Friday, February 8, 2013

eBinds: Ethics in Online Sales

Dealing with one's own error is a difficult matter. The path of least resistance is always to pass the buck or dismiss the wrong parties with a "better luck next time". This is easy and effective in the short term, but it can (not "does" but can) come back to haunt one for their failure to own their mistakes. The imminent difficulty comes in eating the crow up front, in acknowledging one's fault, accepting the loss and working to remedy the wrong that's been done. Over the years, I have found that in as much as the easier road solves a short-term crisis, the personal toll on my soul is far too costly, and I simply cannot do it, nor do I wish to as it seems cowardly and unloving. I ache when I feel I have compromised my integrity. This makes it no less difficult to accept responsibility when these situations arise, and I must eat my mistakes like sour milk that not only tastes awful but turns my stomach as well.

I recently had a test of character in an online sales transaction. The story is long, and it is complicated; but I will try to give you a glimpse of the issue, and you can weigh in with your opinion as to how I might have handled the situation better. I am looking for corrective, constructive criticism here.

The dilemma began in the fall, when I was handed a box of items to list for a friend on an auction site. He knew he would not make the time to do it, and I was not working, so selling the items for him was a favor I willingly undertook. At the time I also had no intention of receiving a payment for assisting him; I was just helping a brother out. I listed an item for him, but before it ended, I realized I had listed it incorrectly. Whereas I believed and listed the item as complete, it was not; rather, it was packaged wrongly and included incorrect parts. I attempted to remove the auction, but I was unable. Someone had bid on it, and the time frame when the item was to end was too near. The auction ended; the buyer attempted to pay; I, however, asked him to cancel the transaction, informing him that I could not sell the item as listed, for I had listed it incorrectly. I informed him that the item was a factory defect and could not be sold as is. I did not, however, express to him the full truth--that the item could be worth more than the original listing price given the error. The buyer canceled as I requested.

Time passed, I left the item disregarded until recently, when I decided to research it and relist it anew. As I conducted my research, I recognized a certain, possible value that the figure may carry, significantly more than I had originally thought. So, I relisted it. Before 24 hours had passed, the former buyer, who had canceled the item at my request but apparently still wanted it, then sent me an e-mail, asking why the item was relisted at the higher price after he was denied it last season. I expressed to him the dilemma in which I found myself, that due to my error in the original listing I had him cancel the auction, for the item I had listed was not what I actually had in-hand to sell. The fact is, at the time I discovered that what I had to sell was possibly worth far more, and I felt that I would be wronging my friend by selling the item at the low price given my mistake. Of course, I now realized I had wronged the buyer by not expressing as much to him more clearly and failing to offer it to him first at a reasonable price prior t re-listing.

He then proceeded to inform me that research, thorough as I felt to be, was completely misguided. He, being a collector of this particular brand of item, was well-versed in the fair values of items like the one I was selling at my friend's request; and he stated the error as I noted in the auction was insignificant and the item worth no more than the original selling price, which he graciously offered to pay, should I be willing to sell the item at that value.

I contacted my friend and told him of the development, further informing him that the value I placed on the item was highly inflated based despite what I had researched. Further, I went our local comic book shop and discussed the item with its owner, who also felt that my estimate was incorrect and a lower price far more reasonable. This information before us, my friend and I came to a conclusion, to lower the price on the item to the original cost, so that were it still worth that amount, despite the rarity of the defect, the buyer could still procure it at the original cost. In addition, I offered the buyer free shipping should he win the item, out of his gratitude for his still doing business (and, if I am honest, a sense of needing to do right by him for my prior mistakes).

The auction is pending.

Those are the facts, and I feel like I've erred on multiple fronts as I relay them to you. First, of course, I blew the listing. I was not thorough, and thus, I am responsible for this whole dilemma. Second, I feel I screwed up on the cancellation by not being wholly clear with the buyer--by not expressing to him the full details, my fear over losing value on another person's item, with which I was entrusted. Third, I feel like I failed the buyer further by relisting the item without first discussing the new findings with him and reaching an agreement on a new, agreeable price, before listing it.

To be honest, I really am torn. At first, I felt the desire to say to the buyer upon his first contacting me, "That auction ended. We agreed to cancel it. The item is now listed correctly at a fair price, and you are welcome to bid on it.".  Nothing about that statement is a lie. Frankly, by business standards, it may even be wholly fair and just, but I just felt it terribly unsympathetic and lacking in love toward the buyer. After all, he was just shopping; the error was mine. He was good enough to cancel the auction at my request, and I failed to pay him the courtesy of a follow-up. I feel that I have wronged him, for certain; and I could not treat him with such contempt. But have I? Even with the new price we have placed on the auction so that he might get the item at the same price, I feel poorly about his plight.

Then of couse, I have my friend on the other side. Regardless of his response in this, I will feel poorly if he receives less than the value of the item. Frankly, my error was the issue. Now, in an attempt to alleviate some of my self-abasement, some might say, "Ah, but his error was in refusing to list the items himself. Had he done the work, this error may have been avoided." And that may be true but it does not absolve me of my own failure. Yes, he could and perhaps should have done the labor on his own, and he is getting what he has worked for in the lesser amount. But what that really means is that he is getting what he deserves for trusting me. If my error is a means for his loss, than it is still my fault, is it not? I was entrusted to complete the sale of the items, and if I sell one for a portion of its value, have I not wronged him? If anything, the loss to him is twofold--the loss of the item's value and the loss of trust in me.

So, we return to the question at hand. What should have been done? At this point, what can be done? I am in a lose-lose. Someone is going to be left unhappy by my error. What do you think? If you were a judge hearing this case, what would you do. Send me to the pillory? Dismiss the buyer and treat the event as having never happened? Punish my friend and require the item be sold at the original, possibly lower value to the buyer? I am really asking, cause frankly, I am trying to learn from this situation.


  1. Have you ever heard that you get what you pay for? In this case CJ, you were doing a job for free and a friend who expects this from you should realize that you are not a professional marketer and therefore fallible on many of the fronts that you mentioned. It is right and good that you put the buyer first and sell at the lower price. If you went to the store and they had a price on an item and it rang at the register for a higher price, the manager would be called and the price discounted to the once that was marked (and some stores even claim to give you one of those same items free - hence, the free shipping justified).
    All too often we are asked to make quick judgement calls that result in someone being unhappy. As a result, we wish we could somehow rewind life's videotape. But that's just not reality. Admit the mistake, sell the item, then move on. If you have lost your friend's trust over this then his things are more important to him that his friends (since friends are erring humans) and he is not really your friend at all.
    I'm no Judge Judy but that's my call.

  2. Joyce,

    Thank you so much for your comment; I am glad to hear from you.

    I appreciate your feedback on this, and I believe the best course of action up front would have been to inform my friend of the error and sell the item and chalk it up to a short term loss for a long term lesson. Even after the fact, when the dust settles, I think I will wish I had done that very thing. As of now the auction stands, and it appears the buyer has washed their hands in their entirety, neither bidding nor watching the item (despite the fact that, should they win it, it will be cheaper than their original purchase, given the fact that I told them I would ship to them for free regardless, if they won). Personally, I think that I am more disappointed in myself than my friend is disappointed in me, and I should note that he has since given me a generous portion of what I made for him based on my time and labor (so I am sure our relationship is in good order), and he is satisfied to simply have the items sold. While the outcome has not been the best, this appears to be a storm that will pass and was far more pressing to me than the other two parties involved. Thank you again for the feedback! Hope you are doing well!

    PS - You did throw down like Judge Judy. =)