The "Gifted" VCR Repair Lady. Is It Unethical to Sell to An Idiot?


In 1995 I was in college working as a sales person at Radio Shack. Because I was an Electrical Engineering major, any customer looking for serious electronics tools or parts was usually sent my way. One day another associate pointed a women in my direction after he couldn't help her. She was oddly dressed and spoke in an excited but choppy manner, but Radio Shack gets some interesting customers (the kind that know what BBROYGBVGW means, and get excited talking about J-K flip flops), so I had learned to ignore the occasional ramblings of such eccentric customers and get to the crux of whatever it was they were looking for.

This lady wanted some tools to work on electronics, but wasn't sure what she needed. I asked a few questions and found out that she wanted some "thingy" to use to repair computers and other electronic devices. I gave her a nice soldering iron, a generic kit with some small pliers and screwdrivers, a wrist strap, and a few other things. I even gave her some info on ordering a static mat that we sold but didn't carry in my particular store.

As I started to ring up her merchandise, we had a conversation that went something like this:

Me: So you are going to replace something in your computer huh?

Lady: No, I don't have one. I'm going to fix other people's computers.

Me: Oh, cool. What kind of problems will you fix?

Lady: I don't know yet. I'm starting my own business. I'm still pretty new to all of this. Do you have some sort of electronics guide?

Me: Sure, let me grab one… so are you going to school or…

Lady: Not really. It's just that my VCR stopped working last week and I decided to take it apart. I messed around with it and put it back together and it seemed to work fine.

Me: What did you do to it?

Lady: I'm not sure, but after I messed with it, it worked so I figured I just have a gift.

Me (thinking in my head): A gift? WTF?! I am pretty sure you don't have a natural talent for fixing electronics just by jiggling some stuff around.

At this point, I am done ringing her up. I hesitate before giving the total, realizing that by selling her this merchandise, I am enabling her to launch a business that will most likely end with several destroyed electronic devices before she realizes she needs some sort of training to do this. For just a second, I have a dilemma.

Is it my job to give the customer what she wants? Is it my job to give her what she wants if she is an idiot and doesn't really understand what she is doing? Does either of the previous questions really matter as long as I get my commission? Since she is clueless, should I upsell her to the expensive tool kit by convincing her that she really needs that one? Am I on Candid Camera? (Surely normal people don't think they "have a gift" in something like this, do they? So I must be.) Will I get in trouble if I don't sell her this stuff?

I decide to just give her the total, take her money, and wish her well. To this day, it is still one of the biggest things I struggle with. Should businesses sell things to people if those things are bad for them or that they know will be misused? What if it isn't malice, but stupidity that is driving the misuse? Is the job of a business to reform customers, or to give them what they want? Who bears the burden of finding/providing the right information to make an informed decision? But of course, the question that bugs me the most… whatever happened to the business started by the VCR lady?