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?

  • COD

    I’m sure the stockholders of Radio Shack not only wanted you to sell her the stuff, they would have preferred you talk into some high margin recharable batteries in the process.

  • Actually, I was once in a situation where an acquaintance I knew was about to put all of his very hard earned money into a stock that I “knew” he would lose most of his money in. I was in somewhat of a position to stop him.

    I didn’t. I actually told a few investment professionals about this persons investment and they all shook their heads.

    The stock increased by some 2,000%.

    I think it is wise to let people do what they are trying to do, however nutty. Nuts sometimes make great breakthroughs.

    Your customer probably survived in the business a week. That’s because if she doesn’t deliver on her promise to fix a computer, people are going to want their money back.

    In short, the market will solve this problem real quick. If she can’t fix computers, she isn’t going to grow into a multi-national fix-it company that breaks millions of computers. It won’t happen.

    On the other hand, we need to protect nuts because sometimes those nuts have ideas that really move the world forward.

    Business is not about judging.

  • Bill

    Rob, do you think, just maybe the problem with the Middle East has resulted from a whole lot of people selling junk to someone else that may not have really needed the stuff? In the quickness to make the sale, what really is gained if the quality of a long term business relationship is jeopardized? Sounds to me like your head computer has been loaded with a story to teach your conscious the rest of your life. It is a good one. Ilove it!!! The social networks are what teaches one about the uniqueness of life. And you wonder how come Radio Shack is having some problems??? Yes, it matters!

  • J

    I don’t mean to seem flippant, but is it possible that the whole “starting my own business” thread was a diplomatic version of “what I’m going to do with this stuff is none of your damn business”? I have to admit I’ve played dumb and/or said weird stuff to salespeople who were being annoyingly intrusive or aggressive.

  • Rob

    It is possible, but in general Radio Shack customers are just the opposite. They come in asking for parts and want to tell you all about their “invention” or their new business, or what they are going to build. However, 95% of them don’t know what they are talking about. This lady didn’t seem too bright, but we only interacted for a few minutes, so perhaps I misread her.

    On a related note, one of the things that suprised me was how difficult it was to explain to people how cable tv amplifiers worked. We sold a reasonable number of them, and people never understood that they worked on a logarithmic scale, so 20 dB is not twice the strength of 10 dB. I didn’t realize the word logarithm was something most people never heard, but in the time I worked there, hardly anyone knew what that meant.

  • duh

    Simple answer: meth tweaker.

  • Andrew

    Do you know if perhaps she decided there is more to it, went to school, and ended up working at Geek Squad? Of course not.

    Your job was to help customers find products and ring them up, not crush their dreams and bring them down to earth. Her friends and family are the ones that can give her advice on how realistic her ideas are, or if she needs to get some schooling on them. Not some guy working at Radio Shack.

    Now, if she is your friend, that’s a different story.

  • KSE

    nice website and nice information about business

  • Evan!

    I don’t think that it’s your place to judge what is “good” or “bad” for your customers, for the most part. Now, if you know, for a fact, that real harm will undoubtedly be caused as a result of your sale, then you may have the moral obligation to withhold, but, hey, we’re not talking about selling bomb-making materials to terrorists here, are we? We’re talking about a stupid woman learning her own lesson. Some people never learn how to succeed until they are allowed to fail, so maybe you did this crazy woman a favor.

    I work in a gourmet wine and beer shop, and I see people buy massive quantities of alcoholic beverages all the time. This stuff isn’t exactly “good” for their health…but is it my moral obligation to not sell it to people? No. It’s called individual liberty—and it comes at a cost: you’re free to succeed or fail, to do good or do bad. That’s freedom for you: a two-way street. And except for a few extreme examples where the harm is blatantly evident and avoidable, it’s not your obligation to be a mother to idiots.

  • As some who has worked in many shops, I find the problem would be if you didn’t sell to anybody who was a bit stupid and delusional, then you wouldn’t be able to sell anything at all. It’s not your fault she’s an idiot, after all.

    Surely nobody will actually let her near their electrical equipment in the first place anyway? When she finds this out, she’ll probably be back for a refund in no time at all.

  • She was probably the type to just jump around form thing to thing and never do anything with it … all you did was enable her to waste her money. There’s an ethical question for you …

    I’d add: What if she was buying some different items and she said she was going to build a meth lab?

  • J

    “so 20 dB is not twice the strength of 10 dB”

    I can top that one – I read a newspaper article about aircraft engines in which the reporter talked about the “obvious mistake” the pilot explaining the reduction in noise made because the db reduction was only a few precent, not the 60 or so percent he claimed. Granted, logarithms (like calculus) are not something most people need that strong a working knowledge of, but I share your surprise at the number of people who simply have forgotten the concept altogether – I can’t remember when I learned that concept, but I think it was prior to high school. Nevertheless, I can’t say how salespeople perceive it, but I would reiterate that I have definitely played dumb or acted weird to cut off conversation with a saleperson who obviously can’t help me but won’t back off – and I’ve done this at Radio Shack and Fry’s Electronics, to name two venues. I’m not rude enough to tell them to shut up and leave me alone.

