Was it worth it?

Appearances often are deceiving.
c. 550 B.C.

Some time back, a certain bookstore (which we’ll leave unnamed) ran what seemed like a very nice online promotion: buy 1 item, get the second item for 60% off list price. Sounds good, right?


My daughter took advantage of the promotion and placed an order. But after studying it a bit further, she realized the math didn’t add up. The discount they were deducting from her total wasn’t 60% of the price of the lower item. It was only 50%. So she called customer service. They didn’t understand what had happened either, but said to call back once the item shipped and they’d issue an adjustment to her credit card.

After the call, my daughter finally figured out what had happened — and after she explained it to me, I eventually understood too. The promotions department had done something that they undoubtedly thought was clever: by giving you a percent off the list price rather than the actual price, the promotional discount ended up being only 50%. The online price was already 10% below list price — so selling the item at 60% off of list price meant they only reduced their price an additional 50%.

The upshot of all this confusion was that my daughter felt cheated. She knew she was still getting a good price, and customer service had said they would give her an adjustment since they also believed the discount was wrong. But none of that mattered. What stood out for my daughter was that the store deliberately crafted their promotion to make it sound like they were offering a bigger reduction than they actually gave her; by determining the discount in a way that several intelligent adults couldn’t unravel in a few minutes, the store was being deceptive.

If the store had been straightforward and offered 50% off the current price, my daughter probably would have been happy with her purchase. But because the store tried to fool her into thinking she was getting 60% off, she came away feeling cheated.

The 10% difference on her purchase was only $1.30 — a fact that my daughter recognized, even without having it pointed out to her. The call to customer service cost the business much more: it tied up one phone representative for at least 5 minutes, plus time to document the outcome of the call since the problem wasn’t yet resolved; it also took several minutes from at least one other representative or manager when the first rep asked for help determining why the discount wasn’t right. And it would have cost the time of yet another person to issue an adjustment if my daughter had decided to follow the rep’s advice and call back after the order shipped. (She opted not to once she realized the discount was, in fact, accurate.)

On top of all that, they made my daughter less than eager to shop with them again. She also was very tempted to share the experience with her social media friends — and if she’d named the business, they might have lost other customers. The store risked an awful lot and incurred quite a few costs in order to save 10%. Do you think it was worth it?

Now, you may be wondering how this applies to you. Often in our everyday lives, we act in a way that offers a very small benefit for a rather large risk. For instance, you might run a light that just turned red, or cut through a business property to avoid waiting at a stoplight. The gain is small: no more than a minute or two of your time. But the risk is that you could get caught, incur a sizable fine, and have the incident recorded on your driving record.

Similarly, I frequently see people make illegal turns, often by driving a few yards in the wrong direction to get to a particular entrance or cross-street. Again, they save only the few minutes it would take to drive farther down and make a legal U-turn. But they risk not only a fine, but an accident — one that could change their lives and the lives of others irreparably. The reward is completely out of proportion with the risk.

I could give you lots of other driving examples — speeding in bad weather, driving without a seat belt, taking a shortcut through a bad neighborhood, phoning or texting behind the wheel — but I suspect you get the idea.

And there are plenty of other areas in life where we take risks. Consider the person who has a food allergy, or the person who has diabetes. They might think just a little serving of forbidden food won’t hurt, but even a little could send that person to the hospital — or worse, to the morgue. Is that small portion of food worth the risk of dying?

What about taking something small from work? I recently read about an employee who accepted a tip of less than one dollar from a customer — an action strictly prohibited by the business. That person was fired as a result.

One last example: what about saying something harsh or cruel during an argument? It might gain you a brief feeling of satisfaction, but it could easily cost you a relationship.

There are lots of people who wish they could take back certain actions. Unfortunately, some mistakes can never be erased.

Next time you’re tempted to take a risk, think about what you’re really putting on the line, and then consider what you’re getting in return. In many cases, I think you’ll find the risk isn’t worth the reward.

Don’t lose
Your head
To gain a minute
You need your head
Your brains are in it.

Burma-Shave, roadside advertisement

Copyright © 2014 John Chancellor

Comments are closed.