OpinionMay 1 2013

Shop ‘til you drop

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There are seemingly endless negative aspersions cast around the morality of those who work in certain parts of the financial world, not least the (perhaps not precisely defined) ‘bankers’, but I was surprised to read recently that the morality of shoppers who browse in store but then buy online was being brought into question.

This stands at odds with one of the basic tenets of economics: consumers are rational and, as such, will maximise their spending power by buying a given product or service at the lowest possible price. For sure they will also factor in such decisions as time (there must be a premium for instant gratification as opposed to waiting for tomorrow or some later date for a delivery) and likewise there must be a cost with needing to be in for a delivery compared with being free to go out. But when I read that employees at one Jessops store, on hearing that the business was ceasing to trade, put a sign in the window thanking their customers for browsing in store and then buying online at Amazon, I had two thoughts: first, are you honestly telling me that none of the staff had done the same at other stores? And second, irrespective of this, why should a consumer be criticised for such behaviour? There are risks in reducing any argument to absurdity, but by this measure shops such as Harrods have the right to criticise consumers for not buying everything there, irrespective of price, and Marks & Spencer can criticise Lidl again on moral grounds.

The problem is that these moral arguments do not stand up, and instead create a fallacy in which both company management and store staff can ignore commercial realities and changing business conditions and instead bemoan the lack of morality of those who browse in store and then buy online.