Ethics Observations On The Great 1 Cent Target Toothbrush Controversy

In Massachusetts, David Leavitt found that Target had mislabelled an electric toothbrush as costing $0.01 rather than $100. When he eagerly rushed to take advantage of the obvious error, a Target checkout employee refused to sell the item at that price, and the store manager backed up the employee.

This set Mr. Leavitt, who says he is a journalist (he appears to be a gaming writer), off into a full-scale social media attack on Target. “This [Target] manager Tori is not honoring the price of their items per Massachusetts law,” tweeted Leavitt, including the young manager’s photo. He then indignantly announced that he had called the police on the Target manager, and said he was prepared to take her and the store to court.

This being social media in the United States of America, where everything, even toothbrushes, is political and a provocation to go to battle,  Leavitt’s vendetta was seen as an unjust  progressive vilification of business, so conservatives rallied to Tori’s defense. The  #TargetTori hashtag was born, and a GoFundMe page raised $28,000 to send her on a well deserved vacation.

Observations:

  • Ethics Alarms has dealt with this issue before. It is unethical to try to take financial advantage of an obvious mistake by anyone, businesses and banks included. Sometimes a court will rule that a business is stuck when it goofs, usually courts do not. For example, people who try to hold on to money mistakenly deposited in their bank accounts, or cash they get when an ATM goes nuts, invariably fail, as they should. They are being greedy, attempting to take money that doesn’t belong to them, and their conduct is ethically indefensible by any standard, including the Golden Rule.

This situation is no different.

  • Leavitt is being an asshole, in technical terms. He knows the price posted was a mistake. A decent, fair, rational citizen would accept that, alert the store that it needs to fix the label, and stop at that. Maybe such a citizen will get some kind a reward from the store (this once happened to me). Instead, this epic jerk goes, in the immortal words of Marsellus Wallace in “Pulp Fiction,” “Medieval on Target’s ass,” and its poor manager too.

His rationalization for his appalling behavior, and this is rich, is that he can’t afford to go to the dentist, so, presumably, he believes this entitles him to steal an electric toothbrush from Target. Or perhaps in a recent rant Bernie Sanders or AOC has announced that an electric toothbrush is a basic human right—-I’m a little behind.

  • Leavitt claims that Target and Tori are violating a Massachusetts law that requires stores to sell items at the posted price. There are few things more humiliating than throwing a self-righteous fit based on your own mistake. I don’t know if Leavitt is really a journalist, but he sure isn’t a lawyer.

The law he thinks backs him up doesn’t. It clearly says that an obvious pricing error, one that qualifies as “gross,” and this was a gross error by ant standard, isn’t enforceable. Now I’m almost feeling sorry for David. He’s made a national fool of himself, and will be mercilessly targeted (heh, heh) out of all proportion by the Social Media Furies. He will likely lose his job (if he has one), and become a pariah until the latest hapless miscreant comes along.

That will be almost as unfair as what he is doing to Tori.

Almost.

  • It turns out that Leavitt has enraged social media twice before. In 2016, responding to the hashtag, “CalmMeDownIn3Wods,” Leavitt tweeted  “Trump died sleeping.” In 2017, he tweeted a joke about the the May 22 bombing attack at Ariana Grande’s concert in Manchester, England. The bobs killed19 people and injured  more than 50. Leavitt tweeted in the “MULTIPLE CONFIRMED FATALITIES at Manchester Arena. The last time I listened to Ariana Grande I almost died too.”

Which brings us back to the second bulletpoint above, doesn’t it?

____________________________

Pointer: J.R. Marr

Here’s the Twitter link if you want to post the tale above to Facebook without being told that Ethics Alarms violates “Facebook community values”: https://twitter.com/CaptCompliance/status/1219236280682340353

24 thoughts on “Ethics Observations On The Great 1 Cent Target Toothbrush Controversy

  1. There are several aspects to this. You covered that the statute does not cover this.

    Basic contract laws does not cover this, as it is a clear mistake that is mutual. There is basic consumer law that a price tag does not constitute an offer to sell, but a solicitation of an offer to sell.

