Moral hazard thought experiment, furniture edition.
February 28, 2013 8:25 AM   Subscribe

Can a hypothetical furniture buyer ethically keep this hypothetical dining table? Say someone you know ordered a dining room table and chairs from a major furniture retailer (think Pottery Barn). The table was delivered by a third-party furniture delivery company and the chairs were sent, a week later, via UPS. Once it's all together, the buyer decides that it's not what he wants and calls the retailer to arrange a return. "No problem," the customer service agent says. "Repackage the chairs and send them back via UPS. The third-party delivery company will contact you to arrange pickup of the table within five days." Chairs go back the next day. Seven days elapse and no call from the delivery company. The buyer calls the retailer and explains the situation, and the customer service agent refunds the entire order price to the buyer's credit card and says that the third-party delivery company should call one of these days to arrange to pick up the table. "What if they don't?" asks the buyer. "Well, you've received a full refund for the order," says the agent, "so you're not really responsible for the table anymore."

There are (at least) four likely scenarios. I probably demostrates the most ethical behavior on the part of the buyer, but are II-IV inherently and/or equally unethical?

I. The delivery company calls, the buyer answers. They agree on a timeslot for the table to be picked up, the buyer stays home from work to wait for them, the company comes and picks up the table.

II. The delivery company never calls, and the buyer never follows up with the furniture company and keeps the table.

III. The delivery company calls once and the buyer misses (or "misses") the call. No one calls again, and the buyer keeps the table.

IV. The delivery company calls and the buyer answers. Several pickup timeslots are offered, but since they're all during normal business hours, none are convenient for the buyer, who, having received the refund, no longer has much incentive to stay home from work to wait for the delivery company. The delivery company cannot compel the buyer to accept a timeslot and the buyer keeps the table.
posted by ndg to Grab Bag (15 answers total)
I was a phone rep for years for a major catalog retailer. My bet is the delivery company will never call. The cost to ship back the table is fairly large, and it is unlikely to be returned to stock when and if it comes back.

Honestly, it is cheaper for the company for you to keep the table than it is for them to accept the return.
posted by anastasiav at 8:28 AM on February 28, 2013

It may cost the retailer more to arrange to have the table returned than it does to write it off (case goods are pretty cheap these days)

I think the purchaser has an obligation to work with the 3rd party delivery service, so if they say, "We can come get it on Monday at 9:00 AM," then the purchaser should make him/herself available.

But if no one ever calls, then that's on the retailer.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:30 AM on February 28, 2013

It depends where you are but you may have a legal obligation to take good care of the table for a certain period of time before you can declare it yours and do what you want with it.

I would say you have no ethical obligation to follow up with the furniture company or delivery company again as you've already, in good faith, attempted to rectify the problem.
posted by missmagenta at 8:30 AM on February 28, 2013

II is not at all unethical. The buyer has informed the dealer (with whom he or she has the agreement to return the table) of the issue. It is now incumbent upon the dealer to arrange the retrieval of the table. The third-party delivery company is not the buyer's problem. If the dealer really wants the table back, then the dealer gets to harass them.

III is unethical. If the third-party company is trying to get the table, the buyer is responsible for at least making a good-faith attempt to return their contact.

IV is also unethical, but the third-party company should show some flexibility as well (e.g., a 9 a.m. or 5 p.m. pickup to minimize the buyer's time away).
posted by Etrigan at 8:33 AM on February 28, 2013

II - unethical. You need to follow up once (but not more) with the company. At that point, you can keep the table.
III - unethical. You need to follow up a few times with the company. You can keep the table only after making several more reasonable efforts to get it picked up.
IV - ethical. You can't be forced to miss work for this. If a delivery company is only availble 9-5 M-F, this is not your problem.
posted by jeather at 8:34 AM on February 28, 2013

Moral hazard thought experiment

So, you're asking for a rigorous academic type defense? Or the practical best thing to do while not being intentionally obstructive?

Those two may not be the same thing and one is a lot more work than the other which basically boils down to "Don't be a jerk."
posted by RolandOfEld at 8:36 AM on February 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Okay, I will play.

I. N/A - I would not miss work because I am "not responsible" for the table. I did not receive a call within five days (when I would have been willing to meet with the movers) so I don't assume burdens (ethical or otherwise) that aren't mine to bear.

2. Ethical - I am "not responsible" because I did not receive a call within the promised five days.

3. Ethical - See above.

4. Ethical - See above.

Aside: I don't run around trying to scam free tables, but giving someone a "freebie" and then later trying to coerce a certain behavior/commitment from them is a classic form of manipulation. "I will do an unrequested favor for you today, and then at some point in the future I will randomly show up and ask a favor of you. And you have to do it because you owe me one. Okay?" No, it is not okay! Haha
posted by 99percentfake at 8:59 AM on February 28, 2013

I think 2 is thoroughly ethical, but there is a great deal of wiggle room in numbers 3 & 4. If the buyer is in the habit of screening calls and chooses not to answer the delivery company's call and then does not return the call, scenario 3 is no longer ethical. If the buyer is being needlessly difficult in scenario 4 (has plenty of time off available and could use a day off anyway, or maybe has a friend or family member who could arrange to be present for the day, or whatever), that scenario would become no longer ethical.
posted by Rock Steady at 9:05 AM on February 28, 2013

Number II happened to my mom when I was a kid. My mom called them up at some point and they said we could keep it.
posted by aniola at 9:18 AM on February 28, 2013

You are ethically in the clear. Enjoy your hypothetical table.
posted by maryr at 9:40 AM on February 28, 2013

I think they're all ethical except the sub-question of number 3 that is inherent in (or "misses"). You don't have to go out of your way to make this convenient (taking days off work, etc), but basic courtesies like answering the phone and returning messages are required.
posted by jacquilynne at 10:49 AM on February 28, 2013

If this happened to me, I would donate the table, just because I presumably didn't want it or need it (since I already got my "table money" back in the refund).
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:18 AM on February 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

Is there some reason the buyer can't call the third-party delivery company and see what they say?
posted by Snarl Furillo at 12:18 PM on February 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'd say that all of them are ethical, since the company chose to issue the refund without having the table their possession, for whatever hypothetical reason (which may be that it's cheaper to let the table go even with the added moral hazard when weighed against the cost of shipping it back and/or restocking it and/or your disinclination to shop with them again if returning it is difficult, or that they can just re-bill you for it if they don't get it back).

Of course, it would be ethical for the shipping company to report back to the vendor that it wasn't possible to arrange for pickup (especially in case IV, because it sounds like they're half-assing it in II and III), at which point the vendor could ethically re-bill you and put the burden on you to arrange for the return to get your money back.
posted by alphanerd at 2:11 PM on February 28, 2013

What did you tell the representative you were going to do? I think you have an ethical responsibility to stand by your word and follow through on your agreements.
posted by MrOlenCanter at 3:37 AM on March 1, 2013

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