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Rice University researcher studies whether engaging with unethical consumers pays off

A Rice University researcher studied certain online shopping initiatives to see if targeting unethical shoppers paid off for retailers. Pexels

Conventional wisdom, grounded in ethical theory, is clear: ethical retailers shouldn't tolerate unethical customers. But what if some unethical behavior is good for business? Is it really so wrong?

Rice Business professor Utpal Dholakia and colleagues Zhao Yang and René Algesheimer of the University of Zurich recently explored whether ethical transgressions that appear harmful to retailers might actually create benefits in the long run. Think, for example, of such unsavory-but-not-illegal scams as returning used items for a refund or bringing back damaged goods.

To analyze how retailers conceive of and deal with such transgressions, Dholakia and his colleagues created a theoretical framework bookended by two opposing moral philosophies. On one end was the deontological perspective, based on Kantian ethics, which focuses on the inherent rightness or wrongness of an action regardless of outcomes. On the other end was the teleological perspective, rooted in the Utilitarianism School of British philosophers Jeremy Bentham and David Hume, which weighs the cumulative positive and negative effects of consequences rather than the behavior itself. In the teleological view, behavior should be considered moral and worthy of encouragement when its beneficial consequences outweigh its harmful ones.

Retailers by nature, tend to line up on the deontological team. To a manager at Trader Joe's, unethical and unlawful customers are pretty much interchangeable. Because of the belief that all unethical behavior is bad for the bottom line, when unethical customer behavior is detected, retailers want to stamp it out.

Dholakia's team, though, argues for a different view. The retailer, they propose, should distinguish between behavior that is unlawful and behavior that is lawful, albeit unethical. When a customer's action is unethical but lawful, the retailer ought to consider what makes it unethical and then choose the consequences accordingly: punish the customer, do nothing — or encourage them.

To grasp the implications of unethical customer behavior, Dholakia and his colleagues analyzed datasets covering 70 weeks and more than 48,000 accounts from a popular Swiss online retailer. This company provides its customers an engaging shopping experience by using social gaming and price promotions. Customers actively collect and trade virtual cards associated with each offer. In return, they enjoy discounts corresponding to the number of cards collected.

The site sells a variety of goods — the Samsung Galaxy, the Apple iPad, various branded clothes and handbags, prepaid salon and spa services, restaurant meals and trips. When an offer is first listed, a set of ten virtual cards is generated. If a customer can collect all ten cards, they receive the listed item free. So it stands to reason that the company explicitly forbids customers having more than one account.

But, the researchers found, the minority of rapscallion consumers who ignored that rule actually did the company a favor. When customers violated company policy and registered multiple accounts, the business enjoyed higher revenues and customer engagement. In fact, while less than 12 percent of the customers had multiple accounts, they generated more than 27 percent of the retailer's revenue. The fibbing customers used the site more actively than their counterparts, resulting in more revenue.

Dholakia and his team's findings open the door for retailers to take another look at customer policies. The dichotomy between right and wrong, as the double-dipping Swiss customers revealed, may not be quite as obvious as it seems. Might businesses also profit, for example, from customers who violate return policies? What if a shopper insists on trying to return a pressure cooker clearly past its return date — then stays on and spends significant money on food and books? If that second shopping trip brings in more money than the original Instapot did, is the customer really wrong?

Crafting a compromise that bridges the gap between the teleological and deontological philosophical views could allow retailers to change their policies, the researchers say. A customer might be permitted to openly create more than one user profile on a site without stooping to the deception of listing fake telephone numbers or email addresses. Netflix already deploys this attitude, inviting customers to share their accounts with others and create up to five different user profiles.

In addition to unleashing philosophical questions fit for a college all-nighter, the scholars' findings offer retailers a bracingly practical new strategy. Reconsidering consumers' ethical transgressions in a more nuanced and balanced way hurts no one — and can bump profits. This is especially true when the transgression is little more than violating policies created by the retailer that may have no real basis in ethics.

A bit of tolerance for customers who color outside the lines can benefit all, Dholakia's team argues. Consider the client who lies and claims he is returning a jacket because it doesn't fit (rather than admitting the shade of mauve makes him look ill). The pricey shoes he buys on the way out profit the store nonetheless. Tolerating bad behavior may be considered codependent in relationships. But in business, acceptance of errant customers, as long as they're on the right side of the law, can help the dollars to flow.

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This article originally appeared on Rice Business Wisdom.

Utpal Dholakia is the George R. Brown professor of marketing at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

Syzygy Plasmonics, which is creating a cleaner energy source that runs on hydrogen, closed a $5.8 million round. Photo via plasmonics.tech

A Houston technology company is doing something that, for many decades, wasn't thought to be possible. Syzygy Plasmonics is creating a hydrogen fuel cell technology that produces a cheaper source of energy that releases fewer carbon emissions.

The hydrogen-fueled technology originated out of research done over two decades by two Rice University professors, Naomi Halas and Peter Nordlander.

"There are rules in chemical engineering, and you can't break them, but we follow them in a different way," CEO Trevor Best tells InnovationMap. "What we're doing is fundamentally different. We're using light instead of heat to drive chemical reactions."

Syzygy's technology is structured more like a battery than that of a combustion engine. Inside the technology, there are cells, lights, and mirrors making as bright as possible, which then spurs a reaction that creates energy. It has the potential to be cheaper — it's made with cheaper materials — and, of course, cleaner than traditional fueling technology with fewer carbon emissions released.

This new photocatalytic chemical reactor has the potential to shake up the industrial gas, chemical, and energy industries — something that hasn't gone unnoticed by investors. Syzygy just closed a $5.8 million Series A round led by MIT's The Engine and Houston-based The GOOSE Society of Texas. Evok Innovations, a previous investor in the company, and angel investors from the Creative Destruction Lab also contributed to the round.

The funds will allow for Syzygy to continue to develop its technology and grow its team. Best tells InnovationMap that he expects to launch a full-size pilot by the end of 2020 and is already in talks with potential clients who are interested in the technology for industrial purposes.

"We're starting to solidify relationships and get customers ready," Best says.

Earlier this year, the company also received funding from the Department of Energy and from the National Science Foundation SBIR Program. The DOE tasked Syzygy with creating a reactor that transforms ammonia into hydrogen for fueling purposes. For the SBIR Program, the company is creating a reactor that processes carbon dioxide.