A Harvard Business School professor is being ridiculed relentlessly about his email to a Chinese restaurant ranting about the business ethics and potential legal ramificationsof being overcharged $US4 for takeout.
HBS associate professor Ben Edelman criticised Chinese restaurant Sichuan Garden and restaurateur Ran Duan, who manages the connecting Baldwin Bar, for supposedly overcharging him $US4. Edelman said he had alerted local Boston authorities about the out-of-date menu on Sichuan Garden’s website and Duan’s initial offer to refund him just $US3.
Overwrought as his response may seem, he’s not entirely wrong to call out Sichuan Garden — mostly because no one else probably would. In a statement to Business Insider, Edelman stressed “the benefit that all diligent consumers provide in looking for overcharges and other errors.”
Whether or not contacting local authorities was the right move, Edelman has a point.
It’s not likely that someone else would have called out the restaurant on having out-of-date prices on its website, which many of the costumers use as a reference for ordering food. Additionally, as Edelman emphasised, Duan even said the website had been “out of date for quite some time.” Many costumers likely ended up paying more money than they expected to due to advertised prices that were no longer applicable.
Outside of his position as a HBS professor, Edelman has established himself as an advocate for consumers. One case pitted him against an airline industry — a fight that was, in some ways, not unlike his dispute with the Chinese restaurant (though the airline industry is a less sympathetic foe than a small business).
Last year, the US Department of Transportation fined American Airlines $US60,000 for repeatedly misleading consumers about supposed “taxes” that were actually just airline-imposed surcharges, Consumer Traveller reports.
According to the travel news website, “Though AA’s actions have evidently been continuing for some time, the complaint began with a letter from Edelman to the DOT in January of last year.” Edelman details his research into airline pricing practices on his personal website.
As Consumer Travel notes, “Actual formal complaints submitted to DOT each year can be counted on one hand.” If the airline had actually been wrongly charging consumers for a while, and no one was taking action to correct them, they likely would have continued their fraudulent practices without change.
Edelman addressed his previous work with the airline industry in his statement to Business Insider, noting that he’s “been pretty diligent in holding large companies accountable for their false statements of price and other attempts to overcharge passengers.”
With regards to Sichuan Garden, he writes, “Should all small businesses get a free pass? Some people seem to think so, I wonder if that really makes sense.”
Here’s how Nobel-prize winning economist Alvin Roth described Edelman’s relationship with the internet in a Bloomberg Businessweek article on the newly-infamous HBS professor earlier this year — “It’s the Wild West out there, and Ben is the sheriff.” That label could also apply to Edelman’s relationship to businesses, large and small.
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