Big Box Ethics

Caveat Emptor: Buyer Beware.

Responsible consumers are supposed to always make sure they got the true deal. That’s why I watch Star Market cashiers with a keen eye: markdown prices taped to the peanut butter or dry bean shelf rarely correlate with the register amounts; whereas I rest easy at grocery Nirvana: tasty morsels, Hawaiian shirts, consistent pricing, and hipster geniality all align at Trader Joe’s.

The bigger the box store, the more carefully I keep an eye on the tab. But at my most frequent haunt, Home Depot, sloppy errors more often occur in my favor. Which leaves me to ponder: what is my ethical responsibility to call out mistakes made by the orange clad serfs of a faceless corporation?


A recent example of Home Depot oversight is a doozy.

I’m overhauling the dark, dank basement of my rental apartments; space I own yet rarely enter. My initial idea—clean out and hang new lights—quickly morphed into removing a dilapidated plaster ceiling, repointing the foundation, insulating the floor plenum, ditto the heating ducts, constructing workshop shelves, adding service receptacles, and installing counters next to the washer and dryer. Oh yeah, I also replaced the lights.

I decided to staple house wrap to the underside of the joists to create a clean ceiling plane and keep the insulation in place, all on the cheap.

A major trip to Home Depot requires several hours. Finding a rolling cart, finding the merchandise, finding a salesperson, getting stuff unloaded from up high, scribing a special order or two, and then checking out: it’s remarkably difficult amidst the gaggle of aproned guys whose bestest skill is avoiding eye contact. I loiter patiently until eventually they wait on me.

The store has everything I need this round, except for the house wrap, which I order. Thirty coils of batt insulation will require three round trips between home and Home Depot. The manager waves the first load through; half an hour later, the second; then, the third. I shake my sheath of papers toward him, “Do we need to check anything off?” “No, I’ve got ya.”

A week later I am e-notified that Home Depot has my house wrap. I return to the store. The display has several rolls of Tyvek (165 feet for $63.00) but none of the generic Everbuilt brand I ordered (100 feet for $28.00). I track down a sales guy, show him my paperwork, he walks me to the display, points to the Tyvek, and says, “Take these.”

What is my ethical responsibility here? Do I tell this guy that I ordered the shorter, cheaper house wrap, or just take four rolls he offers? Expedience governs. Although I would be happy with the $100 worth of house wrap I ordered, I exit the store with $250 of product instead. I don’t feel good about it, but neither am I responsible to monitor Home Depot’s own orders.

The following week, I get another email from Home Depot, announcing that my entire order is ready for pick-up: the insulation, the house wrap, the lumber, everything; $2800 worth of material. Apparently the manager never checked anything off during three round trips of loading goods, and so I am invited to pick it all again, gratis. I am tempted: free is a very good price.

Another week goes by. I get a personal phone call entreating me to pick up my order. When I tell the sales guy I have already taken all my merchandise, he is perplexed. What perplexes me: how does Home Depot stay in business?



About paulefallon

Greetings reader. I am a writer, architect, cyclist and father from Cambridge, MA. My primary blog, is an archive of all my published writing. The title refers to a sequence of three yoga positions that increase focus and build strength by shifting the body’s center of gravity. The objective is balance without stability. My writing addresses opposing tension in our world, and my attempt to find balance through understanding that opposition. During 2015-2106 I am cycling through all 48 mainland United States and asking the question "How will we live tomorrow?" That journey is chronicled in a dedicated blog,, that includes personal writing related to my adventure as well as others' responses to my question. Thank you for visiting.
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