Deals and your moral compass

By Mir
January 16, 2008

Selena wrote in with such a great email that I can’t wait to hear the discussion on this one. She is extra pretty for coming up with such good questions!

Dear Pretty One,

I’ve been enjoying your site for about two years now and have learned so much about deal-finding. I love the thrill of a deal, and the idea of having nice things for less money makes me swoon. I’ve had several deal quandaries lately, though, and I’m hoping you can share your thoughts on them. I want to score deals with both your help and a clear conscience!

I’m totally up for this one, because I love a debate.

What’s that? What do I mean, debate? Well, look. I think I’m pretty bright. Some would argue I even think I’m right most of the time. But I’m not egomaniacal enough to believe that I am always right or that my opinion is necessarily fact. I don’t anticipate that everyone will always agree with me, or that my feelings are The Way It Is, Forever And Ever Amen.

Some things in life are black and white. But the overwhelming bulk of the world comes in shades of gray, y’know?

Anyway, let’s move on to Selena’s questions:

1- Before Christmas, I was sent several cards in the mail of the “$10 Off Any Purchase” and “Get a Free Product with Any Purchase” varieties. For the first deal, I went to the mall and got two lip glosses for exactly $10, making them of no cost to me. For the second deal, I chose a small ornament for $1.50 and received the $11 product for free. I was so excited to tell my husband about the deals, but he was horrified and said that this kind of thing is not what the stores had in mind and felt that it was cheating in some way. I thought he should have been proud! I mean, I was in their stores when I normally wouldn’t have been, and maybe I would have purchased other items (had I not been such a smart deal-finder)! Is there ever a time to not take advantage of this kind of offer?

My opinion is that you did nothing wrong. When you’re talking about an in-store deal, the store is free to put whatever restrictions on their special offers they’d like—and most of the time, they do. Most of the time, a buy-1-get-1 offer will clearly state that the cheaper item will be free, and most of the time a $10 off offer will have a purchase minimum.

When they don’t, they can be used however you’d like, and—here’s the important part—if it was somehow a problem, you’re buying from a real live human who can stop you and say, “Hey, wait a minute. No. You can’t do that.” (This is in contrast to online deals where maybe you get a bargain because of a computer glitch; say, a coupon is supposed to have a minimum, but it lets you order without one.)

Those offers are designed to get your body into the store. Period. The reality is that you are in the restrained minority; most of the people who head to the store with one of those offers do exactly what the establishment is hoping they’ll do—they walk in to get their free item and end up spending hundreds on other stuff as well.

Did the store lose money on you? Yes. Do they care? No. Did you ruin their financial viability? No. You are part of the “calculated risk” of such an offer, and don’t think they don’t know people like you exist. They know. It’s okay. For every one of you, there’s dozens more who will spend money.

2- Last week, I ordered a swimming suit online. Knowing this company often has codes out, I waited as long as I could, but ultimately ordered without a code because I need the suit for an upcoming vacation. This morning, I found a free shipping code and called the company hoping they would refund shipping to my credit card. I was told that because the code did not come from that company, rather from a promo codes website, that using it was committing “fraud”. (I think charging me $10.95 to ship a tiny bathing suit to my door in 7-10 business days is fraud, but I kept that to myself)! I was told that using such codes could mean my order is not processed. I’m willing to take that chance, but it got me thinking. I assumed companies leak codes to attract buyers who will hopefully buy when they previously wouldn’t have. I want a great deal, or free stuff added on to my orders, but I don’t want to do it if it truly is wrong.

This one is harder. First of all, I think any company with good customer service will honor such a request, even if only to keep you happy. You weren’t asking to get it for free, you were asking to have your shipping fee waived when clearly that’s something they sometimes do (otherwise there wouldn’t be a code).

Second, I think accusing you of attempted fraud is a bit heavy-handed. Very often companies release coupon codes intended for general use. Sometimes a code makes its way onto the internet which is intended for only a small group of people. How are you, the average casual shopper, supposed to know the difference? The definition of fraud says that it is intentional deception. You were not attempting fraud because you didn’t know you weren’t “supposed” to have that code.

