Editor column: Moral dilemmas and thrift stores
October 25, 2013
I received a phone call not too long ago from a resident who works at one of our nonprofit thrift stores, who drilled into my head a big "what would you do" scenario that smacks of a major moral dilemma.
Here's the situation, paraphrased from my phone conversation: Someone donates a nice oriental rug to the store, and it is put on display. A person comes in, eyes the rug, and asks for a price. A store volunteer is hesitant to sell it because staff hasn't had time yet to research the rug and its history in order to attach an appropriate price. However, the buyer really, really is interested in the rug, and a price of $125 is eventually set. Person buys the rug, and leaves.
A short time later, staff notices the rug has been sold, and asks how much. Upon hearing from the volunteer it was for $125, staff quickly does some research and is astounded to find the rug's value is really worth $5,700.
Bet you can guess what happens next.
Store is able to track down the person who bought the rug for $125, calls him and politely asks if the person would be willing to bring back the rug, work with the store on a more reasonable price considering the rug's worth, say $800 or $1,000, and renegotiate the sale. After all, it's for a nonprofit.
The persons denies, saying the purchase was rightfully made and there is no obligation, legally or personally, to do such a thing. Despite a few more requests from the store, staff gets the same answer: "No."
Allow me to reiterate that this is merely a paraphrase of the phone conversation I had, and I did not include any names, including that of the store. But trust me that this indeed did happen at one of our local consignment shops, and all those dollar figures I mentioned are the figures expressed to me over the phone.
So herein lies our dilemma. One one hand, you had a person who legally and rightfully made a purchase based on a price agreed on for the rug. The person bought it fair and square, and that's the end of the transaction. This person has every right to keep it, despite pleas from the store. What the person does with the rug now is that person's business, whether it adorns a home for years and generations — or if it's flipped on eBay (or, perhaps, Antiques Roadshow) for a hefty profit.
On the other hand, say the person did decide to renegotiate a new price with the store, and the rug is sold for $1,000. This person is out of more cash, but it could be argued the intangible benefits could figuratively balance the person's checkbook, so to speak, in the form of better karma (if you believe in that sort of thing) and the feeling you helped donate a lot of money to a local establishment that will use it for the betterment of the community.
So what's the "moral of the story?" Well that's up to you. What would you do? I'd love to hear your answer. Drop me a line and let me know your thoughts. I might even publish my favorite response (in two sentences or less) in an upcoming column.
What would I do? Considering my age and the fact journalists' salaries aren't exactly robust, I'd probably think really hard before spending $125 on anything, let alone a rug.
Kevin MacMillan is managing editor of the Sierra Sun and North Lake Tahoe Bonanza newspapers; his columns appear every other Wednesday in the Sierra Sun. He may be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.