I went shopping at Coles today to pick up the usual essential supplies – bread, chocolate and cereal.

OK, so it may be decadent to have both bread and cereal in the house but I lead a passionate and exotic life.

Anyway, I went past the toothpaste aisle and noticed some items on sale – if you buy 2 toothbrushes you get 1 free. Then I noticed that toothpaste was also on sale (same deal).

In fact it was a dental supplies extravaganza and I decided to purchase more dental products than I will need in a month of Sundays.

So far so good – going to shop for essentials and being influenced to buy extra items on impulse is all part of modern life.

But when I got to the check 0ut I was surprised to see that I was being charged more than I expected. Since this doesn’t normally happen (or at least I don’t notice it happen) I stopped and added things up properly.

I had been charged for all the items and then given a discount for the ones on sale – but the discount had been calculated incorrectly.

So – armed with my own observations and some humble rules of arithmetic – I went back to get my refund.

Unfortunately the lady had to send me to a special counter to do so. Apparently they can’t give you your money back where you pay them – I am not sure why but from the way she explained things, I gather it has something to with feng shui.

So I want to the special “give me some money back” aisle and explained my issue.

The guy was quite friendly and had a look at my receipt, after which he helpfully explained that I had been charged the same amount as was on the receipt.

“Yes”, I responded – “I am with you there”.

“But”, I went on to explain, “its not what I should be charged according to some simple arithmetic”.

We observed that if I pay for two items and get a third free then it would be good to pay for only two. Coles do something similar but slightly different – they charge you for 3 and then reverse 1 payment and we both agreed that this should end up being the same.

Our only difference in opinion was around the amount of the discount – I explained it should have been 1/3 of the cost of the items on sale (since I am getting 3 items for the price of two) and he explained that the computer had allocated me a discount of $x.

Eventually we agreed that as long as the amount that the computer allocated to me (the $x) was the same as a one third discount then I would be fine – but that this was exactly what had NOT happened.

Now my customer service consultant and I were on the same page – there was an error.

So we set off to look at the items (apparently getting a guided tour of what you bought is part of the enhanced customer service you get when overcharged at Coles – its a fun tour, but a little time consuming if all you want is your money back).

Anyway the tour revealed that I had indeed bought the items that I had thought I had bought – and that they were indeed 3 for the price of 2. Excellent – so we returned to the “get your money back aisle” happy with that this information had been clearly established.

Of course I was also quite chuffed that my customer service consultant thought I was important enough to deserve the tour. I noticed some jealous looks from other customers at what looked like a celibrity being escorted by his personal shopper.

My companion (we had been speaking for a while now, and been on an excursion together – so I think I can refer to him as a companion rather than some unknown customer service person)

…. er, where was I – Yes – my companion now rescanned the items and found that individually they came out at the right price. Then he scanned one item 3 times, confirmed the order and then cancelled it. Again the number was correct.

He looked at me hopefully but I reminded him that the laws of arithmetic were unchanged and that we still faced a mysterious paradox. Computers do arithmetic and prices are a form of arithmetic – and yet things didn’t seem to add up.

I thought of using my iPhone to google “arithmetic” in case the rules had changed or the mathematicians were about to admit that their maths didn’t add up. After all there is apparently a proof that has been around for a century or more that mathematical proofs don’t work.

But I saw the concern in my companions face and thought it better not to further upset him.

We spoke to his manager who explained that their policy was to give me one item free and charge me for the rest if there was an error. I thanked him and asked which item it would be – but he said he wasn’t sure.

So I suggested that it should be one that was of about the same value as “the difference between what I paid and should have paid if the discount on the sale items was 1/3 of their total cost”.

This concerned him – I guess he has also heard about the vague proof that arithmetic is dodgy and he was already dubious since the maths disagreed with the computer.

So we agreed to do some more research. Again we scanned items and found the numbers were fine, but with a calculator I was able to demonstrate that they were different to what the computer told me before.

This was a true paradox – two computers disagreed and we didn’t know who to believe – until I reminded them that we could fall back on arithmetic at times like this.