    But, the golden rule needs some elaboration,because we are dealing with a consumer situation. If Leavitt is never in the position of selling things, he could say that this is the flipside of caveat emptor, which would be caveat venditor (let the seller beware). But, it has to do with double standards. It is not treat others the way you would like to be treated, so much as it is to expect fair treatment.

    An example I have used is that, if I am checking a restaurant bill and they have not billed me for something we ordered and received, I will point out the error in the bill. People have suggested that I am crazy; “if they did not bill you, then it’s free.” Except that, the way to think about it is, if I would complain about an item being included in the bill that was NOT delivered, then I should complain about one that was delivered but NOT included. Not thinking about the restaurant at all, I am not going to subject myself to a double standard just because it benefits me. Sometimes, they will comp it anyway, sometimes they will say it was intentional (though usually they advertise when they do that), and sometimes they will simply correct the error.

    My only closest anecdote to Leavitt’s is this: many years back, I went out to buy an electric razor. Looked around the store and found one on sale that fit my budget and everything; I think it was post-Christmas so the discount was substantial enough to get a better razor than I could otherwise afford. They rang it up and the discounted price did not come up. So, I pointed that out. They went over to the display area and it turns out that the sale had ended the previous day. Apparently, the sale dates had been listed on the sign, but the sign had not been taken down after the sale ended. I don’t recall if I was reconsidering my purchase as unaffordable at that point, but they gave me the discounted price anyway.

    I highly doubt that Mr. Leavitt would have insisted on paying the full price….

    -Jut

    • In Connecticut, the law entitles someone who product rang up at a price higher than the marked price to a free item up to $20, or a $20 credit. I’ve always been offered (and accepted) the erroneous discounted price.

    • Jut
      You made the point “There is basic consumer law that a price tag does not constitute an offer to sell, but a solicitation of an offer to sell.”

      I have always wondered about that concept. It seems to me that the solicitation of an offer to sell occurs when the sign of the establishment is turned on and the doors are opened. At that point people are solicited to come into the store and purchase items.

      I realize that this is getting into the legal weeds. I just do not see the difference between an offer to sell at a given price which can be accepted or rejected by the consumer by them placing the object in the cart or not, and a solicitation of an offer to sell which could theoretically tie up every cashier for hours as negotiations take place at the register. Imagine if people suddenly decided that they should try to negotiating prices at the register because they know that the store can suddenly say “oh it was just a solicitation of an offer but not a real offer. What if everyone started filling their carts with merchandise and began leaving it at the register when they decide that bringing the stuff to the register was not an acceptance of an offer but a solicitation to enter into negotiations over price.

      This clown is a jerk and I do the same as you when I see a bill that errs in my favor. In fact, I wrote here about the ethics of an Ikea commercial that suggested people think their prices are so low they have to make haste out of the store before the store realizes the mistake.

      I would love for any of the legal experts to help me understand this subtle distinction between an actual offer and a solicitation of an offer to sell. Why not simply post I am for sale?

      • It is a fair point. The reason why the system works so well is that neither the purchaser nor the seller (especially the cashier who has not power to negotiate) thinks of the price tag as negotiable. Go to Mexico, the Middle East, or a used car lot, and you realize that it is.

        But, I did misspeak. I think it is a solicitation of an offer to buy. Regardless of the price tag, it is the buyer who is making the offer. The seller can reject the number on the price tag, even if the seller put it there.

        It is a weird concept, I admit, but it probably arose as an attempt to fit the typical “shopping” experience into a contractual framework, keeping in mind the historical origins of a bartering system. But, considering that transactions rarely occur directly with the owner anymore (as I said, cashiers can’t negotiate price, or don’t know they can), the rule is probably some sort of “fix.”

