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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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Here's what not to miss at the first all-virtual CERAWeek by IHS Markit. Screenshot via virtual.ceraweek.com

While usually hundreds of energy experts, C-level executives, diplomats, members of royal families, and more descend upon Houston for the the annual CERAWeek by IHS Markit conference, this year will be a little different. Canceled last year due to COVID-19, CERAWeek is returning — completely virtually.

The Agora track is back and focused on innovation within the energy sector. The Agora track's events — thought-provoking panels, intimate pods, and corporate-hosted "houses" — can be accessed through a virtual atrium.

Undoubtedly, many of the panels will have Houston representatives considering Houston's dominance in the industry, but here are five innovation-focused events you can't miss during CERAWeek that feature Houstonians.

Monday — New Horizons for Energy & Climate Research

The COVID-19 pandemic has made vivid and real the risks of an uncontrolled virus. Risks posed by climate change are also becoming more palpable every day. At the forefront of understanding these risks, universities are developing solutions by connecting science, engineering, business, and public policy disciplines. Along with industry and governments, universities are critical to developing affordable and sustainable solutions to meet the world's energy needs and achieve net-zero emission goals. Can the dual challenge of more energy and lower emissions be met? What is some of the most promising energy and climate research at universities? Beyond research, what are the roles and responsibilities of universities in the energy transition?

Featuring: Kenneth B. Medlock, III, James A. Baker, III, and Susan G. Baker Fellow In Energy And Resource Economics, Baker Institute and Senior Director, Center For Energy Studies at Rice University

Catch the panel at 1 pm on Monday, March 1. Learn more.

Tuesday — Conversations in Cleantech: Powering the energy transition

With renewables investment outperforming oil and gas investment for the first time ever in the middle of a pandemic, 2020 was a tipping point in the Energy Transition. Low oil prices intensified energy majors' attention on diversification and expansion into mature and emerging clean technologies such as battery storage, low-carbon hydrogen, and carbon removal technologies. Yet, the magnitude of the Energy Transition challenge requires an acceleration of strategic decisions on the technologies needed to make it happen, policy frameworks to promote public-private partnerships, and innovative investment schemes.

Three Cleantech leaders share their challenges, successes, and lessons learned at the forefront of the Energy Transition. What is their vision and strategy to accelerate lowering emissions and confronting climate change? Can companies develop clear strategies for cleantech investments that balance sustainability goals and corporate returns? What is the value of increasing leadership diversity for energy corporations? Can the Energy Transition be truly transformational without an inclusive workforce and a diverse leadership?

Featuring: Emily Reichert, CEO of Greentown Labs, which is opening a location in Houston this year.

The event takes place at 11:30 am on Tuesday, March 2. Learn more.

Wednesday — Rice Alliance Venture Day at CERAWeek

The Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship pitch event will showcase 20 technology companies with new solutions for the energy industry. Each presentation will be followed by questions from a panel of industry experts.

Presenting Companies: Acoustic Wells, ALLY ENERGY, Bluefield Technologies, Cemvita Factory, Connectus Global, Damorphe, Ovopod Ltd., DrillDocs, GreenFire Energy, inerG, Locus Bio-Energy Solutions, Nesh, Pythias Analytics, REVOLUTION Turbine Technologies, Revterra, ROCSOLE, Senslytics, Subsea Micropiles, Syzygy Plasmonics, Transitional Energy, and Universal Subsea.

The event takes place at 9 am on Wednesday, March 3. Learn more.

Thursday — How Will the Energy Innovation Ecosystem Evolve?

Although the cleantech innovation ecosystem—research institutions, entrepreneurs, financiers, and support institutions—is diverse and productive, converting cleantech discoveries and research breakthroughs into commercially viable, transformative energy systems has proven difficult. With incumbent energy systems economically efficient and deeply entrenched, cleantech innovation faces a fundamental dilemma—the scale economies necessary to compete require a large customer base that does not yet exist. How is our clean energy innovation ecosystem equipped to be transformative? What needs to be strengthened? Is it profitable to focus on individual elements, or should we consider the system holistically, and reframe our expectations?

Featuring: Barbara Burger, vice president of innovation at Chevron and president at Chevron Technology Ventures

The event takes place at 7:30 am on Thursday, March 4. Learn more.

Friday — Cities: Managing crises & the future of energy

Houston is the capital of global energy and for the past four decades the home of CERAWeek. Mayor Sylvester Turner will share lessons from the city's experience with the pandemic, discuss leadership strategies during times of crisis, and explore Houston's evolving role in the new map of energy.

The event takes place at 8 am on Friday, March 5. Learn more.

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