Is buying a product before it hits shelves unfair?
September 21, 2006 4:42 AM   Subscribe

Should employees of stores be allowed to take (potentially rare) merchandise and buy it themselves before it hits the store shelves?

For example, when I worked in a particular retail store, if we took a product from "the back" before it had been placed on shelves, and set it aside to purchase later, we got in trouble. If it was just behind the register where we worked, we just got told to put the product back; if it was in our lockers, it was considered theft. (Not exaggerating - unpurchased items in your locker was theft.) I am not certain, but I don't think taking it from the back after the end of the shift and purchasing it was allowed either, if the product had not yet hit shelves.

So here comes the new Tickle-Me-Elmo Xtreme, as an example. Why should retail employees be allowed to snap up all of them first and sell them for greatly-inflated prices on eBay? (Let's assume they'll be as rare and as in-demand as the original, which I highly doubt.)

Someone on another site argued that retail employees put up with a lot of crap for low wages. So? Just because people put up with X amount of crap doesn't entitle them to take unfair advantage of their position over other paying customers.

What do you think? Should retail employees be allowed to buy products before they hit shelves?
posted by IndigoRain to Shopping (38 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
No, because the store gains in reputation by having as many of that rare item available as possible. Its availability has value to the store. (BTW if it was my store and I found unpurchased items in your locker, I would consider it stolen-ish.)
posted by R. Mutt at 4:49 AM on September 21, 2006

Why should retail employees be allowed to snap up all of them first and sell them for greatly-inflated prices on eBay?

They shouldn't, but so long as concepts like 'release dates' are with us in the retail space, it's going to continue to happen.

I'm something of a gamer, and as such I'm very familiar with game store employees taking exception to release dates so they can get a game for themselves.

Generally this is followed up with braggadocio, posting pictures on Evil Avatar and the like of the ill-gotten goods. It's a fine way for them to feel superior to other people.

Of course, it's also horribly stupid, since it brings the threat of fewer new titles in the future at best or legal action at worst.
posted by owenkun at 4:50 AM on September 21, 2006

I got no problem with that, employees at a store should be allowed first pick, I mean what other privilege do they enjoy from their job?
posted by Vindaloo at 4:55 AM on September 21, 2006

I should also mention that, for games at least, services like Valve's Steam show promise for doing away with release day hand-wringing.

Download all the necessary files beforehand, then on release day, pay your money et voilà your game's available to you.
posted by owenkun at 5:03 AM on September 21, 2006

Slightly different version of this conundrum.

I worked at a bookstore in NYC in Summer 2000, the time Harry Potter IV came out. We received the first editions one week before release date.

One of the guys unpacking the boxes discovered a copy of the book with the embossed 'Harry Potter' lettering omitted. All the jacket read was 'and the Goblet of Fire'. Imagine that - a first edition HP hardback with an enormous misprint on the front.

He immediately put it on the employee shelf, bought it, put it on eBay the day it was released and went on holiday. I think he got $20K+ for it.

Well done, I said.
posted by randomination at 5:03 AM on September 21, 2006

Of all the things in the world to be outraged about, this one barely registers. I don't get worked up about this because, as a toy collector, I've seen this happen time and time again with whatever hot toy comes down the pike. Thing is, hot toys cool off, and if you are patient, you'll be able to find whatever you want eventually, especially when it's something like Tickle Me Elmo TMX.

Why is it unfair for an employee to buy something first? Restricting an employee from buying something just because they're an employee would be more unfair than letting them buy the occasional hot item. Why should an employee be penalized just because they work for the store where it's selling?

You might dismiss this argument, but first pick is a benefit just like an employee discount. Are you complaining that employees get to pay lower prices, too?

