Deep Theological Question #8: Is it immoral to trick a computer?

A couple of weeks ago, after Kiddo4 needed a baby picture for school, I motivated myself to sleeve the last 250 photos I’d printed out. They dated from 2008 to 2009, and I just needed to arrange them in order and put them in albums. This task I’d put off for two years took about an hour to resolve, so I figured I’d print more photos.

Shutterfly is my old standby. I’d printed about five years worth of photos through them, and it’s a good system once I’m caught up. I buy a pre-paid plan and at the end of the month I upload the monthly file of photos, delete the ones I don’t want, and then print the rest.

Here’s the sequence of events from two weeks ago:

1) buy a pre-paid plan for 600 photos

2) upload all the photos from mid-2009 to December 2011

(please note: hundreds of photos got uploaded)

3) go through each folder playing a slideshow of all photos, delete the ones I don’t want, then select all the rest a and click “order prints.”

4) After sorting eight months of photos, with 285 photos in the shopping cart, get too brain-dead to continue.

Fairly straightforward. Except that I didn’t go back the next day to finish the order. Nor the next.

On the third day, I received an email from Shutterfly: You still have items in your shopping cart. Don’t you want to order them?

Well, I wanted to do more photos rather than fewer, to save on the shipping. But I had no motivation to keep sorting photos. Two days after, another email: Just a friendly reminder from Shutterfly that you put a lot of crap in your shopping cart, and you haven’t ordered it yet.

I didn’t think about it. Generally you have thirty days with Shutterfly, and even if they wiped out my shopping cart, I could just reselect the whole albums and order them again. The time-consuming part is sorting the photos into “yes” and “yuck.”

The next day: “Special offer! 101 free 4×6 photos!”

I’m sure that coupon didn’t get sent to everyone. I’m sure that was tailored to the slacker who’d put 285 photos in her shopping cart and hadn’t pulled the trigger.

The algorithm is designed to kick you into gear if you’re getting cold feet. I understand that. But any human could have put together the facts to see I’d just run out of steam. Why? Because I’d already paid for the photos. They had my money. It would have served them better if I never ordered.

But I’m also not stupid, so I used the coupon and pulled the trigger.

Now I’m sitting with another 150 prints in the shopping cart, and I’m waiting to see if the same thing happens.

If it does, is it wrong to use the coupon? Is it immoral to trick a computer?


  1. Cricket

    My gut can’t decide, but I think it’s haggling rather than immoral. The other side started it, and they still made a sale.

    I felt guilty when I bought 8 balls of yarn from a small store, then a month later decided I needed more and the remaining 2 balls from the dyelot were in the 1/2 off bin. In hindsight, I suspect that’s common practice, since it’s easier to sell enough yarn for an entire sweater. I like the store, though, so will try to forget this pattern and buy what I need all at once.

    Yesterday at a big electronics store I realized we also needed ink, but they only had brand-name, so, thinking out-loud, I mentioned to the employee that I needed to check the office supply competitor, and he offered 10% off (later research showed that brought it to “not worth the gas”).

    I suspect it’s a pain for them to have customers load up a cart, then come back to a project a month later and try to pick up the threads, or think they’d completed the order when they hadn’t (those reminder letters fade in memory after a few months).

    Also, you’re one of the customers they want. Many big orders. Talks to friends.

    In the yarn case, I left them with a less-valuable product. On the other hand, it’s probably built into their business plan. Very few sweaters use exactly the shipment.

    Clothing stores have 3 prices: New (sucker price), stale (what they expect to get) and sale (get what we can while making room for more). Again, built into their business structure.

    So, it’s accepting their invitation to haggle.

    1. philangelus

      Haggling. Hm.

      It’s true no one’s forcing their hand, but if there’s an algorithm that offers you a freebie based on the unpurchased items in your cart, then triggering the algorithm *is* forcing their hand. In fact, someone may stumble across this blog entry and try exactly the same thing and end up with a hundred free photos.

      I see what you’re saying about the yarn store and the dye lots. THen again, some people *do* buy single skeins of yarn for smaller projects. Most of my purchases are single-skein purchases, sometimes two skeins, and therefore I generally pick the ones that are leftovers because it’s better for the store. If there’s someone in your LYS like me who tends to pick off the leftovers, then the yarn store in no way is harmed by you buying only what you need.

      In Shutterfly’s case, they’re not going to print my photos if I don’t order them, and the storage I’m using is going to be negligible to them. I could leave those photos on there forever and never impact their ability to store more. They would never be harmed if I don’t buy the photos and would benefit. Frankly, they should not beg me to be their customer. They should probably lock me out of my account and make me beg to come back. 😉

      I really like them. Their customer service is spot-on and their products are good quality. I’ve ordered photo books and they’re really nice. Once I accidentally deleted seven albums instead of moving them to a different folder, and even though it was my own fault, they restored all seven within twenty-four hours after I contacted customer service.

  2. Liv Rancourt

    The first time, I’d say no, because you weren’t deliberately trying to get any more from the deal. You were just unmotivated. Trying it again might be a little sketchy, but nobody’s forcing their hand. I’m mostly in awe of the fact that you’re actually printing photos off and putting them in books.

    1. philangelus

      I really like looking through my photo albums, so it’s mostly for my own benefit. The kids like looking through them too. It’s not the same feeling for me to watch a slideshow on the computer.

      When I was totally with it, I used to write the names and dates on the backs of the photos. Now I settle for putting them in chronological order and marking off some of the special ones with what/who/when.