Is the customer always right? Is it more important to protect consumers, or to give them options and let them choose? This is a real-life dilemma that was recently posed to me . I’ve changed the names and some other details in what follows, but the basic dilemma is real.
Abe and Ben are starting a coffee shop together. Situated in a trendy neighbourhood, the shop will feature high-quality, fair-trade, organic coffees and a range of gourmet pastries from a local bakery. They’re in the process now of deciding on their menu, and on smaller details like the condiments (sugar, cream, etc.) that will be available for patrons. It’s this latter issue that has brought Abe and Ben into conflict.
Abe contends that the only condiments they should provide are cane sugar, organic milk, and soy milk—no white sugar or artificial sweeteners. After all, he says, “the health of our customers matters, and white sugar and artificial sweeteners are unhealthy.”
Ben says, “Look, the customer is king. Some will appreciate cane sugar, sure, but some want the white sugar they grew up with, and some diet-conscious folks will want zero-calorie artificial sweeteners, and we should give them what we want. Who are we to tell them what to do?”
So who is right?
I would say choice is a good thing. To the best of my knowledge, the evidence is very weak that “other” condiments are bad for you (especially in the relevant, tiny quantities). For that matter, if Abe is that concerned about his customers’ health, he should argue for not serving sugar at all. There’s plenty of evidence that that is bad for you. As a scientist friend of mine puts it: there’s much more evidence that sugar is bad for you than there is that artificial sweetener is bad for you.
Of course, if Abe and Ben decide to make “100% natural,” or something like it, a part of their branding—as many companies do—then it makes sense to offer only condiments that are consistent with that ethos. But there’s no reason to think of that as a more ethical policy.
Chris MacDonald is Director of the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Education & Research Program at the Ted Rogers School of Management