The ultimate problem here is that you are allowing yourself to be manipulated by marketing and hype if you feel like you absolutely must have this particular toy right now. If you are all wrapped up in that "must have hot toy NOW" mentality, maybe you're better off buying on eBay and paying the impatience penalty. Or, take this as a challenge and work your butt off and do legwork until you find the toy you want... find out when shipments show up at the store, and be there that morning.
posted by MegoSteve at 5:20 AM on September 21, 2006

when i used to work retail we were allowed to do this.

lets say the items release date was a friday. i work fridays and saturdays. so i dont have an option to go elsewhere to buy the item.

so i was allowed to grab a copy of whatever item i wanted before it hit the shelves.
posted by moochoo at 5:28 AM on September 21, 2006

Similar problem in the library/booksale world. People drop off whatever in the library donation box. Some savvy librarians can recognize what is going to sell well and what isn't. Librarians are often allowed first dibs at what is going to be sold at the booksale (this is not about books that might wind up on the shelf, fwiw), and those books are usually priced by the friends of the library who, in the cases I've seen, just make them all fifty cents or a dollar, for example. So, if the librarian (or other savvy library staffer) buys the book for a dollar and sells it on Ebay for $150 is that, in some way, ripping off the library for $149?

My feeling is that this is one of those ethical issues that is decided more by policy than by any right or wrong answer: it's okay if the store says it's okay. It's a great perq for an otherwise perqless job. Have a policy that says employees can buy one, for instance. Or that there will be five of [hot item] for sale, determined by raffle. It just seems like this a potential morale builder for the store if they do it right, and there are few ethics in the marketplace other than what the market will bear.

I do think the librarian who resells the hot library booksale finds for her own profit (from her own booksale, not from the booksales of others) is doing the public a disservice.
posted by jessamyn at 5:30 AM on September 21, 2006

Look at it like stock options.

Why should Wal-Mart employees be allowed to snap up shares of company stock and sell them at a profit on the stock exchange? Because the company lets them. The company owns shares of its own stock, and it chooses what to do with them. If it chooses to make them easily available to employees, then so be it.

Why should Wal-Mart employees be allowed to snap up toys and sell them at a profit on E-Bay? Same reason. The company lets them. The company owns the toys that it's bought from the manufacturer, and it chooses what to do with them. If it chooses to make them easily available to employees, then so be it.

And if your store didn't let you snap up potentially valuable merchandise — well, that's their choice too. Just because you didn't get to play, that doesn't mean the people who do get to are wrong. I've worked for plenty of companies that didn't offer me stock options; I don't complain that employees who do get stock options are "taking unfair advantage."
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:39 AM on September 21, 2006

I think its fine if the employee actually intends to keep the item. For resale, later? No thanks.
posted by Atreides at 5:45 AM on September 21, 2006

Retail employees deal on a day-to-day basis with the drooling masses, coworkers barely capable of going thirty seconds without complaining about something and managers who realize "this is the best my life's ever going to be, so let me go whip my drones some more"....and you want to take away the one minor perk they have?

If you don't want to pay overinflated prices for toys for your kids, then teach them that unchecked consumerism is a bad thing and they won't be getting the new Elmo this year. Surprisingly, doctors are now saying that your kid WILL live to see the next Christmas if you do this.

And we wonder why people fly planes into our buildings. Perhaps it's because we have THIS to worry about in our lives and nothing else?
posted by Spoonman at 6:08 AM on September 21, 2006

It is called Cherry picking, and is a time honored tradition amongst employees. Some people will even get jobs in specific stores to feed their habit.

The only industry where this is a no-no is the stock market where there are rules against what one may call insider trading (Not to say that it doesn't happen, just that there are rules governing it.)
posted by Gungho at 6:12 AM on September 21, 2006

I worked in a toy store during the heyday of Cabbage Patch Kids, Teddy Ruxpin, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. We were expressly forbidden from cherry picking the merchandise.

