Ethical Issues in Sales

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Ethical Issues in Sales: Two Case Studies

Thomas L. Carson

Ethical issues in sales are an important and neglected topic in business ethics. Roughly 9% of the U.S. work force is involved in sales of one sort or another. But very little has been written about ethical issues in sales.

Case 1: Shoe sales [The following case is taken from a paper that I received from a student. I am using this case with the student’s permission. The student did not want me to use his/her name. I have made some minor stylistic and grammatical corrections, but otherwise, the description of this case is taken verbatim from the student’s paper.] My introduction to retail sales began at the age of seventeen in a small “stocks-to-suits” men’s store. The old-timers I trained under endowed me with several pearls of wisdom that are universal to success in any sales: “don’t make friends, make money,” and “first you get their confidence, then you get their trust, then you get their money.” In order to achieve the objective of making money the tactics employed are often morally questionable. Two examples may help to illustrate the type of tactics I am considering. 1) My present position as a women’s shoe salesman often necessitates the use of lying and Thomas L. Carson is Professor of Philosophy at Loyola University Chicago. He is a member of the editorial board of The American Philosophical Quarterly. He has written many papers on business ethics and is also the author of The Status of Morality (Reidel, 1984) and co-editor (with Paul Moser) of Morality and the Good Life: 20th Century Ethical Theory (Oxford, forthcoming).

deception in order to make a sale. For example, it is useful to develop a sense of urgency or need on the part of the customer to buy a particular shoe. (It is easier to make the sale if they need a shoe rather than simply want it). Once a customer selects a specific shoe the salesman creates the urgency by stating, with much false sincerity and steady eye contact, “Ooh, that may be a tough one, there are only a few left.” In fact, there may be several dozen in stock and in all sizes. It is now a simple matter to bring out other comparable shoes, all of a slightly higher price or those which management wants to “blow out,” and extol their benefits. If the customer balks, or is visibly upset, a simple, “Let me double check,” a short delay in the stock room, and the production of the first shoe, is almost a guarantee of a sale. Telling the truth, that there are several dozen in stock, will eliminate any sense of urgency on the part of the customer; she may decide to come back after her next paycheck as you have plenty. She may never come back, or if she does you may not be there, or she may wind up with another salesman. They waste your time, and on commission time is money. 2) Suppose that a customer wants a shoe that you do not have in her size. In this scenario she needs a size 7, but you only have a 6 1/2 and a 7 1/2. There are two ways to proceed, either of which achieves the same result, a successful sale. Since most women understate their size, I will only explain how to put them into the half size up (7 1/2). While in the stock room lift up the inner sole of the 7 1/2 and insert a foam “tap”, apply a small amount of glue to the inner sole and put the inner sole back in place. This gives more cushion under the ball of the foot and takes up the extra space. Bring several shoes out

Journal of Business Ethics 17: 725–728, 1998. © 1998 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.


Thomas L. Carson Endowment for the Humanities and took a leave of absence from Virginia Tech. The fellowship paid for my salary, but not my fringe benefits. I was surprised and annoyed to learn that the University would not pay for my medical insurance during the period of the fellowship. It seemed unjust to me that I was incurring additional expenses as a result of having won a fellowship which was supposed to be an honor....
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