Now, if they don’t want you to use it, they shouldn’t honor it. That’s fine. That’s absolutely a store’s prerogative, and it’s why I never get too upset when a great deal I find ends up with orders being canceled because it wasn’t meant for general consumption. You win some, you lose some. I don’t want to be putting a store out of business, obviously. But I never (and I’m sure you don’t, either) enter into a deal thinking, “Wow, I’m sure I’m not supposed to be doing this but I’ll show them!”

So, Selena, in my humble opinion, you didn’t do anything wrong in either case.

Now here’s where I get all touchy-feely on you: I believe in karma, or something like it. Simply put, I believe that what you put out there comes back to you. And so for me I believe in utilizing great deals as often as possible, but I do tend to skip over the ones that are clearly offered in error. I also think there is a special circle of hell reserved for the people who not only jump on those sorts of deals, but buy 50 or whatever it is and then mark ’em up and sell on eBay. That’s just my opinion, of course.

Furthermore, when a store offers me good customer service I will pay more to shop with them, and come back even when the deals aren’t as good. I want to support them and make sure they stay in business. But if a store treats me badly… well, I won’t defraud them, of course, but that free $10 item or whatever is a lot easier to pocket and not worry about.

I’ve been called out on the site for encouraging pricematching at Zappos and for discussing Walmart’s return policy; in both cases, people felt the need to tell me that I was wrong and doing something bad. Bear in mind that I am all for everyone making their own decisions about what they think is right, and all I can offer is my reasoned opinion on the matter (which I did, in both cases).

Bottom line: Make your own (informed) decisions. You’re the one who has to live with your choices, not me.


  1. Well said! I’m with you on the first scenario, especially. I know what store you’re talking about, and I use their promos regularly. Sometimes I buy the minimum, and other times, I purchase more. I don’t feel bad. I know it all balances out.

  2. The only scenario that stops me from buying something is when a code is specifically designed for a certain group…

    for example, I went to subscribe to Mothering magazine the other day with a code that someone had passed on, when I realized that the code was for midwives and doulas from northern california. I don’t fit in that category. At all. So my conscience wouldn’t let me take advantage of the fabulous deal – because it was a courtesy extended to professionals, of which I’m not one.

  3. I completely agree with both scenario’s. I love a good deal and have gone to the store in the mall with their get $10.00 off and just got $10.00 worth of items. However, I hve also spent a ton in there on other occasions.

    What about Victoria Secret mailing out the free panty cards. I always use those and just get the free item and leave. I don’t feel guilty since they were the ones that mailed them out. I know most people will prob buy other items and make up for me just getting the free item.

    On the Wal-mart issue. I think it was stated in those comments that you can only return something with out a receipt a few times and then you are refused returns without a receipt. Not sure if it is worth it to be banned what if you really did buy something later on and did lose the receipt. Then you would be hosed!

    Thanks pretty Mir for all your great deals and blog fodder to make us all think!!

  4. I’m with Mir in agreeing that companies factor in “risks” when they offer any promotion.

    Do you really think that your free lipgloss cost them $5 to produce? They have an extreme mark-up as does any other company. In my opinion, they wouldn’t offer coupons if they couldn’t handle the loss. And they can.

  5. Nicely put, Mir. I agree. Getting you in the store is what coupons, promos and such are all about. If you have the fortitude to walk in, get your promo and walk out, kudos to you! No law has been broken, no wrong has been committed. You simply didn’t succumb to the lure of shopping.

  6. Agree. Totally.

  7. Beautifully put, Mir!

    I have a degree in Economics with the concentration in Business: management & marketing.

    We ran these simulations endlessly to project the possible losses and net gain, all companies do. No worries!

