Ethics vs Sales: The integrity of business strategy

I went to Starbucks the other day to buy a coffee tumbler. The other side from the sales counter there was a shelf with different tumblers, flasks and mugs. I saw some I liked but I couldn’t see a price anywhere. I looked everywhere, on the shelf, on the item, for a sign… nothing. Maybe I’m overreacting, but I thought it was stupid at best and devoid of integrity at worst. Am I realistically expected to bring each item to the counter to find out the price? Why have they deliberately not displayed the price of each item? I mean, that’s the most obvious thing to place next to the item, how much it costs! So I can only assume they did it on purpose. Going on full cynical mode, this is a business strategy. A customer picks the tumbler they like, hands it over to the cashier, is told the price, is thinking OMG that’s expensive, but pays anyway. Starbucks gets a sale and the customer feels ripped off as they leave the store.

Maybe I’m overthinking things but I really found it stupid that there was no price display of the tumblers. I walked out without buying anything because of it. If it’s done on purpose, I think the strategy is lacking in integrity. What are your examples of sus business practices?

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Josef Lind
August 12, 2022 8:52 am

What is a business after all? It is a group of people working together to earn a profit, the transfer of cash from the customer to staff. I’ve been in countless business meetings where we strategize how to remain competitive and get more sales. We’re not explicitly trying to screw over customers but the ideas put forward and decisions we eventually make won’t always get a 100% ethical rating. Of course customers are at the forefront of our decisions but we have to balance business efficiency and survival with customer satisfaction. Not all organizations are charities.

Let’s consider a restaurant. How many times have you been to an almost empty restaurant and been sat right next to another customer? There is so much space. Why did the waiter ask me to sit next to other people? One reason is efficiency. When clearing the tables the waiter can quickly pick up items from one table to the next in no time. The experience is frustrating for the customer but no so frustrating that it ruins their experience. In this scenario the restaurant balances customer satisfaction with operational efficiency. Balances like these have to be made in countless scenarios in every business. Some call it unethical, some call it practical.

Back to my point about businesses just being a group of people. People are susceptible to succumb to the temptations of money. Are all influencers who want to monetize their fan base bad people? Of course not. But the opportunity to earn money when it is right in front of you can affect you in unexpected ways if you’re not careful. There is a fine line between offering legitimate products and taking advantage of your customers. It’s like a pile of cash sitting outside your front door. Do you walk by and ignore it? Of course not. You think about the times it pinched you when you paid too much for something or when you got a parking fine. You think about that time you got laid off from your job and worried about how to afford rent for the month. You think about the restaurants you wanted to eat at and the countries you wanted to visit but couldn’t afford it. You think about all the things you could do that you couldn’t do before. It is in these circumstances that influencers and their teams (the business) must resist the temptation to completely disregard customer satisfaction and scam their customers. Fortunately as much as there are countless case studies of influencers who have scammed their customers, there are many examples of influencers who have maintained their integrity and offer valuable products to their customers, demonstrating that there can be a balance between ethics and monetization.

Kool Aid
August 13, 2022 10:16 am

The conflict between ethics and business decisions is a topic that has risen in importance after various high profile cases of business misconduct were reported in the media. Enron, WorldCom, Lehman Brothers, Bernie Madoff, Theranos, WeWork are some of many examples. In light of these, business schools teach ethics as modules in their courses and corporate leaders give the media soundbites such as: Do what is right, not what is easy.

Although I largely agree with this quotation, doing what is right is subjective. A business decision could mean higher prices for the customer. Is this a wrong decision if the customer was paying less before? Context is everything. What if the higher prices help the business weather a downturn? Isn’t it the right thing to do to help staff keep their jobs?

Another point. When a business makes a decision, we forget that not everyone within the business agrees with it. Vehement discussions, debate and disagreements occur before implementing major business changes. It is common for several high profile staff to be disappointed with the business’ strategic direction.

When WeWork was a relatively new company that was securing millions of dollars in early funding rounds, Adam Neumann (CEO of WeWork) was using some of that money to invest in buildings from which WeWork was leasing office space. This was a major conflict of interest and a controversial move that put a question mark on his business ethics. It meant Neumann was taking investor money to make personal investments. It also meant that Neumann would be on both sides of a potential renegotiation of the lease between WeWork and the building. Unsurprisingly the WeWork board was against this. Regardless when news leaked, WeWork as a single entity took the blame. This was largely Neumann’s decision and other staff disagreed with it, however the WeWork entity would suffer, including the staff working in it. The point being, we can blame a company for some ethically-questionable decisions, however we do not have visibility of the internal struggles that could have occurred to resist such decisions.

Do what is right Not what is easy.jpg
August 13, 2022 8:12 pm

One word. Incentives.

Get your incentives wrong and the most well-meaning business in the world will turn unethical. There was this one time I was served the incorrect drink at a KFC. I had ordered a Pepsi Max. Immediately upon taking a sip, I knew it was regular Pepsi. I told the person who served my drink that it was wrong and she flipped the lid… literally! She took my drink, threw it into a nearby sink with the ferocity of a javelin throw, filled up a new cup with 95% ice and slammed it down in front of me. So because of their mistake, someone gets angry at me and I don’t get the drink I paid for. Wtf? Later a friend told me that incorrect drinks get taken out of their salary. It kinda explains why she was angry but again there was no need to take it out on me. The incentive, or should I say penalty, drives all the wrong behavior.

