Day one, there didn’t appear to be a problem. Some time earlier, my girlfriend ordered some clothing online. Either she had received a discount to apply to the order or she would receive a future discount in return for placing the order. I’m not clear on the details of the discount, but it’s mostly irrelevant to the story and the resulting conundrum. Well, it’s a conundrum to me, but she didn’t seem to give her choice a second thought.
That day, the package arrived. It contained everything she ordered from the large clothing retailer. I won’t name the store; I used to shop there myself for cheap tee-shirts and comfortable jeans, but I’m not a big fan of the quality anymore. And they’ve been known to mail coupons whereby the recipient may receive one of three discounts — you never know which discount you’ll get until you open the mailing.
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Day two, she found a surprise: a second shipment. It was identical to the first. The packing slip matched character for character. It was the same order number. She checked the online activity for her credit card, and there was only one charge. She paid once, but received her full shipment twice. The error was clearly in the distribution process.
By the time she shared the news with me, she had already made her decision: she would keep the extra shipment — and keep the mistake to herself. (Well, now the situation is somewhat public.) The products she received are some she wouldn’t mind having duplicates. She cited me the law, which apparently in New York — I haven’t confirmed this — says that if a company sends a customer a package through the mail, that package is the property of the recipient.
If the law clearly indicates the shipment belongs to her regardless of whether she has paid, she is under no obligation to do anything else but enjoy the free gifts.
In other words, the law is the only metric by which consumer behavior should be evaluated. We talked about this philosophy briefly, and it was a non-judgmental discussion. In her mind it’s simple: a large company made a mistake, and her responsibilities in the matter are clear. I can see the situation from her perspective. This is hardly a loss to a big clothing company. They’re likely not to care. In fact, based on previous experiences, I expect that if she were to call the company to let them know of the error, the company’s policy is almost guaranteed to involve allowing the customer to keep the package with no further obligations.
As a consumer, I don’t feel bad for the company. It can handle the loss; in fact, the company’s executive plan their pricing with a certain amount of planned loss. All customers are already paying for the occasional shipping mistake, not to mention outright in-store shoplifting and online fraud. But as someone who either sells items or can sympathize with small retail business owners, I can I think companies might like to know of the error, even if they will tell the consumer to keep the extra products.
Maybe the rules are different depending on how we might assume the mistake might affect the company.
What would I do if I were in her place? If the company were small, I’d call and let them know about the mistake. With this large clothing retail company? I don’t know what I would do. So I asked Consumerism Commentary readers on Twitter after letting my girlfriend know this would be the topic of an upcoming article on Consumerism Commentary. (Some of these tweets are edited or combined.)
We had that happen once. We informed them of it. They thanked us and just told us to keep the stuff. – @SWAMFinance
call and tell them and let them decide. Good karma will hopefully prevail :) – @AppFlyer
Call the company who will then praise you and just tell you to keep it anyways ;) – @BudgetsAreSexy
I’d want to keep the stuff, but would feel too guilty. Call the company. :) – @KrystalAtWork
@krystalatwork I’d do the same thing. Of course, I’d ask that they pay return shipping though; I’m not a charity :) – @debtblag
I tell them. Half the time they tell you to keep it… but that’s their call… of course, they’d better make it really easy for me to send back if they want it back! – @RevancheGS
I’ll play devils advocate. Keep! I mean, they are going to tell you to keep it anyways, 9/10. – @accordingtoathena
call them. company may give u a discount on a future purchase for being a good Samaritan. – @MattVATech
I could be just greedy or lazy but I’d just keep it, lol – @moneyfig
call/return. It’s the right thing to do. – @thegoodhuman
Update: As pointed out by @HomeBuyerNation, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is clear on this issue.
If you receive merchandise that you didn’t order, you have a legal right to keep it as a free gift… You have no legal obligation to notify the seller. However, it is a good idea to write a letter to the company stating that you didn’t order the item and, therefore, you have a legal right to keep it for free. This may discourage the seller from sending you bills or dunning notices, or it may help clear up an honest error.
The Twitter poll isn’t a scientific study, of course, but it seems the general consensus, outside of a few outliers, is that a consumer should call and can expect the company not to ask for the shipment to be returned, despite the lack of a legal obligation.
What do you think? What would you do in this situation? Keep the items knowing the company won’t be affected by the loss or call to report the error? Have you been through this experience before? Is it even possible to accurately predict what you would do if faced with the same situation? No judging!
Updated October 15, 2015 and originally published October 23, 2013.