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Ethics…while stocks last.

June 19, 2008
I’ve long been suspicious of Sales Promotions.
I know that they work and, sometimes, they add real value to a brand – I’ve even taught students about the power of ‘SP’.
However, I’ve also felt that the rules should be very clear and that companies should be held to account for sales promotions that mislead. There are, indeed, rules.
The problem is that many SPs go unnoticed, except by the targeted consumers, so unless there is something outrageously wrong, they don’t get questioned, let alone reported to Trading Standards or to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) for a breach of the Code of Advertising Practice (CAP).
So here’s a little (true) story about an SP that seems wrong…and IS wrong. And what a big brand did about it. Forgive the long post.
…………………………………………………………………………………..

With the recent release of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Woolworths was promoting all Indiana Jones toys and since it is my 9 year-old’s birthday (on Monday, if you want to send a card) we were aiming to buy him the Lego/Indiana Jones PSP game shown here.
Woolworths had an SP – buy any Indiana Jones product for more than £10 and receive a FREE WATCH. So when my wife had paid quite a lot for the PSP game (not actually released, but available in a couple of days) she expected a watch – an additional present for our son.

The watches were out of stock. The manager thought it unlikely that they would get any more in, but nevertheless endorsed the receipt to show that we were entitled to the watch. The posters were still up in the store.

So what’s happening? Well, we decided to find out from Woolworth’s Customer Relations people. This is what they said…
Thank you for your e-mail.
I was sorry to learn that you were unable to take advantage of the promotion on Indiana Jones/free watch that was recently running in our stores, due to lack of available stock. All our promotions have a beginning and end date so we can monitor their success and all items on offer are subject to availability as stated on the posters and advertisements. I am sorry that on this occasion you missed out of the promotion due to the stocks running out. Please be assured that we would never intentionally mislead our customers.
Having contacted our suppliers, I am sorry we are unable to obtain the watches now.
Thank you for taking the time and trouble to bring this to my attention. I hope that, despite your disappointment on this occasion, you’ll continue shopping with us in the future.
Regards
Jane Hardman
Customer Contact Centre

Mmmm, strange. No offer of an alternative, no desire to satisfy a customer? How much can a child’s watch (sourced in China) cost? We suggested that they had an obligation and that they should offer an alternative. Besides, if they had no stock, surely they should stop the promotion? Their reply….
As stated in my last e-mail, as with all promotions and offers, they are subject to availability and while stocks last. This is clearly stated on all advertisements relating to the promotion. For this reason, we are not obliged to offer an alternative to customers.
This may not be the response you were hoping for, and once again I offer my apologies for any disappointment it may cause, however, I’m unable to advise you further on this occasion.

A couple of days had passed. Yet the posters and shelf edges were still there announcing the FREE WATCH offer. I took a photo (on my phone).

Here’s what the shelf edges looked like – about 3 to 4 inches high, so I guess that white text down the bottom right is no more than 8-10pt. Can you read it? It says ‘Subject to availability’
Is this observing the CAP or the law?

The offer was also still on the website…we emailed again. This time we pointed out the crucial text from the CAP on Sales Promotion

  • 30.2 Phrases such as “subject to availability” do not relieve promoters of the obligation to take all reasonable steps to avoid disappointing participants.
  • 30.4 If promoters are unable to supply demand for a promotional offer because of an unexpectedly high response or some other unanticipated factor outside their control, they should offer refunds or substitute products in accordance with clause 42.5a.

The reply…in its entirety…

Further to all previous correspondence, whilst it is unfortunate that you remain dissatisfied, there is nothing further I can assist you with or advise you in this matter.

Oh. So that’s it is it? Not only couldn’t Woolworths provide the FREE gift with which it was enticing customers, it couldn’t even account for why it was flouting the CAP.

So I decided to have a look at their guiding principles, set out in the section of their website labelled ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’

  • We will be truthful and fair in all aspects of our business.
  • We will abide by the law.
  • We value our good reputation with customers and business partners.
  • We will favour suppliers who implement ethical trading standards and will provide them with the support to develop these policies further.

So that’s clear. Not only don’t they stick to the CAP, they don’t stick to their own principles.

I’m now thinking of spreading this around the web a little – Facebook and the like – to see what effect the web really has.

One of the principles of my new book is that a small business, online, has to be honest. Does that also apply to big companies?

Comments welcome.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Nick Wilde permalink
    June 26, 2008 10:23 am

    Mr Holden. Isn’t Woolworths the store that is having problems? Well lets start our campaign. You must spend £500 a year there, add my £ 200 (mainly around christmas, and multiply by five years and theat makes £3500. Lets see if we can make £100,000, just like a Blue Peter campaign. Come and join us!

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