Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Sloppy dealers and innocent buyers: What is fair?

The current typist's epic battle with Sears' customer service brings to mind a similar experience I had about 3 years ago, when I ordered a used textbook for about $60 from a private dealer through amazon.com.

My classes were starting just as the book arrived, but when it arrived I discovered that the dealer had sent me an outdated edition which clearly did not match my order, and would not have the homework problems that I needed for the course. I was obliged to purchase the book at a bookstore for the full purchase price of $120, having no more time to shop around for used copies.

I reasoned to myself that the dealer ought to bear that extra cost. I emailed him and let him know that I planned to leave poor feedback on his business's Amazon account, but I would refrain from doing so if he would quickly send me a check for $120. He responded with a vigorous email offensive, going so far as to contact my superiors in the graduate program (thankfully, they minded their own business). After some back and forth, involving me putting up negative feed back and pulling it back down, we both settled on me keeping the unwanted textbook and getting a full refund.

In retrospect, I wondered if I should have been more gentle toward the dealer. As the old West Virginian proverb states, "When in doubt, give the benefit." What if his mistake was genuine, and he was not particularly trying to get away with selling a useless book?

In general, how far should buyer-victims go in holding dealers responsible for the extended consequences of their actions in cases of sloppiness -- if there is not a strong reason to believe that the dealer was knowingly causing problems? Is there a set of guidelines or precedents on this topic?


Blogger Mama JJ said...

It's all about attitude. The customer should win, or at least feel like he/she's winning (or if they're a schmuck, then they should lose). My point is, the seller needs to bend over backwards to take care of the customer---it makes a WORLD of difference.

7:03 PM  
Blogger Conrad Erb said...

great question.

should the dealer be liable for all of your costs associated with his failing to live up to your agreement?

there lots of scenarios to consumers. namely, the question of what you are entitled to since you have a useless book in your hands. what if the textbook wasn't $120, but say, $1200? or $12,000? would it be reasonable to ask for that amount?

or if the textbook used was $60 and the textbook was $61 in the bookstore? would it be a big deal then?

or what if you were in a law school and were called upon in class the day after the book arrived, and since you hadn't done the reading (since it is the wrong edition) you couldn't answer the prof's questions, failed the class, fell in your class ranking, didn't get a nice desk job, and lost all your friends as a result? should you be able to ask for compensation for all of those things?

ridiculous examples, of course, but it's the same idea taken to the nth degree.

or, looking at it the other way, what if the dealer had not sent the book at all in the first place? you would be even more angry. but what if you found out it was because his home flooded? or it burned to the ground? would you feel differently about it, and would the blog have been "in memory of the bookseller whose house just burned down"?

of course, it seems to me that asking someone to compensate you for your losses due to their failure to fulfill their contractual obligations would add a tremendous amount of friction to transactions. and of course, I'm thinking that the seller has an obligation to you - to either provide the product in a timely manner or do whatever it takes to get you back to the state you were in before you entered into the transaction - ie. giving back your money.

just a few thoughts.

9:57 AM  
Blogger My Freakwentness said...

Right on, Conrad. I especially like your example of the dealer whose mistake leads to the complete ruin of my life. That exposes what I see as the greatest weakness in my original position of wanting the dealer to take complete responsibility.

However, I'm still not sure that sloppy dealers (ignoring floods and fires for the moment) should be able to get away with a simple refund. Consider the following scenerio: a dealer of textbooks could try to make a business of selling outdated versions as if they were the new version, and hoping that a significant percent of buyers would not go to the trouble of seeking a refund. To counteract this possibility, it seems like the dealer should have to go at least a little bit above and beyond, and carry some of the external costs.

Normally, the damage done to a business in terms of reputation is enough to prevent such scammers from going far. Indeed, in my case, the only leverage I had against the seller was to put up bad feedback.

12:16 PM  

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