This is a column about shopping ethics, if there is such a thing: When is it appropriate to buy a product online that you’ve talked about extensively with an in-store sales rep?

A few of us were sitting around the other day talking about this very issue. The specific instance: I needed a digital camera, and my choice was shopping at a local camera store, where the employees are knowledgeable but that expertise typically results in a more expensive product; or shopping online, where prices are lower but employees to answer questions are nonexistent.

I argued that if I go into the local camera store and spend a bunch of time asking a helpful and knowledgeable employee questions — all the while planning to purchase the camera online or at Best Buy — I’m cheating the local store by intentionally wasting the company’s resources.

Another person in the group disagreed: She saw no problem soliciting the local guy’s knowledge and then leaving the store, ostensibly needing to “think it over”, while immediately heading to Best Buy or the internet — that was her plan all along.

I said her plan seemed dishonest. She said my plan was a waste of money.

Then a third person jumped into the conversation (actually, we forced her to choose a side), and she offered a third option: Since she already buys photos at the local store (“better quality,” she says), she had no problem asking the employee all about a camera even if she had no intention of buying it there. After all, she says, she’s already a customer, and they’re already making money from her purchases.

So from an ethical standpoint, what’s the right thing to do? Buy from the merchant that shows you the product — even if it costs a bit more — justifying the higher price because of the merchant’s expertise and personal service? Or solicit the product information from a local merchant, then turn around and demand the same price being offered by a national retailer or website or threaten to take the business elsewhere?

The foundation of any business is providing service to customers; local businesses tend to do that best because they hope the customer is a neighbor who will come back again. The internet, on the other hand, shows no favorites, nor do those who use it extensively for shopping: It’s a free-for-all daily, with the best price changing by the minute.

But if the lowest price is our only purchasing criteria, what kind of economy — what kind of country — will we have in a few years? Will we kill off local businesses in favor of buying everything online, and is that really a good idea?

Like I said, it’s hard to imagine a topic we all know more about than shopping.

What’s less obvious is how much we know about shopping ethics and how those ethics will impact our future.

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