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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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BioBQ is working on technology to bring its lab-created, cell-cultured brisket to the market in 2023. Courtesy of BioBQ

Brisket, a barbecue staple in Texas, is as synonymous with the Lone Star State as the Alamo and oil wells. A Texas company recently recognized as the state’s most innovative startup wants to elevate this barbecue staple to a new high-tech level.

BioBQ is working on technology to bring its lab-created, cell-cultured brisket to the market in 2023. The Austin-based company made the Bloomberg news service’s new list of the 50 startups to watch in the U.S. — one startup for each state.

The co-founders of BioBQ are Austin native Katie Kam, a vegan with five college degrees (four from the University of Texas and one from Texas A&M University), and Janet Zoldan, a “hardcore carnivore” who’s a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. Kam is the CEO, and Zoldan is the chief science officer.

This kind of meat is genuine animal meat that’s produced by cultivating animal cells in a lab, according to the Good Food Institute.

“This production method eliminates the need to raise and farm animals for food. Cultivated meat is made of the same cell types arranged in the same or similar structure as animal tissues, thus replicating the sensory and nutritional profiles of conventional meat,” the institute says.

It turns that before becoming a vegan, Kam worked at the now-closed BB’s Smokehouse in Northwest Austin as a high school student. She’d chow down on sauce-slathered brisket and banana pudding during on-the-job breaks.

“But then over time, as I learned more about factory farming and could no longer make the distinction between my dogs and cats I loved and the animals that were on my plate, I decided to become vegan,” Kam writes on the BioBQ website.

Hearing about the 2013 rollout of the first cell-cultured hamburger set Kam off on her path toward starting BioBQ in 2018. Zoldan joined the startup as co-founder the following year.

Now, BioBQ aims to be the first company in the world to sell brisket and other barbecue meats, such as jerky, made from cultured cells rather than slaughtered animals.

According to BioBQ’s profile on the Crunchbase website, the startup relies on proprietary technology to efficiently produce meat products in weeks rather than the year or more it takes to raise and slaughter cattle. This process “allows control of meat content and taste, reduces environmental impacts of meat production, and takes BBQ to the next tasty, sustainable level consumers want,” the profile says.

In 2020, Texas Monthly writer Daniel Vaughn questioned BioBQ’s premise.

He wrote that “there is something about the idea of lab-grown brisket that keeps bothering me, and it has nothing to do with science fiction. If you could design any cut of beef from scratch, why choose one that’s so difficult to make delicious? Why not a whole steer’s worth of ribeyes?”

Kam offered a very entrepreneur-like response.

“I’m from Austin, and I know that brisket’s kind of a big deal here,” Kam told Vaughn. “It seemed like a great, challenging meat to demonstrate this technology working.”

Meanwhile, Zoldan came up with a more marketing-slanted reaction to Vaughn’s bewilderment.

“I don’t think cell-based meats will take over the market, but I think there’s a place for it on the market,” Zoldan she told Vaughn.

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This article originally ran on CultureMapCultureMap.

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