  8. I agree with both cases. As far as Zappos is concerned, I bought something there a few weeks ago and pricematched it, getting it for less than the original item. Zappos had no problem with me doing this and the nice girl I spoke to congratulated me on finding an awesome deal. If Zappos did not WANT to do this, it would not be out there for us to do. They want people to come to their site and after getting a price match and awesome service, I am more likely to purchase from them again and recommend them to friends….both things that I do.

    I can think of a case where a deal WAS abused. Mattel put out a $5 off Polly Pocket web coupon that was good from October to the end of Decemeber. I know people who printed out multiple copies a day and would purchase the $4.99 set at many stores daily. Essentially, they got the set free, just paid tax. I know of one lady who got well over 100 FREE Polly Pockets with this single coupon printed over and over. She did donate them to Toys for Tots (her intention all along) but this is a case, to me, where the intent of the coupon was not done properly. Again though, some places did refuse the coupon eventally but Mattel never pulled it or stopped it.

  9. I’m with Laura: the mark-up is absolutely ghastly.

    When I shop at Target, the only time I look at the seasonal merchnadise before it goes to 75% off is to case the stuff: Hmmm…what might I get? Even if I don’t get exactly what what I want when I wait for the 75% off, I know I’m paying closer to what it costs to make it.

    I do buy things at Target that are not 75% off, like food, TP, that whole thing. I find Wal-Mart’s policies too morally reprehensible to shop there, even if it would save me money on TP.

  10. I couldn’t agree more.

    And, yeah- the Zappos price-matching and WalMart return policies would be changed if they were really getting hurt by them. These are successful, savvy companies who certainly don’t have OUR best interests in mind.

  11. Said beautifully! Sometimes I’m bummed if I miss out on a great day (like the toys at Target, mine was completely scavenged when I got there), but at the same time, I get so many great deal ideas from here, I can’t be mad at the ones I miss.

    I know that companies put out great deals because it will drive more sales than just the freebie on the coupon. I work for a bank, and we put out promotional offers, too, to drive more business than just the promotion.

  12. As for any offer/couppon that is intended to get you into the store – there nuthin’ saying that, while they make no money on you THAT day, you won’t make notice of the wonderful it is and come back and spend more another time…

    The coupon/oofer did it’s job and got you to notice the place. You might now come back.

  13. I agree with both instances, and I tend to have a fairly low moral compass when it comes to deals. I think the stores absolutely account for all of these scenarios– including printing out multiple coupons. If not, they wouldn’t provide the coupons online. In addition, I don’t necessarily think that there’s a “special place in hell” for those people who buy things on sale/with a coupon and sell them for closer to their regular price on ebay. As an example, my aunt said she recently went to the afterChristmas Saks sale and said that when the store opened there were people buying 50 purses at 1/2 off. Her thought was that these people would only be doing that to sell on ebay. Is that wrong? I don’t think so. If those people want to stand in line for two hours prior to the store’s opening so that they can get their 50 purses more power to em’. Do you think the store cares? The stores are selling them at 50% off and know their profit bottom-line. And, it is up to the consumers on ebay to know whether they are getting a good deal on a particular item or not, and can choose to bid (or not). This is with the caveat that I do not support fraud on ebay (i.e. fake merchandise).

    I should also note that I have never done the above– but don’t see a problem with it.

  14. I love how you handled these questions. I totally agree. No one should feel bad about spending only the amount required on the coupon. It gets you in their store, it puts their product in your home, it gets you talking about their product – you are advertsing for them. I have gotten several products for “free” and granted I haven’t gone back and bought them all at regular price, but some I have. Companies want consumers to try their products, what better way then to give consumers the product. I am on several survey sites, and do several home trials every year for companies. These “free” items or $$$ amount coupons are a way for companies to get products to you. Take advantage of them – as for the Good Karma thing – I totally believe in it. If you get something “free” and you like it – let the company know – send a quick email. If there is something really wrong with a product, let them know that too – just be nice about it.