Even now, I work for a major telecom who routinely instructs us not to buy the latest gear so that customers can have first dibs. I have no problem with this. In theory, the customer comes first...
posted by daveleck at 6:18 AM on September 21, 2006

I don't understand why there's any answer here other than "it's okay if the employer does not prohibit it".... If the employer buys the item, and is willing to preferentially sell it to employees, what's the problem?
posted by raf at 6:30 AM on September 21, 2006

When I worked in retail we were allowed to do this. I consider it an employee benefit, but if it gets taken advantage of, that's where you run into trouble. Your company may have had a history of people taking advantage of that policy, and that's why there are so many rules now. I agree with Atreides in that it's fine if the employee actually intends to keep the item. For example, I could have bought a ton of gift cards or products with my employee discount and resold them on eBay for a profit, but that doesn't make it right. And by the way, unpaid merchandise in your locker is totally theft/shrinkage. I can't believe you're indignant over that. When I read that line I was like "Of course you shouldn't be allowed to do that!!" There's no way for management to check that you aren't just walking out with it at the end of the day. The biggest theft problem stores face is usually internal theft, so I'd say your mangers aren't out of line at all on the locker bit.
posted by ml98tu at 6:35 AM on September 21, 2006

They're paying for it, aren't they? What's the problem? They can buy it and do whatever they want with it afterward. If a customer who isn't an employee can resell something after they've purchased it why shouldn't a customer who is an employee be able to do the same?

If one needs to have the latest toy before it comes out one gets a crappy second job at Suncoast or Toys R Us or something. If it means that much to one.
posted by Jess the Mess at 6:45 AM on September 21, 2006

Just to make the point that sometimes the motives for the policy aren't all that sinister...when I worked clothing retail we were encouraged to use our employee discount to purchase new, "hot" items. The idea is that we'd then wear them to work ad both act as real-life mannequins and also give the impression that as salespeople, we were up-to-date with the latest trends.

I can see the same being true at gaming shops so customers can talk to the salespeople about the latest systems or best games, and also at bookstores so sellers can provide recommendations. Not saying that's true of say, Tickle-Me-Elmo, but it's a nice perk that in some cases encourages knowledgable people to work at certain types of stores.
posted by lalex at 6:47 AM on September 21, 2006

No, it's not unfair. Why shouldn't employees be allowed to do this? They're barely making any money, this is their one chance at having a decent per[q|k]. Why is it more fair to allow speculators to come in and buy 20 on opening day? If store policy says it's ok, then it's ok. Likewise the "1 per customer" rule that stores often have for hot items.
posted by antifuse at 6:57 AM on September 21, 2006

If I owned a store I would let my employees take the items on the condition that they shouldn't resell them within a few months. The employee should not be using their position for personal gain at their employer's loss.

posted by grouse at 6:57 AM on September 21, 2006

At the jewelry store I work at, we can purchase a new item (assuming more are available from the manufacturer) for cost plus ten percent. Estate items a price is figured out by the owner.
posted by CCK at 6:59 AM on September 21, 2006

is that, in some way, ripping off the library for $149?

Yes, because the donator intended benefit to accrue to the library no matter what the value of the book.
posted by scheptech at 7:10 AM on September 21, 2006

Best answer: The fact that some retail employees consider themselves underpaid, overworked and stressed out does not imply they should enjoy special treatment. A lot of people are underpaid, overworked and stressed, and most don't enjoy any special perks from their job. Shitty work conditions are hardly exclusive to the retail industry.

Since we're discussing potentially rare merchandise (one of those shiny new PS3 consoles, if I may hazard a guess?), I would argue against it. Especially if the aim is to put the item in question in eBay immediately afterwards or to indulge in an Internet forum bragfest. That's plain greedy in the former case, and plain immature in the latter.
posted by doctorpiorno at 7:11 AM on September 21, 2006

Just because people put up with X amount of crap doesn't entitle them to take unfair advantage of their position over other paying customers.

Define "unfair," and explain why this qualifies.

I used to manage a record store. Every employee was allowed a "hold" box with a limited number of items, so they could set items aside for later purchase. This potentially harmed the store, because if we only had one copy of a CD, our warehouse wouldn't ship another until we sold the first one — but if that copy was sitting in my "hold" box, then it wasn't available for sale.

