Ethics and the Art of Thrifting For Profit

Yesterday, a particular user took to the message boards of Styleforum to brag about return something to a retail store that he had purchased at a thrift store. As this sort of thing normally will, this incited a lively discussion of whether or not such a practice is legal and/or ethical.

Since a lot of people who read this blog are thrifting with an eye towards reselling for profit, I thought I’d add my twopence here for posterity’s sake.

Here’s the original post (name of stores involved removed, since I don’t know for certain that this wasn’t an entirely fictional scenario. Also, in an earlier post, this particular user had mentioned buying this coat at “Company A”.

Went to “Company B” and returned that Pal Zileri coat. Love their return policy [$1,087 onto my AmEx, paid $30]

Now, to me, this is a pretty cut and dry case (at least under California law -and I assume most states would have pretty much the same laws in place) of consumer fraud. Buying something from one retailer and returning it to another is consumer fraud. The scale of this particular case could lead to grand theft charges since the amount stolen from “Company B” was greater than $1000.

Much confusion ensued as to whether this action constituted fraud, whether it was ethical, and whether the scale of it made any difference.

To me, again, this is a pretty cut and dry case of consumer fraud/theft. This guy bought an expensive coat that still had a retail price tag on it at a thrift store. He then took it to the store where the retail price tag was from and returned it, representing himself as the original purchaser of the item. He knowingly lied (whether implicitly or explicitly) to that company to get $1000+ from them. Whether he actually told the employee of the retail store that he had bought the item or not should be immaterial to the case.

As to whether or not this action was unethical…

Company B is well known for having a lax return policy. Their mission is to satisfy their customers and they work with customers on a case by case basis rather than having a specific return policy.

Having such a return policy requires that customers have a certain amount of decency in their dealing with Company B. Customer abuse of these sorts of return policies leads to many problems. I’ll use the example of Company C, where I worked while was in college. They also used to have a very lax return policy and were forced to change this practice in the past year because of excessive abuse by customers.

Company C recently change their return policy from lifetime to one year. The reason for this is because too many people were returning items to the store that they had used for years or even decades. While most customers expect wear and tear as part of the life of an item, some people were using it as grounds for returning items that were well used. Even items that were lasting longer than expected were getting returned for a full refund. If you walked 2,000 miles in a pair of boots or ran 500 in a pair of shoes, would you consider that normal? Or would you desire to return them for a full refund?

Also brought up was the scale of the company involved. Would this scenario be different if the company involved was a small mom & pop operation than having been a large nationwide company? To me, the answer is unequivocally no.

In my opinion, too many people in our society feel that getting ahead by any means is perfectly acceptable. These are the same people who are quick to forgive drug cheats in sports, saying that “Everyone else was doing it.” This logic is used by people to justify their own cheating. If everyone in a given profession cheated, the playing field would be level for them. But what about the people who would like to be in that profession but refuse to cheat? Aren’t they hurt by the actions of those who cheated?

Cheating another individual, group, or corporation out of their property, dream, freedom, or whatever is entirely wrong. It doesn’t matter from an ethics standpoint whether we’re talking about $50, $1,000,000, freedom of religion, or anything else under the sun.

A civil society needs rules to be equally enforced across the board. It also requires a certain amount of decorum and decency from everyone in order to function properly and to be sustainable.

Going back to the case at hand. Every time someone cheats a retail store, it hurts everyone. It hurts us all in the form of higher prices, tighter security, etc. Higher prices at one level of the consumer chain leads to higher prices across the board. It mostly likely will lead to inflation. If you don’t see the problem with inflation, consider that starting wages at a particular store I used to work at have not gone up in over 20 years.

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