Don't Short the Shopkeeper

Dec. 14, 2007
What constitutes good ethics in a sales-driven world?

"You shall not wrong the convert or oppress him." (Exodus 23:20) There is a book in Judaism called the Mishnah written thousands of years ago that deals with scripture interpretations and religious law; one section that I find interesting explores business and ethics. How do these ancient writings have anything to do with our business world today?

In the biblical quote, the word convert can be exchanged for stranger, according to my rabbi. I think we can take it further to mean customer in certain situations. This verse is the foundation for the "shopkeeper's law," which essentially says you are defrauding the shopkeeper when paying an unfair advantageous price for an item.

I think we've all encountered situations where we were charged too little for an item. How did you handle it? Did you figure it was a windfall for you? Did you rationalize not questioning the amount because it helps make up for the times you were overcharged? How you handle this situation speaks volumes. If your children are watching do you behave one way, and if you are alone do you conduct your affairs differently? I know that the size of the business has entered my decision-making process — "Oh, they're big and they can afford to absorb the loss," is easy to swallow. You can giftwrap it any way you want — it's wrong. Is any amount of savings worth your integrity?

How about in the tool business? Is this the way you want your customer to treat you? We may not be a big business, but in a tech's eyes we may appear to be better off financially than they are and able to take the "hit." If a customer sees a mistake in his favor on an invoice, wouldn't you want him to come forward?

How about when a tech returns a tool you had inadvertently left behind on the previous visit. When we get it back the following week (if we're fortunate), some of these guys want to be congratulated for returning it. There have been occasions where I've heard "I could have kept it," or "You wouldn't have known." My standard response is "Thanks," followed by "Honesty is its own reward," and then a smile.

The second part of the shopkeeper's law references the storekeeper's time. By making the storekeeper think that he has a potential buyer in the store to whom he should devote his time and expertise is another form of fraud when the buyer has no intention of purchasing. You should not feign interest, if in truth you are not interested. But what if you need some information about a product and you pick someone's brain at a store for awhile?

I have justified taking a salesperson's time in the past, using the "big store" excuse. With this part of the law, degrees of infraction come into play. Big retail stores always have personnel on hand and — if they are not doing anything else — why not help me? However, if it is a commissioned salesperson, you are stealing from them. In my observations, the smaller the business the less likely we are to engage in this behavior

How does this relate to us on the truck? I see a proliferation of these situations. Someone comes out and looks over a product and we do our best features and benefits presentation, and they say, "I'll think about it."

A few weeks later we see the same item in their box and ask about it. They say, "I found it on the web for $20 less than your price." Hey — we just got cheated twice. First they stole our time, and then they made their buying decision elsewhere on price alone after getting hands-on experience from us. You could say it's partially our failure since we didn't tip the sales scales in our direction. However, their decision was made after seeing us. Then greed gets in the way. We all have some customers that steal our time and exhibit this behavior.

Where does the shopkeeper's law apply to the vo-tech programs that major tool companies have in place? These students can get all the tool info they need and then purchase product below my cost. I regard my time invested there as benefiting the greater good so the next generation of techs will have a favorable concept of my brand. But what are the long-term consequences?

I am willing to pay a few bucks more for personal service and to support the small guy. It's not always about the lowest price — isn't that what we preach to our clients? After becoming knowledgeable about the shopkeeper's law, I look at things differently. The interpretations from the Mishnah are thousands of years old. However, when it comes to doing the right thing, it truly is "same-old, same-old."

Some things never change.

Nik Satenstein is a mobile distributor based in West Chester, Pa., for Matco Tools. You can contact Nik by email at [email protected].

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