by Mike Masnick

Filed Under:
criminals, customers, trust

Trust Your Customers... And They Do Amazing Things...

from the treat-them-like-criminals,-however... dept

The entertainment industry has a long and sorry history of treating customers like criminals, despite plenty of evidence that suggests that treating customers like criminals makes them more likely to act like criminals, rather than less. SteveD writes in with an example out of the UK, where the proprietor of a small shop decided that his store should be open the day after Christmas, but he didn't want his employees to have to work -- and he didn't want to work either. So, he opened up the shop, put up a note and a box for people to put money in and left the shop entirely unstaffed. It actually worked out well. He made a fair bit of money and didn't find any damage or products stolen.

This reminds me, quite a bit, of the Freakonomics story about the "Bagel Man" who delivered bagels to a variety of office buildings around Washington DC and left out boxes for people to pay. On average, he ended up with around 90% of the money requested, and some interesting lessons in which types of people and companies were more likely to be honest. There's also a scene in the Kevin Smith movie Clerks where the lead character Dante does the same thing -- though his explanation for why it works is: "Theoretically, people see money on the counter, and no one around, they think they're being watched." And, as his girlfriend notes, this is "honesty through paranoia." I'm not sure which it is, but it seems that there's ample evidence that honest people don't need to be "kept honest" and treating your customers like criminals isn't necessarily a very good idea.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. identicon
    Eeqmcsq, Jan 5th, 2009 @ 1:03pm

    It's a nice story

    but I wouldn't try leaving a store open and unattended in my old neighborhood. You come back the next day and half your store's stuff would be gone, your windows would be broken, your walls graffitied.

    Nevertheless, the point is made. It all depends on who your customers are.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    Matt, Jan 5th, 2009 @ 1:26pm

    it takes a lot to get this to work

    Thing is, there's a lot of asses out there. Additionally, lots of people would rather fork over their lives than trust others. So, I'd love to see this work and support it, but I can't say that I'd expect it to do so.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    Ryan, Jan 5th, 2009 @ 1:49pm


    Try this in Detroit and see what happens. I bet it's nowhere near the same result.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    TEA-Time, Jan 5th, 2009 @ 1:49pm

    Sure, this is waaay on the other end of the spectrum, but it definitely proves that there is a LOT of middle ground that the MAFIAA chooses to ignore.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jan 5th, 2009 @ 2:13pm

    ooooooh people are honest. Let us disband police.

    Works in small places. I would be surprised if somebody replicates this NY

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jan 5th, 2009 @ 2:19pm

    I know people who got into the vending machine business this way.
    the "honer" boxes were always a success, people liked them, and never any complaints about losing money or broken machines.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    Negative Nillies, Jan 5th, 2009 @ 2:27pm

    My old neighbor in Chicago had a computer shop and he would leave it open all the time and customers would pay for items and nothing stolen, broken, trashed etc. We lived in a neighborhood where gangs were aplenty and murders happened often.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jan 5th, 2009 @ 2:50pm

    This isn't all that surprising. When you maintain a good relationship with your customers they respond with honesty and loyalty. A few years back I went to an Ace Hardware store not far from the house I just moved into. I picked up about $75 worth of various DIY home repair stuff. When I got to checkout I realized I left my wallet at home. The owner finished the check out anyway then let me leave without paying. I came back later in the day to pay and I've been a loyal customer ever since even though the prices are bit higher than Lowes or Home Depot. A little trust created a loyal customer out of me and a bunch of word-of-mouth advertising as well.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    Carolyn Wood, Jan 5th, 2009 @ 4:05pm

    trust your customers

    Implementing an honor system for small purchases can build an atmosphere of mutual respect. I work in a medium-sized public library where I have delayed the push for centralized printing at computer workstations due to results from an informal poll of library users supporting the assumption that the public appreciates the in person engagement of purchasing paper.

    This sounds irrational from the outside, however the system establishes a relaxed low pressure environment where folks seek out staff or approach a desk to pay for paper and share comments and/or insights.

    It is common for staff to find money next to an unattended printer. Library users also make small donations to the library in gratitude for computer printing service on occasion.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. icon
    chris (profile), Jan 5th, 2009 @ 4:14pm


    ooooooh people are honest. Let us disband police.