To this I say, "So what?" The small number of employees combined with those employees' relatively esoteric tastes ensured that this was rarely — never, to my recollection — a problem. If a customer requested that CD, I could call a nearby store or else order it from the warehouse. (I didn't have access to our computerized inventory, so I couldn't know whether the CD was being held.)

We sold Star Wars merchandise when The Phantom Menace was released — and yeah, a bunch of us snapped up the good stuff on the night before its official release. We tore off the UPC tags and left them behind the cashwrap with our money so the morning crew could ring in our purchases, because we'd get in trouble if the computer reported any early sales. I suppose this was "unfair," insofar as employees weren't on a level playing field with customers...but who said they should be? We got an employee discount, too. Was that unfair? George Lucas wanted everyone to buy his stuff on May 30 for $14.99 — and instead, we bought it on May 29 for $7.49. How is an early date different than a lower price?

It sounds to me like my store was more lenient than yours, and your experience made you bitter — like you're angry that some people are allowed to do something, because you weren't allowed to do it.

I let my employees get away with plenty. They were teenaged kids being paid minimum wage. They could have made more at almost any other job, including the McDonald's up the street or the Taco Bell next door; but we made it a cool place to work, and the result was that employee morale soared — which made them good workers, which made our sales skyrocket, which made us the #2 store in the company, the first time a suburban store had ever beat the Harvard Square location.

Our society depends heavily on retail. Nearly everything we use, including food and clothing, is delivered via retail sales. Yet consider the low esteem we hold for retail employees — and then we have the nerve to complain that we can't get decent service from incompetent employees. I don't mean to derail too far, but the point is that you get what you pay for; and if you're not willing to pay a living wage, then you'd better reward employees another way or else you'll be stuck with a disinterested staff who will torpedo your sales. So even if I conceded that allowing early sales was "unfair," I'd still do it — because it's a small concession for a much greater reward, both for the store and for its customers. I'd rather keep the playing field slightly uneven, if the price for an even field is that everybody loses.
posted by cribcage at 7:14 AM on September 21, 2006 [3 favorites]

grouse, it's not at the empoyer's loss unless the employer was going to sell it on ebay.

When I worked in a video rental store that also sold retail movies, I could cherry pick and got everything at cost. I would spend my lonely saturday morning shifts checking the cost of movies, looking for that $6 gem. Once in a while the manager would veto any cherry picking on a specific title for a brief period and we weren't allowed to *rent* the hot newest titles because that would mean lost revenue if it was likely to rent out.

I had to stay to work until midnight on the nights that Titanic and star wars episode 1 were released for sale on VHS. Both nights there were lineups before 12, waiting for their chance to buy. And both nights, staff got first dibs.

If it wasn't for perks like this, this job would have been horrible. I had to put up with snot nosed kids pouring hot sauce from the KFC across the parking lot into our free customer popcorn. I had to deal with theft, drunk people (24 hr store), and middle aged men YELLING at me because I called their wife about their overdue porno tapes (another perk of the job :p). I had to kick teenagers out of the back room where said porno tapes were kept. Once we even had to deal with a suspected masturbator.

Shit like this combined with horrible pay deserves a tickle me elmo.
posted by utsutsu at 7:17 AM on September 21, 2006

Retail staff typically do not get sick leave, holiday pay and the other perks associated with less service-oriented jobs. We work shitty hours when our friends are out enjoying their lives, because heavens forfed the public go without an opportunity to spend money for a single second of the day. We put up with megalomaniacs who think their time is worth more than every other customer in the line, being left to babysit small kids while their parents try on a half a dozen items of clothing, oblivious to their tykes gumming up the products with whatever sugary pacifier they've been fed. We contract all kinds of unpleasant colds from clods who think a day taken off for the flu is best spent in retail therapy instead of in bed. People try to haggle. They shout abuse for things we can't control, or because they didn't take the time to read all the instructions on the box and it's your fault that they put it in the dishwasher and wrecked the finish. You find yourself trying to convince fat women that they are actually a 16 to stop them trying on 10s and splitting all the seams, only to have them do it any way once your back is turned. You see the very worst of people, greedy and ignorant and aravicious. It's nasty.

