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I Bought One. They Shipped Two. Must I Return The Cute Dress I Didn't Pay For?

An online shopper grapples with the great moral quandary of the digital age: Is it okay to keep swag an e-tailer sends in error? (lisaclarke/flickr)
An online shopper grapples with the great moral quandary of the digital age: Is it okay to keep swag an e-tailer sends in error? (lisaclarke/flickr)
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Welcome Meddleheads, to the column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please email your questions. Right now. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.

Hugs,
Steve

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Dear Steve,

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I have an ethical question about whether it’s okay to benefit from a company's mistake. I recently ordered a dress online. When the package arrived, my dress was inside along with another dress that I did not order. There were two packing slips enclosed, and I realized that this second dress was meant for a woman in Texas. The second dress is very cute and in my size.

What should I do? The dress came to me by a mistake made by the company. I should also mention that the company is a large, profitable women's clothes retailer, not a small mom-and-pop shop. I know the woman it was meant for will get a replacement dress or a refund with no hassle. However, I did not pay for this dress. Is it wrong for me to keep it?

Sincerely,

M

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Dear M,

Funny that you should mention this dilemma. Same thing happened to our family eight years ago, though it didn’t involve a dress. It involved a car seat. A rather expensive car seat, by the way, one that we’d settled on, reluctantly, after about a year of research.

Lo and behold, two of them showed up at our door. One was addressed to us, the other to a woman… in Texas. (I am not making this up.)

My first impulse — and I don’t think this will come as a surprise to anybody who knows me even a little bit — was to keep the second car seat. After all, legally, when a company ships you an extra product or products, they belong to you, according to our very own Federal Trade Commission.

Besides, what sort of company charges, like, $250 for a car seat? You’ve got to figure their margin on that seat at, like, 1,000 percent. Which means (or meant to me, as I did the math in my head) that we could actually accept nine free car seats from them before they were taking a loss on our business.

Legally, I believe you can keep that dress. And if you can figure out a way not to be plagued by guilt, I’m sure the company in question will survive. But ethically, it’s the wrong thing to do.

Alas, your question is about ethics. And here my wife is the ranking member of our marriage. Which is to say: She has a much more evolved conscience than I do. And yet, to be honest, she was tempted, too. I mean, this was a car seat whose price was roughly equivalent to the Blue Book value of my 1995 Tercel. And we were (and are) a pair of writers who couldn’t really afford such a car seat. Also, the plan was to have another child, PDQ, so, well, you do the math.

And, thus, we (meaning she) spent a couple of days mulling over what to do, before finally realizing that it was clearly unethical to keep a product you didn’t pay for, even if the product showed up because some vulgar, profit-driven company made a mistake. As she explained it to me, rather unassailably, “We’re bringing a child into this world, and everything we do is teaching her a lesson. I don’t want to teach her right out of the gate that it’s okay to keep things you didn’t pay for.”

To which I responded, rather assailably, “Why in God’s name would we bring this up with our newborn?”

Suffice it to say, my wife called the company, hoping, by the way, that they would be so grateful for her righteous behavior that they would let us keep that second car seat. Not so much. They had a delivery van at our house within about 12 minutes.

So them’s the breaks, M. Legally, I believe you can keep that dress. And if you can figure out a way not to be plagued by guilt, I’m sure the company in question will survive.

But ethically, it’s the wrong thing to do.

On a final note, I should mention that your letter sets out a scenario that has become increasingly common as online shopping proliferates. It’s partly the impersonal nature of the shopping experience, in fact, that makes it easier for people (like me!) to ignore the ethics and keep the extra swag.

If the same scenario happened in a store — and a sales clerk accidentally gave you an extra item — chances are, you’d feel more inclined to return it, because you might fear that this person, who you actually met and who helped you out, would be punished for his or her mistake. Ah, Internet! Breeding ground of moral myopia!

Good luck with your decision, M.

Steve


As proof of how common these shipping mistakes are in the digital age, please consider the note that accompanied this letter, from Cognoscenti editor Kelly Horan. “This exact thing happened to me once,” Kelly wrote, “and I returned the dress, because I am a pillar of moral rectitude. Also, it was in a bad color.” Nice. Any of you readers faced the same unintended bounty? What did you do about it? Please leave a comment below. Also, send your own questions along, the more detailed the better. Even if I don’t have a helpful response, chances are someone in the comments section will. Any queries welcome via email.


Steve Almond is the author of the book "Against Football." He is the co-host, with Cheryl Strayed, of the WBUR podcast, Dear Sugar.

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