  15. I agree with everyone else – very, very well said.

    I think the same is true for free things – be they sent to bloggers or as samples. The idea is for you to talk about them, so they’re paying very little actually for word-of-mouth advertising.

    I will pay more at a store I know has good quality merchandise, especially if I am able to learn about that quality initially from a coupon and clearance prices.

  16. I totally agree with everything that has been posted here. Companies understand the “acceptable risk” they’re taking by sending out $10 off any purchase coupons, free panty coupons, etc., but it’s worth it to them. After all, Mir is right: most people take those coupons into the store and buy above and beyond the freebies. Or, in the case of Victoria’s Secret or Bath & Body Works or wherever, a coupon for a free item might alert a potential customer to a product they otherwise wouldn’t have tried but now might find they adore and will buy (at full price) from then on.

    As for Wal*Mart’s return policy: remember that they will sell whatever you return there to another customer at the regular price. To think that utilizing their return policy is abuse is crazy. It doesn’t hurt them at all–they have an item they can resell, and they also have *you* in the store, where you will potentially buy something. There’s absolutely nothing wrong or shady in this scenario at all!

  17. Jamie: I wasn’t clear, I think. I don’t have a problem with people buying and reselling on eBay. What I meant was people who buy huge quantities using questionable deals (not things like just buying clearance items)—like, using 100 coupons on Polly Pockets and then reselling, or stacking coupons that clearly weren’t meant to be stacked (finding ways around a site’s built-in way of dealing with codes, etc.) and such. 🙂

  18. Dude, Selena’s husband was upset? Mine’s eyes have taken to glazing over as I relay all the coupons and deals I find at the grocery store as though I’ve vanquished Rome, but he’s definitely jazzed that our bill is lower.

    We’re going to use our first coupon this weekend and I think he still expects it to ‘bounce’- that one he thought sounded too good to be true. I figure, it gets us in the door of shops we might not have tried otherwise: Marketing goal accomplished.

    Ooh, and Wal-mart? (I might be repeating because I didn’t bother to read the comments there.) They could be brilliant, actually. Does anyone else remember the story about Nordstrom’s having a golden return policy and accepting back a set of tires when…. they don’t sell tires??? It’s probably an urban legend, but it really made the rounds when I was in high school. Wal-mart could use a little positive PR, so maybe amazing return policies and $4 prescriptions are all part of the plan.

  19. I agree 100%. I have personally gone into Bath & Body Works, bought my minimum purchase, got a free item with my coupon, and walked out. There have been other times when I ordered gifts from their website and (shudder) paid for shipping. They get our $ somehow. They know the risk/bottom lines when they put the coupons out there. One day, I went to Macy’s just to get the free pair of Jockey underwear, a deal that Mir alerted us to. I bought nothing else that day, yet in a pinch, another time went in there and bought a dress out of desperation at retail (shudder again).

    I agree with lifeasamama as far as using coupons not intended for you. The % off Kohl’s coupons sometimes get shared around my neighborhood when one person scores the 30% off, which bothers me since it says “non-transferable.”

    Great discussion…great topic!

  20. Mir–
    I hear you. Buying Polly pockets, or Huggies at Target, or batteries at CVS and reselling on Ebay on a mark-up is Bad Bad Bad! Totally agree.

  21. How about this everyone? Would you apply for a store credit card just to get the free gift? Home Depot was giving away a TABLE SAW for free with credit card sign up and approval. I REALLY wanted it and my hubby said it was cheating. I said it wasn’t. We might end up using the card, which is what they want. But, we probably wouldn’t have used the card and maybe even cut it up, as we hardly EVER use a credit card.

  22. Susan–
    I see nothing wrong w/the above! The store was offering it! I’m sure HD takes into account there will be some individuals who just don’t use the card.

    *One further note– just remember that every request for a credit card can affect your credit score.

  23. Susan-
    I think, if they put the deal out there without restriction, you are in no way under an obligation to double check that they really really mean it.

