the product? Maybe not. But, if they ask you if they are out of the product and you honestly answer, "no" how do you think that makes you look in the eyes of that store employee or owner? Maybe sneaky or deceptive? You'll be labeled as "someone to keep an eye on." So, you tell me. Is doing something that has that sort of result "unethical? Maybe not technically since you didn't actively lie. But it sure doesn't enhance your reputation! Don't ask how close you can get to the line without crossing it. Rather, stay far enough away from it to remove all doubt.

If you need to ask if it's ethical, then it's probably not. It's your conscience telling you it's not right, but you're trying to reason through it that somehow it is.

I remember from my finance class that grocery stores only have a profit margin of about 3% (not 3% on the Peanut Butter but on operations overall). The store expects and has a certain amount of shrink built into their prices and when they exceed that amount they have to raise prices for everything else.

If you steal something from the bank, it is the bank security guard's responsibility to stop you, or the police's responsibility to stop you. If you ask for a raincheck on an item in the grocery store, it is some clerk's responsibilty to check and see if the item is out of stock.

However, if the security guard or clerk or police do not effectively carry out their responsibilities, it does not absolve you of moral responsibility.

Either you are trying to be deceptive or not. If so, it's immoral. If not, then why not just go ahead and tell them that they're not out? Answer is likely because you hope that they are decieved.

Karla, your comment appears to suggest that if the store does not check and see if they are actually out of a product, then it shows they do not care and it then becomes ethical to get rainchecks for an item that is actually in-stock. Would it then be ethical to walk into someone's house and steal from them because they do not lock the front door? Would your argument then be "if they don't care to lock the front door, why should you care not to steal from them?" Additionally, just because an employee does not check on the item, does not mean that the STORE "doesn't care", just the employee.

People are responsible for their own actions. The inaction of others does not make it alright to take advantage of the situation.

Here is another way to look at it...

Why can the store sell Widgets 10/$1 for "ONE WEEK ONLY"??? If they can do it today, they can probably do the same thing in a month without going broke.

These specials are usually "Loss Leaders"... They lure you in with a couple of great deals and hope you buy some stuff with a larger margin in addition to those items on sale. I view this as a type of "Gotcha Capitalism" (macaroni and cheese 4/$1... oh, you need bread and milk too? that will be $10. Gotcha!)

I think if you ask an independent grocery store owner what he/she thinks of this practice, most likely they will be happy to have you back in the store, rather than angry about your "couponing" practices...

And big chains... Wouldn't care one bit...

This isn't even important enough to rise to the level of "is it ethical". It's business. Ethics and business are practically a contradiction in terms. Most businesses do whatever they can to maximize profits and disclose only what they are legally required to disclose. Car dealers give different prices to different customers all the time, based solely on the customer's sophistication and ability to negotiate. WalMart sells for less because they flex their industry muscles and put massive pressure on suppliers to lower their prices. Real Estate agents put "For Sale" signs in front of homes that have already sold, just to drum up business. (I personally witnessed that last one). As mentioned in an earlier post about grocery stores, they will price products in bulk for higher prices than the same individual item because they know people just assume the bulk price is lower. This is no different. Ethics are the first casualty of a free market.

Silly question.

rwh - Great example of the "everyone else does it" attitude. As mentioned in another post, people are responsible for their own honesty. If you base your values, ethics and honesty on what someone else is doing, you basically rate a zero on all three scales. In this case, a half-truth or intentionally midleading by omission is a lie.

I'd agree with Jake and Clever Dude.

If you are basically deceiving someone then its unethical. And if you have to as then chances are good its unethical.


rwh - Either you are not a business owner or you yourself are an unethical one. As a co-owner in the family business, I can say, at least in our business, that ethics play a strong role in our day-to-day operations. It is possible to have a successful business and still treat customers the way they should be treated. If you practice shady business in a competitive market, chance are that word will get around and you will be OUT of business. I see it all the time.

A lot of stores warn in their sale announcements that they don't offer rain checks, that quantities are limited, and that customers are limited to buying a certain number. Chances are, if the store doesn't take any of those measures, they don't care, and as JK suggested, would be perfectly happy to give you a reason to come back. In fact, they may not even have a rule that rain checks are only for items they're out of.

It would be unethical if you specifically told them they were out of something and you wanted a rain check for that reason or if there were a sign stating that rain checks are only for items they're out of. But otherwise, if you word it carefully, it's similar to asking for a discount at a hotel: "Do you offer a AAA discount? That's better, I'll take that." As long as you never claim you're a AAA member (assuming you aren't), you're not doing anything wrong. If you say "I'm not a AAA member, but can I have that discount anyway?" you put the clerk in a position where they can no longer offer you the discount and you go to the next hotel down the road.

If you're asking for a discount, people will work with you, but it helps to have enough finesse to avoid putting them in an difficult position. Even then, they'll sometimes still try to make it work. One time, my wife was at Jiffy Lube, and said something about how pricey the service was, and that she was considering going to Just Tires or Wal-Mart where it's cheaper. The clerk said they offer a military discount. She said that wouldn't work, because she's not in the military. The clerk said, winking, "I didn't quite hear you there. You ARE a member of the military, right?"

All of you wringing your hands about how unethical this is, that it's the equivalent of stealing, just relax. This is how stores keep their most price-sensitive customers happy and avoid losing them to the competition. If the store were losing money on them, they'd change their policies and say no to people asking for a discount.

Economists generally call this sort of thing price discrimination. Vendors need to charge at least enough to cover their costs, but want to charge as much as people are willing to pay, which varies from person to person. For that to work, they need to have a way to find out their customers' true price sensitivity. In the case of a grocery store, the most price sensitive customers prove that by taking the time and trouble to go ask for rain checks or clip coupons.

