( Originally Published Late 1800's )
One of the worst customs that has crept into mercantile trade may be designated by the phrase " double dealing." Goods are placed upon the shelves and exposed for sale. The prices asked for them are supposed to be at a certain fair percentage above the actual cost price in the wholesale market, and it would seem to be good business ethics and the part of honorable dealing to sell these goods at the same price to all who should come to buy ; but we find the opposite to be the case. The prices are fixed by the salesmen to suit the customers with whom they are dealing; and it often happens, that one man buys a given article for one dollar, perhaps, and in fifteen minutes thereafter the same salesmen sells a similar article to another man for one dollar and fifteen cents. This kind of double dealing is very widely practiced among business men and every man who expects to pay cash for what he buys and not enter into special negotiations in the purchase of an article, is quite generally cheated by business men. That a retail merchant should have a fair and honorable compensation for the capital invested and for his labor, is granted ; but that he should have a different scale of prices for different classes of customers, is to practice theft and robbery under another name. This form of business dishonesty cannot be too strongly condemned. We believe that it will always react in the end on the success of the man engaged in it. It is hardly possible that a business can be conducted very long under these conditions without driving away custom, or so putting the purchaser upon his guard that he will bring the price down to the lowest notch or leave the goods upon the shelves. There can be no reason in business ethics or in sound common sense for anything else than a '' one price system of trade." We are told that the chief secret of Alexander Stewart's success as a merchant was due to scrupulous honesty with all the customers who patronized his store. His clerks were instructed to sell at one price to all. They were enjoined to represent the goods for exactly what they were. They were to treat all with consideration and politeness and honest dealing. By this means, Mr Stewart arose to the first place among American merchants. We would not say that honesty is the best policy ; but we would say that it is the only policy that is consistent with successful business.
A young man, when about to embark in trade in the city of Cleveland, fell into conversation with a gray-haired merchant of Superior street. The young man remarked to his aged friend that he proposed to carry on his business on strictly christian principles, and, we believe, he mentioned the splendid career of Mr. Stewart. The veteran merchant smiled, and told the young man he would meet with very little competition in that line in the whole city ; and, in further conversation, he ventured the assertion that there were not three stores in the Forest City where business could be said to be carried on on strictly christian principles, and we suppose the statement might be extended to other cities of our country. If the statement be true, it shows, an exceedingly low standard of business morality. What a theater of double-dealing the business relations of the country must present, if there be not three stores in the Forest City where christian principles prevail. Nothwithstanding the low condition of morals prevalent in business life, we have a deep conviction that honesty, and rectitude, and sterling integrity are not yet out of place in the great marts of commerce.
A rather amusing incident of double-dealing is told of a Boston firm. The head of the house was a christian man of very influential standing in one of the leading churches of the city. He had carried on his business on christian principles. Goods had never been misrepresented in his store, and the young man was deemed especially fortunate who could obtain a position in this store, and learn correct and honest business habits. The venerable head of the concern firmly believed in doing things right. The head clerk of his store was one day most sharply reprimanded for swerving a triflle from the true line of honesty. Of all things on earth, the old man hated a lie the worst, and woe to that clerk who was ever found lying in that store. On one occasion a job lot of heavy un-bleached muslins was found, and a stock of several hundred dollars' worth was purchased. They were offered at eight cents per yard, that being at the time very low for that class of goods. Purchasers read the advertisement, looked at the goods, stacked up in piles on the floor, but did not buy. Scarcely a piece was sold, and it began to be whispered about the store that " the old man was stuck on that lot." About that time high tides had flooded the cellars in the lower part of the city, and damaged goods were being sola at extremely low prices. A few days later, the old man directed two of his clerks to buy a wash-tub and fill it with water in the cellar. He then directed them to take the pieces of muslin and unroll them, and pass them through the water in the tub. They were then rolled up again and piled up on the sales-room floor. The next morning the Boston papers contained flaming advertisements of extra heavy unbleached muslin, " wet in the cellar," at eight and one-third cents a yard. Early in the day the store was thronged with people ; the muslin went like wildfire ; the boys were kept busy below to supply the salesmen, and before night not a piece was left. The same cloth that had stood in stacks for days in the sales-room, at eight cents a yard, sold in a few hours at eight and one-third, after being "wet in the cellar." But how about the old gentleman's honorable dealing? The boys thought that was very queer christian principles.
One of the worst cases of double-dealing that has come to light in years, is that of Ferdinand Ward, of New York City. For a number of years he was regarded as a rising financier and a young man of remarkable promise. How far he merited such an estimate, his own admissions before the court fully show. He went into speculation on an especially bold and unscrupulous plan. The plan of his transactions was about as follows : men were encouraged to deposit large amounts in Ward's Banking House ; these de-posits were used to pay heavy dividends to the depositors ; when the scheme was fairly started and the large dividends were paid with promptness, depositors, of course, flocked to the bank in great numbers. But such a scheme as that, though it may be a bold one, was, of course, dishonest and ruinousóruinous not only to the banking house, but the depositors, and the wonder is that he was successful in keeping off the storm so long.
Such a plan, of course, required continual deposits, and this rising financier, who had everybody's confidence, seems to have entrapped his friends and foes alike, and to have treated all with the most unblushing and most unheard of dishonesty. That he used the Grant family unscrupulously and without mercy is fully apparent, and yet if any of that family had exercised ordinary business prudence, their immense losses could not have been possible. It was a dangerous business from the beginning to the end. The more deposits the bank obtained, the larger must be its payments and the greater the necessity for securing more and more victims. The danger, indeed, increased with every deposit that was made, and the magnitude of the downfall was rendered still greater as time advanced. There was no possible way to evade the utter ruin of the bank and its deposits so soon as the first depositor should demand the money on deposit. That was, in-deed, a strange character who could plan such a scheme and carry it out, as he did, with inevitable ruin staring him in the face. There must have been a strange inability to realize the future. There might have been a superstitious hope that, by going blindly forward, the complications might unravel themselves and he be saved at last from his imbecile and rascally business.
We cannot think that anything is ever permanently gained by either dishonesty or double-dealing. Success in trade, or in business of any kind, depends for its support upon the confidence and good opinion of the general public. All forms of dishonesty strike a blow directly at that confidence, and the general public must either be successfully and permanently deceived, or schemes of dishonesty cannot win. It is not easy thus to deceive a whole community, and the man who indulges in false-dealings or chicanery in his business will, sooner or later, be found out, and all such practices will react, with redoubled force, upon the man himself. Unimpeachable honesty must be still the surest way to success.