        -Jut

        • >> (as I said, cashiers can’t negotiate price, or don’t know they can)

          My experience is that cashiers usually do “negotiate” the price, usually by overriding the system price in favor of the erroneous marked price; or by offering to mark down a better or comparable product if a product is sold out, or there was an inventory error and a product never arrived. A manager might ultimately approve the discount, but it usually the clerk who comes up with the solution.

      • “Imagine if people suddenly decided that they should try to negotiating prices at the register because they know that the store can suddenly say “oh it was just a solicitation of an offer but not a real offer.”

        For big ticket items is this a problem?

        We found a freezer and discovered a deep scratch on it, the workers said they’d probably end up throwing it away because no one would buy it. We offered like 65-70% of the asking price. They sold it to us.

        I’ve seen people negotiate on refrigerators (mostly unsuccessfully) but I really don’t see a problem with it.

        I think we’ve gotten comfortable with a hyper-standardized life that we forget that we’re all individuals working in a community of give, take and compromise, commercially speaking.

        I don’t think it’s unethical.

        • Your example is materially different. You offered to purchase the item at a deep discount and the store accepted. Therefore, no one got hosed. I do this all the time with floor models – most of them have minor dings and dents but work perfectly. For example, I don’t mind a chain saw with a few scratches as long as the machine works. So, I will offer to buy the saw at 60-70% off because I have to replace my beloved Stihl 16″ chainsaw that some stupid, useless bastard stole out of my garage, along with a 10″ compound mitre saw, Dewalt power drills, a brand-frickin’ new blower and trimmer, and a Dr. Pepper! That is a bridge too far. Nobody, and I mean NOBODY!, takes my Dr. Pepper. I hate him and wish him a horrible death!

          In this situation, this guy is taking advantage of a clear, obvious error. It is unreasonable to think a new toothbrush (valued at $100) is going to sell at $.01. That is clearly a mistake. Here is how you handle it: You ask the manager if the price is correct. If so, then bully for you. If not, the manager will thank you and perhaps discount the item (not required or earned but perhaps out of courtesy). If you don’t get a discount, you don’t become a tool and blast the store on social media. That is bullying a manager who has no authority to do what you want. If is unfair behavior and you should be ashamed of yourself. You know better than that.

          jvb

              • “…and a Dr. Pepper”

                As a fellow Texan, I understand this to be the most grievous sin.

                As far as I understand the self-defense law in Texas, there is an exception carved out that it IS a defense against accusations of manslaughter if your actions resulting in death were in the process of stopping a theft of Dr. Pepper.

                • To the lawyers,who responded to my question to Jut, thanks.

                  Having spent a great deal of time in less developed countries I know price tags are the first offer. Anyone dumb enough to pay their inflated price must have more money than sense.

                  I was envisioning a grocery store shopper with 50 or 60 items all up for negotiation.

                  I’ll take the rationale as given but how do we reconcile that with laws against price gouging if the price is an offer by the buyer to purchase? How can we hold a seller responsible for gouging if the price tag represents an offer to buy?

  2. Jerks are going to do jerky things. This guy is just a classic example of jerkiness. Jerks try to take advantage of obvious mistakes and then overreact when they get called on it. Jerks act angry woke and wish death on politicians they don’t agree with. Jerks make light of situations where people get killed through no fault of their own while the bodies are still warm. The guy needs some kind of attention-getting consequences to fall on him for acting like a jerk, they maybe he’ll change his ways – for a while.

  3. That will be almost as unfair as what he is doing to Tori.

    My only point of disagreement: the social and financial ruin which comes as a direct result of the asinine attempt to ruin someone socially and financially is a much-needed example of the universe being fair. May he depend, for the rest of his life, on the charity of others if it will shatter his malicious hubris and that of the rest of the mob and restore the collective sanity even by an infinitesimal degree!

    Then again, maybe it’ll feed that same ruinous appetite in that same mob, continuing the feedback-loop. Consider my disagreement self-mitigated even as I endeavored to disagree. It must be nice to be single-minded.