Our erstwhile band (me, the customer service dude and the manager had all spent enough time bonding by now to call ourselves a band) continued on our quest for truth. Me using the arithmetic I like so much and the customer service guy re-scanning things to see if anything changed (the manager had to serve some customers who apparently had lost interest in our adventure while waiting behind me in line).

I tried doing the maths on my iPhone calculator in case Coles had changed to Apple arithmetic but found the numbers were still the same – I should have known Apple would simply steal the same maths from Intel that they stole from Xerox that they in turn had stolen from the ancient greeks.

Finally – success. The customer service guy and I worked out that things worked fine as long as you only had one type of item (toothpaste or a toothbrush) … but that if you bought two different items then the computer charged you for 3 of each type of item which is meant to do) and then gave you back the price of the cheapest item (which it is not meant to do).

So I had bought 2 types of toothbrush and 2 types of toothpaste (I wanted to surprise my wife with new dental supplies) and consequently the system had decided to refund the cost of some of the cheap toothpaste and charge me for everything else.

I asked if this was deliberate, since I thought it was a bit dodgy to tell people they would get 3 for the price of 2 when you really meant 3 for the price of 3 but with a discount of 3 for the price of 1 on another random item (well not random I guess – always a cheaper item).

My companian said that he was sure it was not meant to work that way and we consulted the manager, who now was pleased to help. He eagerly explained the policy in these circumstances it to give one item free and then charge for the rest.

You may remember he had offered this advice earlier – but with a greater look of confidence this time. I asked if my free item could be a car but he explained it had to be the item I was over charged on.

I asked him which item that was and he said it could be either of several. I said I would be happy if it also happened to be equal to the difference between what I paid and would have paid if the computer had used normal arithmetic.

Unfortunately this proved impossible, so I was offered two free things from those that I had bought, that added up to a bit more than the amount I was owed.

I explained that I already owned the dental supplies they were offering me for free but they assured me that their interpretation of the policy was to actually give me some money… that added up to the amount of the two items.

This seemed fair, but I suggested that an alternative policy would be to be to pay me what I was owed. They agreed this would be a jolly simple approach at first glance, but that it would upset the computer and so it would in fact be a bad idea.

Anyway, I got my refund of “the equivalent of a toothbrush and toothpaste rounded to 5c” and I was on my way.

I had to feel a little sorry for Coles though, because it did tie up a lot of time for a couple of their employees taking me on excursions around the store and exploring the integrity of the ancient laws of arithmetic.

I am sure it will also be a hassle for them correcting the mistake for their other valued customers, because now that they know the computer was wrong we can assume that they called head office and had things changed before more customers were charged the wrong amount (and more staff were stuck taking people on excursions to see the items they had purchased to make sure they were the same ones they had purchased).

And who would have thought – the computer was wrong all along. If only there was a precedent for such a thing then we could have all saved a lot of time and just relied on arithmetic.

But then I wouldn’t have had the chance to bond with some of the Coles staff as we enjoyed our long afternoon of superb customer service combined with mathematical wonder.

Hi James,

You know that your 2 new friends from Coles should now be on your Christmas card list.

What you uncovered is typical of large service organisations, unfortunately. I had a similar problenm with an iron I purchased at Myers.

It had a 12 month warranty and died before the time expired. So I took it back and asked for a replacement. In 10 months since I purchased the iron, the manufacturers had superceded the item, which meant I would get the new improved one. BUT the price of the new iron was slightly more than the original price I paid for the one that died – so I was asked to pay the difference.

Armed with a basic knowledge of Comsumer Rights, I argued that I should not have to pay anything, since I didn’t choose for the item to die on me.

End upshot (after quite a while) was that I got the new iron, I didn’t have to pay any extra, but the Store Manager (sound similar!) gave me a little leaflet on Myer’s policy regards returns – which incidentally didn’t mention returns due to death.

So, with this leaflet I sent a rather lenthy missive off to Myers stating how their policy was contrary to the Fair Trading Laws in Australia. But as expected I never heard anything.

Anyway, next time you’re in town we should catch up.