Brokethicist: Is it wrong to hand out free commission to retail workers?

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Beacon’s Closet: Friendly people, but I can help myself just fine, thank you. Via WSJ.

This is going to sound like the first world-iest of first world problems, but it is a real thing that has been on my mind when doing shopping, and something that would fall under the purview of the Broke Ethicist, if we had one. I was shopping in a thrift store in Atlanta recently (in which the relatively minimal prices mark the only place where Atlanta trumps Brooklyn), minding my own business and going through the sort of slash-and-burn, try-on-and-discard method that I have fine tuned over a decade of thrift shopping mastery.

This is partly due to my desire to be left alone in my shopping bubble, because I know what I like and I like what I want, and no one else, not salesperson nor family member nor Thrillist listing, has ever been able to accurate predict it. I decided on a ringer tee from Stone Mountain, chosen not only for its dirty retro 80s summer-camp aesthetic, but also for as a souvenir from the town in which both my friend I was staying with worked and from where Kenneth Parcell came. When I got to the register, the cashier asked, “Was anyone helping you today?” The real answer was “no,” but I looked around at the cute girl who smiled at me before and pointed, “her there, with the bangs.” As such, bangs girl got some commission from the sale. But she didn’t really help me at all. Was I ethically wrong to do this?

To channel my inner Chuck Klosterman, yes, I was probably ethically wrong to do this. Bangs Girl didn’t help me even a little, and therefore me singling her out as someone who assisted my purchase undermined the store’s whole commission system. Which therefore undermines the store’s whole rewards system, and its merit-based economic Darwinism, meaning Bangs Girl I threw the sale to might have actually been a terrible employee but will continue her tenure there as a “successful saleswoman,” thanks to having allegedly “closed” my sale.

But was it morally wrong? I don’t really think so, because I think the burden of this kind of financial incentive falls on the store itself. Really, do I need help navigating my way through the hodge-podgey racks of a thrift store? No, because this is not an H&M with a regimented stock, and unless the clerk has an Endless Sunshine-esque map of my behavioral preferences and a Legend of Zelda-esque map of the hidden treasures in the well-stocked store, she was not bound to be much use no matter what.

I’ve done this a few other times inside Brooklyn and out, whenever I can, be it thrift store or Apple Store. Maybe it’s because my dad worked in retail all his life, but whenever I get the question, I try to spot someone in the store who looks, at least on the surface, deserving of a bonus, and point to them as my ostensible “helper.” Sure, they didn’t actually do anything, but should my stubborn self-sufficience in a retail setting come at the cost of low-paid retail workers? Retail jobs, even at a place like Beacon’s Closet that offers health insurance, are notoriously frustrating, and we’ve all worked them before, so if you can’t sympathize a little, you probably shouldn’t be reading this post.

I don’t see any real harm in it, but what do you think? Does this kind of behavior disrupt retail economies like Vine disrupted the .gif market? If we didn’t do this kind of fake commission conspiracy, would our prices overall go down?

Retail warriors, the comment section is yours. Brokelyn karma commission awaits you, if you ostensibly deserve it.

Follow Tim for more “just looking” retail advice: @timdonnelly.

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  1. I don’t think it’s a complete slam dunk that the sales cutie at the thrift store was getting commission, unless it was one of those “more expensive than brand new” vintage stores. In which case, why were you even there?

  2. This seems morally dubious to me. Why did you choose her? Because she’s cute? Because she just happened to be standing there? Maybe she was goofing off while her coworker was in the back sorting stock.

    The commission is a rewards system to get employees selling. If this girl learns that all she has to do is stand there and look good, you’re imparting the wrong lesson.

    /Getting off the high horse now.

  3. Maybe she did help you. Maybe that smile affected you in some miniscule neuro-chemical way that, in ripples-in-the-pond-fashion, led you to your ultimate purchase. One never knows…

  4. Eh, sounds like Robin Hood-ism gone awry. I think anyone trying to undermine the commission system when they aren’t actually being helped needs to employ (no pun intended) a more arbitrary system than “she looks cute.” What about the employees you have no attraction to? This, by the way, is my bid for official Brokethicist…

  5. If your intentions were really “Robin Hood-esque” i think the best reply at the till would have been: the truth!! (as in most cases in life..) you already mention it yourself: “the real answer was no”
    you could have said: ” no one was helping me, and i was not looking for help either, i was happily looking around on my own and no help was needed. By the way i don’t favor your commission system, because i don’t think it is fair. I would rather see you paying better wages for all of your staff.”

    In fact commission systems in retail stores do often create an unfair atmosphere between employees and do not increase the customer service in general. They might increase sales on a short term, but the flipside is a less inviting atmosphere for the consumer, which no shopowner can strive for. And believe me, if the person at the till would hear this feedback couple of times a day, they would most likely consider changing their reward system.

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