Unethical period. Agree with Jim.

It is unethical for the reasons stated above, but we(I) appreciate the question and your efforts to be financially and morally sound.

Scott and Jared:

I just came across this in today's NY Times:

I could find one of these every day if you like.

rwh - Did I say that every single business out there is ethical? Nope. Lotsa bad dudes out there. EVERYWHERE. To say that all businesses are unethical because some are is a non sequiter of large proportions.

Also, it looks like word got around on this one, just like I said eh?

Its very unethical. Clerks at the grocery store aren't going to walk away from the checkstand to make sure your not lying. Your not supposed to do that, for those who keep saying its their responsibility. I bet you would be complaining if your had to stand in line for an hour waiting for them to come back.

They trust the customer, just like when the customer says that the price was different, sometimes the clerk TRUSTS the customer.

If you ask for a raincheck, its for something that they are currently OUT OF. Just because your didn't say "you are out of this item" doesn't mean your not saying it when you ask for a freakin raincheck. Gosh, some of you people aren't too smart.

I just have to ask one thing. Have you ever gone to a store after looking at an ad and seeing something that you really were interested only to find out that they only had 1 or 2 of that item in the store to begin with? Is it ethical for a store to know that most of the people coming in are not going to get the item they want even though it is on sale because they only ordered a couple of them?

I am not picking sides but I do wonder?

IT IS COMPLETELY ETHICAL to bargain with a merchant with regard (1) with the price to be paid for the merchant's goods, and (2) with the terms under which an agreed upon price will be paid.

In this instance, you are engaging in a kind of "futures contract," in which you are asking the merchant to honor today's price for tomorrow's purchase.

None of the surrounding facts - the size of your pantry, or the size of the merchant's inventory - are relevant. You are within your rights to offer whatever you please for a merchant's goods, and a merchant is within its rights to accept or decline your offer - (so long as the merchant does not discriminate illegally in so doing).

Okay Jared. Do you own any mutual funds? Specifically any S&P 500 or Wilshire 5000 index funds? If you do, then you own a piece of several companies that have been in the news lately, such as JP Morgan/Chase, Wachovia, Merrill-Lynch, name a few.

If it's unethical to ask for a rain check on an item that may or may not be out of stock, even when the company has demonstrated a policy of honoring all rain check requests, then surely it's unethical to invest your money in companies that profit by deception, such as Merrill has admitted in the auction securities scandal, or outright fraud, as JP Morgan was found guilty of in the Enron case.

So, don't you think it's unethical to invest in companies that profit from unethical or illegal behavior? If so, you should condemn as unethical anyone that invests in these securites.

I'm with JK on this one. As a former retail management employee, I can say that ultimately, any way we can get a customer to return again is winning scenario. Advertise for traffic and merchandise for profitability. Those are the fundamentals. If the store is tracking their merchandising sales and are confident in their effectiveness, it will be good to give anyone a rain check.

*Except on Black Friday when the loss leaders are first come first serve.

Hi everyone,

I am the original poster (1 of only 2, it seems) for the comment that started this discussion.

While I may have exaggerated my practice frequency (I have done this exactly twice, for specifically the items I mentioned in the original comment, peanut butter and frozen entrees), this discussion is about the principle and not the logistics. I wanted to contribute to the discussion and raise some other points for consideration.

Rain checks for groceries, I believe, are regulated as a requirement by the FTC, if not also by state and local laws. So grocery stores may be required to provide them when asked, with certain criteria defined within the law (out of inventory, for example, or advertised aside from the price sticker). I have not read the law(s) but a quick search via Google shows that there are laws on the books. Other industries may not be required to have rain checks. Specifics aside, there are regulations surrounding the minimum requirements to issue rain checks to protect consumers from bait/switch tactics and under-stocking. Any other use of rain checks would be at the company's discretion.

As for the ethics of the situation, I am a human being, of course, so I believe there is a bit of grey in life when it comes to certain (if not all) black and white issues.

A rain check for an in-stock item is not necessarily stealing. You are offering to pay a certain price for something and the offer is accepted and the transfer completed. If you are upfront about the inventory or simply just ask without referencing the inventory, then it's a new negotiation for purchase. You will pay for the items at the agreed upon price. How is that stealing?

Just because it is not stealing by this black/white definition (you offered to pay, they accepted) does not mean it's ethical if you lie or mis-represent the reason for the request (you are out; I didn't see the item; You might be out of this, etc.) such that it falls within the company's policy re: rainchecks.

If you request a rain check for an item, and they give you one without diligence as a duly authorized representative of the store, then that's a new agreement between you and the store. Again, you offered, they accepted.

This does NOT correlate to "could someone just walk into your house and take something because you didn't tell them NOT to?", or "if the bank teller doesn't stop you from leaving with money from their drawer, then you think it's their responsibility and therefore not stealing". If we are going to use some sort of black/white perspective about lying (not telling them they have it in stock is lying by omission and therefore makes this unethical), then we have to look at the concept of contract negotiation black and white too (you offered, they agreed).

I had no idea my comment would spark this much response...Wow! I might not be as eloquent (or concise) as needed to get my points across. Sorry.


I appreciate your post, but I think the main reason it generated such response was the flood of comments that reflect a rigid, absolutist view of what is or isn't ethical. As you mention, the world isn't black and white, and whenever someone makes it appear that way, it stimulates others to inject some reality to the discussion.

Rainchecks are given when sale items are out of stock so that the customer does not lose the opportunity to purchase the item at that sale price. If the item is available but you choose to ask for a raincheck to use at future date of your own choosing it is indeed unethical. It doesn't matter if the store employees know or care. You know and coming up with all kinds of convoluted justifications don't change it.

I know someone who has a blank raincheck. just copy and fill out, you need store code.

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