Damn straight we should get first pick. It's the only perk on offer in an absolutly shithouse job. And if someone manages to resell a product for a ridiculous sum, then I applaud them. Retail is a hell of a job to work. Take what you can get.

*has been in retail for all her working life. Does it show?*
posted by Jilder at 7:21 AM on September 21, 2006 [2 favorites]

I think each company should be able to make their own policies on this depending on their own needs and goals, and their strategy for accomplishing them. Is it more important to them to have a reputation of having more rare items on the shelves for the customers, or to have a rare opportunity to offer their employees a potentially much-deserved and much-appreciated perk? Both have big advantages.

Every job has different perks. When I used to waitress, I'd get a free meal every shift that customers were paying up to $50 a head for, and a free drink they'd pay up to $14 a glass for. But that doesn't mean that it cost the restaurant that much to give it to me for free. Now I work in publishing, I often get signed first printings of books by well-known authors, and I get to meet the authors. I don't have to stand in line at B&N or even pay for the book, and I could potentially resell the items (I won't). That's one less first printing out in the world. There will always only be however many they printed, and I get one (or more!) for free. I'm not swindling anyone--this is a gift from my employer, one of many things they do to keep their employees happy to be working hard here and to thank them for doing so. I bet your job has perks too. What they are is up to your employer, not your employer's customers, though everything is taken into account, one would hope.
posted by lampoil at 7:39 AM on September 21, 2006

Everyone check out this Consumerist post, which I strongly believe to be the motivation behind the question. The site linked to Kat's profile helps me understand her frustration. That's quite an amazing site you've got there. How did you get into doing it?
posted by Mr. Gunn at 8:09 AM on September 21, 2006

When I worked in retail it was entirely common for customers to come in and purchase items that they were going to resell: we had one woman who ran her own boutique exclusively with stuff she bought from us. Another time I had a woman come in with a list of perfumes she was looking to buy in order to resell them at the pharmacy where she worked. The management knew all about this sort of thing, and there was nothing they could do about it. Reselling on eBay would be pretty much the same thing.

That said, I think I remember that when I was signing all of the paperwork when I first got the job, there was something like a non-compete clause, or something about disclosing any other interests that could interfere with your work. I assume that cherry-picking the best items (which were steeply discounted already where I worked, plus an employee discount) and reselling them for even normal retail price on eBay or somesuch would probably qualify.
posted by anjamu at 8:48 AM on September 21, 2006

I don't think you should get first crack at it, however, on your first ten minute break after the product hit the shelves, if there is no line, you should be able to purchase it then, as during that time, you are not working there.
posted by Monkey0nCrack at 9:46 AM on September 21, 2006

I know in some stores (including a sporting goods store I currently work for) there are some items that get shipped to us with specific instructions not to release before a certain date. Employees aren't allowed to purchase them before that date, but we can go in the day of as they are putting them on the shelves and buy as many as we want.

However, with rare items (like brand new lines of Nikes for instance) or items we anticipate will be sold out, we DO NOT get our employee discount, which curbs a lot of the employees from trying to buy just to make a profit on them.
posted by Ugh at 10:57 AM on September 21, 2006

Yes, because the donator intended benefit to accrue to the library no matter what the value of the book.

Exactly. Its like leaving a check made out to cash in the donation box. Just because someone can spot something of worth and knows how to sell it does not give them the right to just take it. What that person is doign is highly unethical if they dont tell their library. The library can decide to ban the practice or do a 50/50 split, thus ensuring people still look for valuable books and put them on ebay. The library gets 75 dollars in this case as opposed to 15 cents.

This is no different than bringing a valuable antique to an appraiser and having the appraiser say "Its worth 20 bucks, I'll give you 10 for it right now." The librarians duty as a donor processor is not that different and pulling the same trick is scamming the donor.