    The stores join in on the fees and interest and such when people get a card there. A bunch of pointy-headed marketers have determined that if you go for the Home Depot card, for whatever reason, you’re more likely to be loyal to them and to think of them especially for large purchases. Some places also sell your info, and they will definitely offer “deals” for card-holders just to get your butt in the door more often. And that’s all before you get to the misconception they love most: that if you can get it on credit, you can afford it now. Not that Mir or her pretty readers buy that way, but you see what I mean. If they want to toss saws into the crowd, hey- it’s their parade. (Don’t take that literally- the visual’s really not so good.)

  24. Miriam – love your ending! LOL!

  25. Here’s the thing, for die hard dealers, like myself, there really aren’t many rules. You use the codes, the coupons, the deals to the fullest, until they company/websites tell you no.

    Check and double check with sites (like this) to make sure you’ve got the lowest price. Then once you do, triple check with other sites like zappos or Circuit City who will beat the lowest price by 110% They want your business and have the policy in place so you will go to them. Hopefully you’ll be back.

    I honestly don’t think the corp. big wigs are sitting there wondering how to save us money. That’s up to us. Find the coupons that double and get the items free.

    Nothing makes me happier than an awesome deal, except sharing it ;o)

  26. I totally agree: I’m not ethically obligated to do “what the store had in mind,” since how do I know what they had in mind? They set their own terms, and I fall in line with them–what more am I supposed to do? Besides, what I’m pretty sure they had in mind was getting me to come into the store and look at their products, because they know perfectly well that that’s one of the biggest hurdles, and leads to the profits later.

  27. I think the only time I DIDN’T take advantage of a “$5 off anything in store” coupon was the time it was offered by a small, local, struggling thrift store. The only item that even kind of appealed to me was $6 (before coupon), but I didn’t feel like I could do that to the poor lady.
    When it comes to a big chain store, now that’s another matter entirely!

  28. I agree with Mir’s words. Especially in the coupon situation – Penney’s occasionally sends out $10 off and $10 or more purchase. Most of the time I go in and find $10 worth of products and don’t spend more than $1 out of my own pocket, but there are times that I have needed something anyway and spent $50. They are taking both types of shoppers into consideration and have done the promos enough that it is apparently worth it to them. Even though a customer might not do anything more than redeem the coupon in their store, they have them IN there. While you are in there you might lay your eyes on somethng you want and come back in 3 weeks to purchase it. It’s worth it to them.

    When it comes to good deals, freebies, promos, I just have one quick guideline – Am I lying?? If I don’t have to lie to receive something, then it is legit and I can do it with a happy heart. If I have to lie to do something, I don’t do it. Price-matching, taking advantage of promo codes or coupons, etc. has no dishonesty in it.

  29. I totally agree. I’ve gotten to the point now that if I’m going to buy something online I google for a promo code to use before i “check-out”. If they are out there, then why not use them? It’s ridiculous these days how much companies mark up their products! I can’t tell you how much I’ve saved in recent purchases, be it 10% off or free shipping. (If only I would have done this BEFORE Christmas ;)) Love the site Mir. Keep looking pretty! 😉

  30. On the day before Mir posted her tidbit about Wal-Mart returning items that weren’t bought there, I had just done that. My daughter had rec’d 4 (yes, four) Polly Pockets for her birthday & I simply went to customer service & told them I didn’t know if they had been purchased there or not, & asked them if they would return them. They told me, “Yes, if we carry them.” No questions asked. They carried both & gave me cash back (which actually surprised me as I was expecting a gift card). If you frequently did that, they probably would catch on & refuse to help you, but the occasional gift return seems to be fine with them.

  31. Just want to tell you I LOVE your site…so many good deals and great advice. I do have a question about Zappos. What happens if you pricematch a pair of shoes and they don’t fit? Will Zappos send you the right size for the same price (even if the site you pricematched no longer carries that size)?

Bargain Hunt





Want Not Archives

Creative Commons License

Pin It on Pinterest