2020 has been a year like no other. Business, like people, are trying to navigate how to survive in the new normal. But is it ethical for businesses to run sales during a crisis? In today’s post, we’ll be discussing if it is ethical to run sales during periods of crisis.
Before we dig into today’s topic,I need to put a very clear disclaimer: The question posed in this post is NOT aimed at small or family-owned businesses, food & service industries, pharmacies or medical supply sellers, or general sellers of essential goods. The focus of today’s post is on big business sellers of non-essential goods.
About the Times
Little did we realize that the end of 2019 would see the birth of a global pandemic that would lead to hundreds of thousands of sick individuals and tens of thousands of deaths. For those of us living in the Western hemisphere, COVID-19 seemed like a faraway illness that would never affect us here.
We were wrong.
By the end of February, more and more cases of COVID-19 popped up in the US and other Western nations. However, a failure to respond quickly combined with the exponential speed at which the virus spreads, resulted in nation-wide lockdowns in many countries. Non-essential businesses shut. Those capable of working from home are the lucky ones; while those working service jobs have been hit hard.
In the United States, the unemployment rate skyrocketed due to the effects of the virus. It is reported that over 3.3 million Americans filed for unemployment – with more layoffs looming as the economy stagnates during this period of crisis.
Despite these woes, we’ve seen many online retailers promoting online sales. While some of these sales are annual Spring sales; other sales are a direct response to the virus’s negative effects on business operations for retailers and brands. But is it ethical or exploitative for brands to run sales during periods of crisis?
Considerations for determining if it is ethical for businesses to run sales during a crisis
There are many things to consider when attempting to determine whether it is ethical for businesses to run sales during a crisis.
Two types of sales are currently running: (1) pre-planned sales that were set before a crisis outbreak and (2) sales that were offered as a result of the outbreak’s effect on the economy.
Positive Reasons to Support Brands Running Pre-Planned Sales
I see nothing wrong with brands running pre-planned sales during a period of crisis. For example, Ulta’s Spring iteration of the 21 Days of Beauty typically runs from mid-March through early-April. Both Ulta and the brands featured in the retailer’s promotions spend a lot of money to promote the sale. Also, promotional materials are prepared months ahead of time.
Moreover, the 21 Days of Beauty sale began before many US states began to enforce “Stay at Home” measures. For this reason, I do not see any issues with businesses like Ulta maintaining their normal promotional calendar.
Reasons NOT to Support Brands Running Pre-Planned Sales
Some pre-planned sales felt poorly timed given the global context. For example, Afterpay, a San Francisco-based online payment system that essentially offers online layaway for fashion and beauty goods, ran its 48-hour After Pay Day promotion.
Over one thousand brands participated in this year’s Afterpay promotional event. Across all participating sites, the discount code for the promotion was “afterpayday.” The coupon code was inappropriate given the number of people laid off or furloughed in the States.
Given the current state of the economy, it would have been prudent to change the promotional code for this year’s sale.
Positive Reasons to Support a Brand Running a Crisis-Initiated Sale
First, businesses need to generate sales to keep people employed. Second, sales can offer a temporary distraction to those who are feeling stressed. Third, free shipping offers make it easier for consumers to follow the mandates to stay at home and practice social distancing.
Additionally, some argue that it is up to a consumer to determine whether or not he or she can afford something that is being promoted within a sale.
Reasons NOT to Support a Brand Running a Crisis-Specific Sale
First, some of the crisis-specific sales feel almost predatory. In particular, I was appalled when I saw that the coupon code for one brand’s csale was “COVID-19.” (Do not ask me what brand used this coupon code. I am not attempting to ‘name and shame’ a small business.)
Second, Consumers may feel enticed to stress shop. As someone who already has an inclination to do an excessive amount of online shopping, the influx of online sales is extremely tempting. For those of us with potentially addictive shopping tendencies, the sheer volume of sales feels overwhelming. Moreover, the sales are hard to resist even if we can logically conclude that we don’t need to anything.
Finally, although online shopping may aid consumers in following social distancing orders, purchasing extraneous or non-essential goods may encourage businesses to avoid mandates to close their offices, warehouses, or factories. As a result, employees may experience a greater risk of catching and spreading the virus.
Did my friends think it was ethical for businesses to run sales during a crisis?
Before sitting down to write this post, I asked my friends on Twitter and Instagram whether or not they felt it was ethical for businesses to run sales during a crisis. Across the two platforms, approximately 50 people responded to my poll.
Across both platforms, 52-58% of respondents did not feel that it was unethical or “gross” for businesses to run sales during a crisis. However, the results are not conclusive due to the low voting turnout.
Instagram Poll Results
Here’s what some of my friends had to say:
As I expected, some of my friends were torn on whether it was ‘gross’ for a business to promote a sale during this time of crisis. For some, the intent behind the sale clearly played a part in influencing their opinions on brands running sales.
I am a bit torn on this. On the hand of ‘totally fine’ I think it’s great that companies like Fender are offering free lessons and exercise programs offering their classes is great. BUT the ‘for profit’ things out there leave a bad taste in my mouth. Like they’re trying to profit off these times…I’m more irritated by the spammers selling fake tests and ‘kits’ to people. I hate when things like this happen and we see all the evil in the world.
I can’t decide – on the one hand it’s great that people can access products they might need without leaving the house, and at a discounted price. It’s also a logical business strategy, right? They know they’ll get traffic since people have the time.
On the other hand, it feels like they’re taking advantage of the situation. And whilst management and marketing can email you from their homes, if a company is still open for business that means that some poor workers have to get to the warehouse despite the outbreak.
I personally think the frequency makes a difference. If I get multiple emails a day from businesses about their promo and how I’m “missing out” then its super gross, but if I get emails every couple days about an online sale change, it doesn’t bother me as much.
For others, whether or not a sale was ‘gross’ was less of a question. Consumers should be responsible for keeping accountable for their spending choices.
Everyone is trying to get paid one way or another 100% of the time, unfortunately that’s just how society is, but we as consumers have a choice to either make a purchase or not. We need to govern ourselves more, especially at such uncertain time as we know that larger brands have their marketing teams ready to take advantage of every situation.
And two felt that these sales could provide consumers with an opportunity to enjoy themselves or treat themselves during a period that has otherwise been quite stressful.
I think it’s fine because though it may be nonessential to some, others might value it more. And it’s nice to know that even though times are tough, I can still afford that replacement if I need it. Also, if I don’t have the money or the need, I don’t have to partake. So to me, it’s the consumers’ responsibility to say no if it’s not in their budget and its actually kind of nice that the businesses are giving people a chance to still enjoy themselves in the midst of struggle.
Did I purchase from businesses that ran sales during the crisis?
As someone who has a hard enough time avoiding sales during normal periods, I felt distressed by the sales. Online shopping is my go-to coping mechanism during periods of high anxiety or major lows.
As someone who is graduating in May in this downturned job market, I am worrying every day about my prospects. It may seem illogical to shop when I’m worried about my job searching and finances. However, I felt triggered to shop.
So, is it ethical for businesses to run sales during a crisis?
At the end of the day, it is up to individual consumers to determine the ethical nature of non-essential businesses running sales during a crisis. Consumers should consider a brand is ethical and is taking precautions to keep employees safe.
Moreover, everyone copes with stress differently. As such, it is not my place to judge whether someone should or should not online shop.
Finally, many small businesses are Direct-to-Consumer. Logically, these brands could turn to online promotions to help keep their businesses afloat.
Overall, it is not unethical to run sales during a crisis. Companies need to survive to keep people employed. Moreover, I am happy if I can support a small business through an online sale.