  • Unless you are in the business of consulting, no.

  • Jason

    My own personal view is close to Oliver Cromwell’s brilliant quote:

    “It will be found an unjust and unwise jealousy to deprive a man of his natural liberty on the supposition that he may abuse it.”

    That being said, one other solution is to punt it – some companies will have a don’t sell to idiot policies, others will take up those orders. Let the market sort out which answer is right. Of course, that’s not very helpful on an individual level :).

  • Arnold T. Pants

    “But of course, the question that bugs me the most… whatever happened to the business started by the VCR lady?”

    Well that should be easy to find out – every time I went to buy a pack of friggin’ batteries in a Radio Shack they asked me for my phone number. This investigation would be the first non-dumbassed use of that dumbass policy!

  • is it actually possible a person who magically fixed a VCR now thinks they are capable of fixing all electronics? pretty inconceivable, but welcome to capitalism (all you can hope for is darwin and the free market will sort it out)

  • David McCabe

    I don’t know about people in general, but fundamentalist Christians will tell you, yes, that they have a gift in such and such. The belief is that the Holy Spirit guides their hands.

  • barfo rama

    You should have sold her something that gave a clue, like some really thick gloves to protect here from the deadly X-Rays in the TV throgmotron, with a side mention of your friends cat getting a 50Kv orgasm.

  • chris

    I once worked in a bicycle shop. A man came in looking for the best and/or most expensive bicycle in the shop. I showed it to him, but hinted that perhaps it might be unsuited for him. Never mind, he wanted it. That in itself was not so unusual, it happened all the time. Next, he asked if we could equip the bike with some extras. Sure, what did he have in mind? A kickstand. I supressed a groan, and said OK. Fenders? OK. A Bell? A generator light set? A padded cover for the seat? A rack? Foam pads for the handlebars? It went on and on, and I dutifully added each item to the bill, with labor. The next day, he came by to pick up the bicycle. He was very pleased. The owner of the bicycle store took me aside and told me never to do that ever again. I had turned a $2000 racing bicycle into a joke. But I pointed to the bill of sale, and the $400 in extras. Never mind, he said, you just don’t do something like that. Not only is it the priciple of the thing, but it makes our shop look bad…

  • Clem Kadiddlehopper

    I make software for government/military apps, and this is a recurring theme. The General doesn’t know what he wants, he doesn’t know what he needs, and he doesn’t care what it costs. So yeah, we agree to build it. And because he’s clueless (Sleep well, America!), the damn thing never turns into anything, and another few billion taxpayer dollars go down the tubes. Do I feel bad for making this trash? Well, no. As long as people continue to vote for politicians who look good on TV, and as long as the officer gets promoted because his 8X10 glossy looks nice, then this kind of stuff will be the norm.

    Remember, if you let the stockholders call the shots, the books will look good all the way to bankruptcy!

  • Todd

    This isn’t about “judging” or “religious extremism…”
    When I worked in a video store as a teen, a man brought in his two, eight-year-old daughters, shopping for a movie. They wanted one that was not appropriate for children, and he brought it to the counter (without checking the rating). He’s an adult…I could have just rented it to him. Instead, I cautioned him that the movie wasn’t right for his children since I knew they were to be the movie’s audience…not him. That’s good business.
    Later, when I worked in a bookstore, if a shopper came to the computer section looking for a particular book, and I knew that another book might better suit their needs (for example, more geared towards their level of experience or interest)…I recommended the other book, without thought to price. It’s good business.

    Good business is not just selling…it’s finding out your customer’s needs and providing the best product possible to fill those needs.

  • Well, it’s not a weapon or alcohol…. kinda scary, but hopefully she won’t cause undue harm with it….

  • Do I feel bad for making this trash? Well, no. As long as people continue to vote for politicians who look good on TV? Well that should be easy to find out – every time I went to buy a pack of friggin’ batteries in a Radio Shack they asked me for my phone number.

  • Barry

    At least you were one of few Radio Shack salespersons who knows something besides cell phone plans. Traditionally, I’ve found Radio Shack personnel to be horribly inept and uneducated in the area of Electronics. Since Radio Shack is no longer an electronic parts house and is now more like the “Electronics” section in a department store, I suppose it’s to be expected. When you walk into a Radio Shack and are greeted by a young girl, you pretty much tell her you know what you’re looking for, and you know it’s pointless to ask her where the 100K, linear taper pots are located.