    Works in small places. I would be surprised if somebody replicates this NY

    oooooh it doesn't work everywhere, lets roll in the tanks and nerve gas and turn this place into tiananmen square.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jan 5th, 2009 @ 4:34pm

    There's a restaurant here in a fancy neighbourhood where once a week you can pay whatever you want for the food (you still pay fixed price for wine and such). Turns out that people end up paying about the same price as on a regular day, and the publicity is great. Not as extreme an example, but it still shows that people on the average are pretty honest. And this is Buenos Aires (the third biggest city on the world), not some small trusting neighborhood.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    Brandon Smith, Jan 5th, 2009 @ 4:53pm

    A friend of mine is part owner of a small chain of cell phone kiosks in New Jersey, and they did something similar for their customers if their phone stopped working. So they would just give them a 3 or 4 year model, and were almost always able to have them returned. Even though it wasn't the newest or best model, the gesture of good will, along with making it super easy, usually came back in the form of repeat or new referral business.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. identicon
    Michial, Jan 5th, 2009 @ 4:59pm

    I'd like to see him try it for a week straight

    This may work in an isolated situation but I guarentee it would not work for long.

    In the example the customers visiting were probably honest people just trying to do alittle shopping, but I bet the customers the second day were not nearly as honest once the story got out that the guy left his store open all day unattended.

    I bet if he did it for a week even if he collected the cash daily I bet he would come in to an empty store and little to no money.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jan 5th, 2009 @ 11:24pm

    Be Afraid! Be VERRRY afraid!

    In Canada, they leave their front doors unlocked.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. identicon
    David, Jan 6th, 2009 @ 3:44am


    I`m in the UK and also read this charming story. I`m in complete agreement that it would very much depend on the type of neighbourhood. A small community would probably know any villains likely to abuse the privilege and I doubt whether the scenario could be repeated once word got out beyond the local area. It's an old saying, but honesty pays. I once found a phone that had been left in a public area and, as it was still switched on, rang a couple of the contacts to try and find out whose it was. Came up with the owner's father and, as luck would have it, he was still in the area. When I returned it, he insisted on giving me a reward, against my protestations. I like to think that someone would do the same for me, but that's probably wishful thinking! I drive people around for a living and anything that gets left in the car instantly gets stored safely until such time as it is claimed or I can deduce who lost it. However, if something is left in the back of the car and a less-than-honest passenger then gets in afterwards and "acquires" said item, I have no way of knowing, although a passenger did hand me a compact digital camera recently, so my faith is still holding up!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. identicon
    Tom, Jan 6th, 2009 @ 4:02am

    I did this

    I did this at a Christmas tree lot where I worked in high school. It worked out. When I got back there were several checks in the box.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. identicon
    Twinrova, Jan 6th, 2009 @ 4:39am

    Now flip the coin.

    Let's rewind here for a second. Weren't customers originally honest to begin with? How were they supposed to know that sharing music was considered illegal, given it's been done for decades?

    The entertainment industry isn't going to change, Mike. It's a distributor, raping millions from honest people with any means they can.

    You said it once before: The sole reason a business exists is to make money.

    So, until THIS business model is changed, you're spinning your wheels hoping the entertainment industry (and other industries) will quit treating its consumers as criminals.

    It's easier to take from those locked up than it is from those who are free.

    I used to pay for music, software, and movies (well, movies I still do, but very, very limited purchasing).

    USED to.

    As the blog states, I was one of the honest who turned "criminal" thanks to the very industry I was honestly supporting.

    Now, I tell people to download for free and teach them how to do it, as well as burn music and movies.

    Karma strikes again.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jan 6th, 2009 @ 7:32am

    Let me tell you about trusting your customers. As a teenager, I took over a paper route. The previous paperboy told me to leave a paper at the Sheriff's office. So for the first month, you collect money monthly, I did just that. When I went to collect, they told me that they don't receive the paper and weren't paying. Instead of telling me not to deliver anymore, they gladly accepted the "free" paper each day. So I ended up paying for their month of the paper.

    I still believe in trusting customers (and most others) until they give you a reason not too; but you will be surprised by just who will give you a reason not too.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19. identicon
    nasch, Jan 6th, 2009 @ 7:42am


    Not that it's a small town or anything, but according to Wikipedia, the city proper of Buenos Aires is not in the top 48 in world population, and according to their metropolitan area list it's 17th. has the metro area listed at 10th in the world.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20. identicon
    Vincent Clement, Jan 6th, 2009 @ 8:42am


    You completely miss the point.

    One of the arguments the RIAA and MPAA use to justify DRM is that without DRM or copy protection, people have an opportunity to not only make a copy, but then distribute copies.

    For that argument to work, you have to assume that most of your customers cannot be trusted. However, the opposite seems to be true. Most customers are honest.

    When I buy a DVD, I rip a copy to my HD, burn a new copy and put the original away. I also convert the copy into Xvid. But I don't distribute copies. But according to the MPAA I am a criminal even though I paid for the DVD.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21. identicon
    Vincent Clement, Jan 6th, 2009 @ 8:44am


    Cops lie? Never ;)

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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