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Should a Consumer Return a Duplicate Shipment?

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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.

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!

Published or updated October 23, 2013. If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to the RSS feed or receive daily emails. Follow @ConsumerismComm on Twitter and visit our Facebook page for more updates.

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About the author

Luke Landes, also known as Flexo, is the founder of Consumerism Commentary. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about him and follow Luke Landes on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Debt Blag

Thanks for including me :)

This has only happened to me once in real life, and the company did first tell me they’d ship out a mailer to send it back (it was a couple shirts of value around $20), and when I got back in touch with them a month later to say that it never arrived, they told me to just keep it. I ended up gifting them to my brother-in-law.

I don’t think I’d personally make the distinction you did in letting the size of the company determine which action I was going to take. Getting in touch with the company and letting them fix their mistake is all about who I am, not who they are.

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avatar Steve

This happened to me last December. It was the online presence of a physical retail chain, so I took them back to the store. The clerk did take them back but decided to credit me the purchase price. So instead of getting a double order for 50% free stuff (100% gain), I got a single order for 100% free stuff (infinite gain). I did not get the impression there was going to be any feedback to the website or online fulfillment, so in the end it was worse for the company that I tried to do the right thing. That said, I would do the same thing again.

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avatar Janine

I had this happen in a different form. This summer large internet company sent me a TV I had never ordered or paid for. I couldn’t handle the guilt and wrote them. They told me to keep it. I have to say though it is still sitting in it’s box in my living room.

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avatar Edward

I’d have to let the company know. There wouldn’t even be a moral option for anything else. I know myself well enough that if I kept it without saying anything, while guilt wouldn’t kill me per se, it would sort of nag at the back of my mind for the rest of my friggin life. I can think of a few ambiguous choices I’ve made in life and they bug me still–even though the majority of them happened when I was under 20 years-old.

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avatar Fig

Thanks for including me! My follow up tweets explained I’d feel too guilty, if that makes me look less horrible. But my first reaction was definitely keep! Hehe.

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avatar Daniel

If you did not want the duplicate item, would you consider returning the original for a refund, essentially getting your original order for free? This seems like the least honest thing to do, but if you don’t need it, why keep it?

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avatar DonnaFreedman ♦55 (Newbie)

I’d let the company know. If the stuff were expensive they’d likely send me a prepaid label to return it. What’s more likely is that they’ll say, “Ooops — free gift for you!”
I once ordered a few items on Amazon and somehow managed to get them delivered…to my daughter’s mother-in-law. D’oh! When I called to see how I might get the items re-sent correctly (picked up by Amazon driver? prepaid label mailed? and I was willing to pay for this), the Amazon rep said, “That’s OK, we’ll just resend another order to you.”
Of course, she also politely made it clear that this was a one-time thing and that I’d have to be more careful in the future. (Agreed.)

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avatar Katherine

A certain company with a bulls eye logo sent me a duplicate order of a Christmas gift. I did call the company to let them know (and make sure I wasn’t going to be charged)–the rep said I could return it “if I wanted” or keep it. Well, it was the holidays when the stores are crazy and everyone’s schedule is full, I felt I had done my due diligence… so my sister enjoyed two pairs of shoes that year!

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avatar Tracee

This happened to me recently. Except I had placed a small order for some supplies (which I received without incident) then a week later I received a big box full of other supplies (someone else’s order sent to me by mistake). I emailed the company, which I would describe as a medium sized company, not huge, but not small, and they had the nerve to ask me to drive the package to FedEx and mail it back to them. I told them I would not go that far out of my way to fix their mistake, and eventually they arrange for a FedEx truck to come to my house and pick up the package. No “thank you”, no discount or coupon, nothing. And this is a company that brags about their amazing customer service.

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avatar DonnaFreedman ♦55 (Newbie)

Well, shame on them. You tried to do the right thing and they expected you to go to the trouble of fixing their mistake.
While doing the right thing is its own reward, it’s nice to get a “thanks for being honest” or something like that.
And can you at least HINT at the name of the company??? Maybe tell us what it rhymes with…? ;-)

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avatar DonnaFreedman ♦55 (Newbie)

Oh, and P.S.: It’s probably not too late to call the company and ask for a supervisor to whom to tell your tale. Possibly the customer service rep was new and just blurted out, “Can you just drive it to Fed Ex?” without thinking things through.
You’d be doing the company a favor, since this is the kind of thing that makes retailers tremble: an inexperienced CS rep ticking off a customer who sends the anecdote out on social media, making the company look dumb. You could be sure to say, “I think this could be a training issue,” vs. trying to get the CS rep in trouble with the boss.

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avatar Tracee

It is a relatively small, specialized craft supply company. At the risk of sounding like a hipster, you’ve probably never heard of them :) and will most likely have no occasion to buy from them.

I was put off by the situation, but not so put off that I wouldn’t buy from them again. I just found it very strange, and frankly poor business practice, to even suggest that I go out of my way to correct their mistake, and for nothing in return. But I agree with many other comments, it was more important for me to do the right thing and contact the company. And I would do it the same way again.

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avatar Valerie Rind

I’m a lawyer, but I have no idea what the law is on this topic (and it may vary by state) and I don’t think it matters.

You gotta do the right thing.

Once I received my order of cosmetics/bath products plus someone else’s (completely different stuff that I never would have ordered). I contacted the company and they told me to keep it. I think I still have it tucked away. Probably time to re-gift.

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avatar DonnaFreedman ♦55 (Newbie)

When all is said and done, what matters is whether you can live with what you did.
At one of the lowest points of my single-mom life a bank teller confused my transactions and in addition to transferring $40 from savings to checking also gave me $40 in cash.
Boy, did I need that money — I was working part-time and getting no child support. But I immediately said, “There’s been a mistake.”
Again: Couldn’t have lived with myself had I kept something that wasn’t mine.

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avatar qixx ♦1,880 (Half-Dollar)

I do know that it does vary by state. In my current state the items delivered are free to keep. The company can’t charge you nor can they even request them back. If you were to call and ask about returning it they can’t legally tell you anything other than they are your’s to keep. The last state i lived in was allowed to arrange for their return.

I’d expect the reason companies usually say the stuff is yours to keep is because it is easier to follow the most strict state’s laws than to track rules for different states and train customer service reps different depending on the state.

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avatar Joe

I would want to find out if it is an honest mistake or an intentional act. Sometimes companies don’t want the staff back anyway. The other day, I ordered a bathroom cabinet I found going cheap on e-bay. They sent me two. I called them and asked if they would collect it. They told me to keep it.

You have to think that it was you who made the mistake. For example, when I was working in a hotel a few years back, I forgot to charge the bar bill to the customers account. It was about $9 and not a big deal. I sent a letter to the customer asking the money because it was not my money to forget about it. They have not replied to may letter in anyway. I thought they cannot be nice people if they are happy to drink but not want to pay for it.

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