East Hampton, July 28, 2010

It’s a steamy hot day well into the 90s. I’m in the icy cold IGA. I’m at the check-out counter placing my items on the belt and swiping my credit card. I feel something warm from above. I wonder. Am I having a hot flash? noooh. Is there a fire smoldering? noooh. Up I look. Hmmm, interesting. There are space heaters installed above each cashier. Funny never noticed them before. Even funnier, they’re all on.
Okay makes sense. Got to keep the cashiers comfortable and the ice cream frozen.

Only in America, only in The Hamptons.

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Ethical Capitalism or Charitable Extortion?

Now that I’ve finished ringing up your total for whatever you’ve just purchased would you like to round-up the change and/or add $5, $10, $20, even a hundred dollars to your total and donate to a worthwhile cause of our choosing; earthquake relief, school supplies, a food pantry, a cancer cure, an oil spill, the disaster of the moment?

It used to be the only non-sectarian place where one was gently pressured for a charitable donation in public was at movie theaters after a filmed plea, by teenage ushers walking up and down the aisles with a slotted tin can asking for donations to one cause or another, usually for an aging actors home or a children’s hospital.

Lately though it seems as if it is happening wherever I shop. I’ve been hearing that question over and over with each and every purchase whenever I pull out the cash or credit card. As it so happens, in most cases the charity being spotlighted is usually one that the goods or services in need, are sold by the very establishment in which I have just finished purchasing items, and usually in large chain stores, that seem to me, to be plenty profitable on their own.

It appears that the do-good, baby-boomer, everyone gets a trophy generations have figured out a new way to increase the bottom line while at the same time appear to be socially responsible regardless of the ill will it may generate with consumers like myself. The big brains behind these new marketing incentives, I’m guessing, think of it as a form of ‘ethical capitalism’ and that their company image is all the better for employing this philanthropic wild card. I however see it differently, I consider it ‘charitable extortion’.

There you are, the customer, a sitting duck. You’ve got your wallet out, the cell phone on the counter and likely a vehicle parked outside. You’re exposed, you’re vulnerable, and evidently you’ve got some discretionary income. The store knows you’ve got some funds, as clearly you’ve just bought something at their store. You’re on the spot. You’re prime for the pitch. You’re at the head of a line of two or three or more people behind you, and in front of you is a cashier likely working for minimum wage, all waiting to see how you respond to the ‘round-up and donate’ question. Are you in or are you out? Are you a giver or a taker? Are you a mover or a miser? It’s a very public challenge of what morals you are made.

Say no thank you, and any issues you may have with low self-esteem, insecurity and image are exposed for all the world to see. You’re chump change, instant humiliation. For less than a dollar you come off looking like a cheap, uncaring, selfish human being without an ounce of soul, irregardless of whether you’ve just spent your last dime or have recently donated hundreds or thousands of dollars to a charity of your choice privately.

Say yes, and you’ve redeemed your image, you’re out of there effortlessly. However there is that gnawing feeling that you’ve somehow been had, rather than that you’ve just done the right thing. Does that extra change ever get accounted for and meted out for the good or do the additional accounting costs eat up any monies that are collected? But what is the right thing? Is it right for a multi-million dollar corporation to eke out additional pennies from their customers at the point of sale to benefit a charity that they could easily donate to themselves?

I think the far more philanthropic way to do good business and good charity would be for these stores to take a small percentage off of each sale, and donate to the charity it supports and advertise that generosity instead of subtly and not so subtly putting their customers on the line and pressuring them at the register.

Charity begins at home at the bible suggests, and I have yet to find a store that I can call home. So, I will continue to choose to donate to the charities of my choice, on my own terms, Thank you very much and have a nice day.

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