Another example is during a flight I had with Qatar Airways. Now before I write this, I want to set the record straight. Qatar Airways is a brilliant airline. I generally have a positive experience flying with them. In a recent flight, however, a member of the cabin crew was rushing to close all overhead compartments before the flight took off. As she reached the overhead compartment that was above me, she leaned and rubbed her body against mine. I was visibly uncomfortable and raised my hand to give some sort of visual cue for her to back off. She ignored it or didn’t notice and continued to press her body against me as she closed the compartment. Imagine if this was the other way round… A guy pressing against a woman passenger, rubbing his body against hers as he closes an overhead compartment. A situation like this could go viral for sexual harassment. So what made her think it was ok to do that? Because I have traditionally had positive experiences on Qatar Airways, I’ll give that cabin crew member the benefit of the doubt and assume she didn’t do it deliberately. It does demonstrate how tight timings and schedules can result in untoward behavior, and in the worst of circumstances, could result in a sexual harassment scandal.

Last edited 1 month ago by viraljkp
Jenna T
August 11, 2022 2:45 pm

Well I can’t say for sure if you were a victim of an insidious business strategy or someone made an innocent error. There are some outlets that don’t label the prices of their items but they tend to be luxury stores. Even so, I have been the victim ‘sus’ business practices that have left me fuming.

When I moved into my new apartment I needed a desk lamp, so I went to a local department store to buy something cheap. I found the lamp I wanted and took it up to the counter. The salesperson told me the lamp didn’t come with a bulb; would you like me to get you one? Oh that’s nice of her, I thought.

She came back with a bulb and priced up the items on the till. WTF? The total price was more than double the price of the lamp!! She had brought the most expensive bulb in the store. There were so many other bulbs she could have brought at a much more reasonable price. Also why would I want an expensive bulb when I’ve bought a cheap lamp!?

Sometimes these things happen so quickly that you don’t know how to react. I was confused and angry, yet I still paid for it. If I could re-live that moment, I would ask for a cheaper bulb. If it was a deliberate ploy to:

  • Ask me if she could bring a bulb;
  • Make it seem like she was doing me a favor;
  • Pick the most expensive bulb…

Then that really puts me off. That day I paid more for a bulb than I did for a lamp. If staff are trained to do this, hoodwinking customers into parting with more cash, it’s a horrible business practice. The problem with these practices, if they are indeed deliberate, is that it ruins any goodwill you have towards the brand or outlet. Fine, you got a sale. You also drove away a customer who would have made regular purchases at your store.

Jason Ng
August 11, 2022 7:31 pm

Out of all the dodgy business practices I have come across, there is one that stands head and shoulders above the rest. I’m feeling so tempted to name and shame the organisation but it is possible they are under new management so I don’t want to tarnish their name. It has been 5 years since it happened and it still disgusts me.

One afternoon I was suffering from a pretty bad toothache. Not wanting to wait to get an appointment, I Googled nearby emergency dental practices that could see me the same day. I found one not too far from where I lived, called them and got an appointment within the hour. Perfect!

When I arrived, things looked ok. I sat in a waiting room with other patients until a dentist invited me into their clinic. After showing him which tooth was hurting, the dentist reviewed my teeth for a couple of minutes. Once his brief examination was over, he printed out a sheet of paper and listed out the treatments he recommended. Quite to my surprise, he wanted to extract 2 of my teeth and do some other treatment I can’t quite remember. I wasn’t comfortable signing off to this. I had come in with a toothache and I didn’t want to leave with 2 less teeth.

When I expressed my hesitation to the dentist, saying I wanted to consider the options, he urged, “Trust me. I am an expert, trust me.” Not sure about anyone else, but when someone is urging me to trust them, well.. I don’t trust them. I was hesitant not just because of the treatment he was suggesting but also because of the price. He was quoting £2,700 for the procedures. I didn’t have that much money to spend.

My suspicion was well-founded. I later visited another dentist (one with much cheaper prices) and he was baffled at the emergency dentist’s recommendations. All I had was a minor infection that needed a clean-up.

But at the time when Mr. Trust Me, Trust Me was urging me to get the procedures done, it took at least 3 or 4 times of me saying no to get him to stop. Eventually he relented and showed me out of the clinic so I could pay the consultation/check-up fee. This time the receptionist printed out a piece of paper and handed me an invoice with the fee. £270. I couldn’t believe what I was looking at. £270 for a 3 minute look at my teeth.

Even more troubling to me was the lackadaisical way the receptionist handed me the bill. £270 is a lot of money for me, and here she was totally unconcerned that I was having to pay that much for a cursory look at my teeth. And my pain was still there. It’s not like I was paying for an improvement. My teeth still hurt, I had to find another dentist and I still needed to get treatment. I was at square one, soon to be £270 poorer and the receptionist didn’t bat an eyelid that theft was occurring in broad daylight.

I believe the modus operandi of this practice was to get people into their clinic, review their teeth and charge for unnecessary treatment at extortionate prices. Most patients will decline but of course they’ll still have to pay the consultation fee. With very little work, the practice has earned £270.

The part that left me with disgust is how they preyed on people’s desperation. It’s an emergency clinic. People need treatment straight away. Instead the dental practice uses this situation to squeeze money out of the desperate. I looked the receptionist in the eyes when I made payment. I wanted to look into her soul. How did you get to that point where you don’t care about taking someone’s money away like that?

That night I left a Google review asking how the team there slept at night, knowing that they were scamming patients that come to them in desperation. A day later, a representative from the practice replied to the review saying they had no record of me attending their practice. A typical strategy from the unethical business practices playbook.