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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.

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Building Houston

 
 

Cheers Health has expanded its product line as it evolves as a wellness-focused brand. Photo courtesy of Cheers

Houston-based startup Cheers first got a wave of brand devotees after it was passed over by investors on Shark Tank in 2018. In the years since, Cheers secured an impressive investment, launched new products, and became a staple hangover cure for customers. When the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted businesses, the company rose to the occasion and experienced its first profitable year as drinking and wellness habits changed across America.

Cheers initially started its company under the name Thrive+ with a hangover-friendly pill that promised to minimize the not-so-fun side effects that come after a night out. The capsules support the liver by replacing lost vitamins, reduce GABAa rebound and lower the alcohol-induced acetaldehyde toxicity levels in the body. The company's legacy product complemented social calendars and nights on the town, providing next day relief.

With COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing measures, the days of pub crawls and social events were numbered. Cheers founder Brooks Powell saw the massive behavior change in people consuming alcohol, and leaned into his vision of becoming more than just a hangover cure but an "alcohol-related health company," he says.

When the pandemic first hit, Powell and his team noticed an immediate dip in sales — a relatable story for businesses in the grips of COVID-19.

"There is a three day period where we went from having the best month in company history to the worst month in company history, over a 72 hour stretch," he remarks.

He soon called an emergency board meeting and rattled off worst-case "doomsday" scenarios, he says.

"Thankfully, we never had to do any of these strategies because, ultimately, the team was able to rally around the new positioning for the brand which was far more focused on alcohol-related health," he says.

"We found that a lot less people were getting hangovers during 2020, because generally when you binge drink, you tend to binge drink with other people," he explains.

He noticed that health became an important focus for people, some who began to drink less due to the lack of social gatherings. On the contrary, some consumers began to drink more to fill the idle time.

According to a JAMA Network report, there was a 54 percent increase in national sales of alcohol for the week stay-at-home orders began last March, as compared to the year prior.

"All of a sudden, you have all of these people who probably aren't binge drinking but they're just frequently consuming alcohol. Their drinks per week are shooting up, and they're worried about liver health," explains Powell.

Outside of day-after support, Cheers leaned into its long-term health products to help drinkers consume alcohol in a healthier way. Cheers Restore, a dissolvable powder consumers can mix into their water, rehydrates the body by optimizing sodium and glucose molecules.

For continued support, Cheers Protect is a daily supplement designed to increase glutathione — an antioxidant that plays a key role in liver detoxification — and support overall liver health. Cheers Protect, which was launched in 2019, became a focus for the company as they pivoted its brand strategy and marketing to accommodate consumer behavior.

"The Cheers brand is just trying to reflect the mission statement, which is bringing people together through promoting fun, responsible and health-conscious alcohol consumption," says Powell. "It fits with our vision statement, which is a world where everyone can enjoy alcohol throughout a long, healthy and happy lifetime,."

At the close of 2020, Cheers had generated $10.4 million in revenue and over $1.7m in profit — its first profitable year since launch.

During the brand's mission to stay afloat during the pandemic, the Cheers team was also laying the groundwork for its entry into the retail space. When Powell launched the company during his junior year at Princeton University, bringing Cheers to brick-and-mortar stores had always been a goal. He envisioned liquor and grocery stores where Cheers was sold next to alcohol as a complementary item. "It's like getting sunscreen before going to the beach, they kind of go hand in hand," he says.

"When we spoke with retailers, specifically bars and liquor stores, what we learned is that a lot of these places were hesitant to put pills near alcohol," he says. Wanting an attractive and accessible mode of alcohol-support, the Cheers team created the Cheers Restore beverage.

Utilizing the technology Cheers developed with Princeton University researchers, the Cheers Restore beverage incorporates the benefits of the pill in a liquid, sugar-free form. The company states that its in-vivo study found that the drink is up to 19 times more bioavailable than pure dihydromyricetin (DHM), a Japanese raisin tree extract found in Cheers products and other hangover-related cures.

"What we figured out is that if you combine DHM — our main ingredient — with something called capric acid, which is an extract from coconut oil, the bioavailability shoots way up," says Powell. He notes the unique taste profile and the "creaminess" capric acid provides. "Now you have this lightly carbonated, zero-sugar, lemon sherbert, essentially liver support, hangover beverage that tastes great in 12 ounces and can mix with alcohol," he explains.

The Cheers Restore beverage is already hitting the Houston-area, where its found a home on menus at Present Company. The company has also run promotions with Houston hangouts like Memorial Trail Ice House, Drift, and The Powder Keg.

Currently, the beverage is only available in retail capacity and cannot be ordered on the Cheers website. As Powell focuses on expanding Cheers Restore beverage presence in the region, he welcomes the idea of expanding nationally in the future to come. While eager customers await the drink's national availability, they can actively invest in Cheers through the company's recently-launched online public offering.

Though repivoting a company and launching a new product is exciting, the process did not come without its caveats and stressors. While Cheers profited as a business in 2020, the staff and its founder weren't immune to the struggles of COVID-19.

"I think 2020 was the first year that it really became real for me that Cheers is far more than just some sort of alcohol-related health brand and its products," says Powell. "Cheers is really its employees and everything that goes into being a successful, durable company that people essentially bet their careers on and their family's well-being on and so forth," he continues.

"It really does weigh on you in a different way that it's never weighed on you before," says Powell, describing the stress of the pandemic. The experience was "enlightening," he says, and he wants others to know it's not embarrassing to need help.

"There is no lack of great leaders out there that at long periods of their life they needed help in some way," he says. "For me that was 2020 and being in the grinder and feeling the stress of the unknown and all of that, but it could happen to anyone," he continues.

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