As for the main question, yes its wrong to do this with new hotly anticiapted merchandise that will sell-out quickly. The store exists to serve the customers first. Many retail outfit have a 2-week rule. Same with sold out movies. This rule also stops the "reselling librarian" scenario not just "why did everyone call off when the Wii shipped and why dont they have any in stock?"
posted by damn dirty ape at 12:28 PM on September 21, 2006

>Not exaggerating - unpurchased items in your locker was theft.)

Why wouldnt it be? You have an unacounted piece of inventory in your on-premises private possesion.
posted by damn dirty ape at 12:31 PM on September 21, 2006

Go by store policy. And then befriend anyone you can who works somewhere with an employee-friendly policy. I have some friends who work for a used bookstore that also gets its fair share of CDs and DVDs and, while I hardly ever see them on the shelves at work, I'm amazed by the number of Criterion Collection movies and nice books I see on their shelves at home.
posted by mikeh at 1:07 PM on September 21, 2006

grouse, it's not at the empoyer's loss unless the employer was going to sell it on ebay.

I disagree. If this is a product where shortages exist, the store would be almost certain of selling it at full price off the shelf. The store would be well within its rights to insist that the employee discount/selection advantage not apply to goods for resale.
posted by grouse at 6:26 PM on September 21, 2006

Response by poster: Hi all -

You guys are making this way too personal. I don't think there's anything in recent history that I've wanted from a retail store that was super trendy. It's come up with that Consumerist post (yes, that's me) and with all the preorder paranoia around the PS3 and Wii. For the record, I did not and do not want a 360, and I will not be getting a PS3 nor a Wii at launch, by choice - but not because of all this.

I just got into that discussion at Consumerist, and then realized I wasn't entirely sure if I do think it's wrong - even though I lean towards it being wrong - and wanted to hear some more ideas here.

There is also a certain item I collect, that is not being manufactured any more (nothing gaming-related), and there is a woman on a forum I go to who tries to win every auction she can, and resell the items at higher prices. I don't think that's very nice either, since it makes it harder for the rest of the collectors to get the product, when she might have 10 of the same product. Yeah, there's nothing I can do but pay her higher prices or pay more to win the auction in the first place. It makes me angry because she doesn't care about the items at all... she only cares about getting more money, while we collectors do care about the items.

I was not indignant about stuff in our lockers being theft either - I just thought some people might not believe it and wanted to emphasize that point.

One the one hand, I don't think it's fair for people to sell brand new Xbox 360's at twice the price on eBay, but on the other hand, if the buyer has the money to spare and it is worth it to him to pay twice the price to have it NOW, then that's his business.

Even as a former retail worker, I don't agree with the argument that "we put up with so much crap, heck ya we should get to make a profit" - you knew what the benefits were (if any) when you took your job, and you can quit if you don't like your job. (I know, it's not always that simple.)
posted by IndigoRain at 8:47 PM on September 21, 2006

Another thing to consider is that if you can take an item off the store shelf, put it immediately on ebay, and get twice as much for it, the store is really leaving money on the table. Someone should take advantage of that, if the store isn't going to.

I know what you mean about the annoying people who always drive us the auction price because they're willing and able to pay more than anyone else. If this lady you bid against always does this, doesn't that kinda suggest something wrong may be going on? It reminds me of that strategy in casino poker hustling employing a team of people. One person on the team bets outrageously to drive up the pot while the other person counts the cards and bets conservatively but reaps higher pots because of his associate.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 10:21 PM on September 21, 2006

Response by poster: 23skidoo - okay, when you want Product X and can't find it anywhere but on eBay at twice the price or more, I don't want to hear you complaining.
posted by IndigoRain at 11:14 PM on September 22, 2006

No offense IndigoRain, but I think "professional" speculators lining up all night are much more of a threat on these sorts of things than employees. And there's no toy so important that it can't wait for the next shipment to arrive from the manufacturer. In fact, sounds like a good time to teach a child about delayed gratification. :)
posted by antifuse at 12:46 AM on September 25, 2006

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