  4. Assholes gonna asshole. Or something.

    Anyway, what a tragically, probably terminally unhinged creep. May a syphilitic camel drag his dangly bits through Levitt’s Twitter account — and breakfast as well.

  5. In Canada, we have a national, voluntary policy similar to the one Leavitt is citing (it’s voluntary, but basically every major retailer adheres), we call it the “Scanner Code of Accuracy”. The SCA says that when the scanned price of a labelled item is higher than the shelf label displayed, the customer gets the first item free, up to a maximum of $10.00.

    All other items are to be sold for the posted price, unless the difference between the posted price and the scanned price, multiplied by the number of units, plus the initial free item exceed $10, at which point the customer gets $10 off their purchase and the prices are as scanned, and it’s up to them to decide if they want their product.

    Basically: Find a shelf tag error for us, we’ll give you an item for free or $10, whichever is lower. No one will ever get a $100 toothbrush for a penny.

    Second, I’m familiar with Target’s ordering system, and that label isn’t for the toothbrush, it’s for the display the toothbrush is on. Target prints labels for commonly ordered supplies and attaches them near where the supplies are stored for easy ordering, I suppose Leavitt could make the argument that he wants to by the display for a penny… I’ve always thought defaulting to 0.01 was much riskier than defaulting to 999.99, but I have the feeling that he wasn’t going to make that argument. Simply having a label in front of a product is not enough (at least here) to trigger the SCA, the label needs to at least facially describe the item in question, and that label says “display”.

  6. There are a couple of additional details to this story that make it all the more amusing: first, someone dug through Leavitt’s old tweets (of course) and found one from a year or so ago where he was gloating that he had complained until they turned off Fox News on the TV in his dentist’s waiting room. So much for the “I can’t afford to go to the dentist” fake victimhood. Then Leavitt heard about the GoFundMe (that had been started by someone else) and announced on Twitter that “I’m giving away vacations”. This dude seems like a real peach.

    This whole incident is so textbook Twitter:

    – Asshole is indignant over minor error or slight
    – Asshole tries to stir up Twitter mob to vent his righteous anger
    – Counter-mob forms to smack him down
    – Old tweets surface that illustrate asshole is a liar
    – Asshole tries to save face, way too late, by acting like it’s all a joke
    – Somewhere in the chaos, at least one GoFundMe is started

    This has become a well-worn social media rut by now. It’s like Groundhog Day every day on Twitter, except in that movie, Bill Murray eventually learns some lessons and alters his behavior. I doubt the Twitter mob ever will.

    One last observation: Imagine the kind of person who, in 2020, would choose to label themselves a “journalist” while not actually being one. That’s like telling the guys in your cell block that you’re in jail for molesting children when you’re really there for vandalism.

  7. “His rationalization for his appalling behavior, and this is rich, is that he can’t afford to go to the dentist, so, presumably, he believes this entitles him to steal an electric toothbrush from Target.”

    This isn’t even true. He claimed in a later tweet he hadn’t been to a dentist in 3 years and the mob found his tweets from last year tweeting from a dentist office.

  8. A similar situation happened at a gas station on the other side of town a few years back. The clerk put the wrong price in at one of the pumps, so people were getting their gas for some ridiculous price (something like $.029/gallon).

    I don’t remember the exact details, but quite a few customers got incredibly cheap gas until the clerk was notified. In the days of $3/gallon gasoline, filling your tank for $.15 or $.20 is super-enticing, but wholly unethical. In fact, because we usually know the approximate price of gas and we often pay at the pump rather than in the store, I think this is stealing from the business.

    Is my thinking correct?

    • It is, and I remember the incident. It was slightly excusable because some filling stations have has promotions in which they reduced the price to what it was on a certain date in the past, so some drivers might have though the discount was intentional.

  9. It has been reported that Tori has said she will donate the proceeds from GoFundMe to a charity. If true, that’s incredibly generous of her.

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