Pottery Barn rule

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The Pottery Barn rule is an American expression alluding to a "you break it, you buy it" policy, by which a retail store holds a customer responsible for damage done to merchandise on display. It is an analogy often used in the political or military arena to suggest that if an actor inadvertently creates a problem, the actor is obliged to provide funding sufficient to correct it.

In reality, Pottery Barn—an upscale home furnishing stores in the United States—does not have a "you break it, you bought it" policy,[1] but instead writes off broken merchandise as a loss, as do most large American retailers.[2] Many U.S. states have statutes forbidding such policies (absent negligence or willful destruction). Legal doctrine also holds that a retailer incurs the risk that merchandise will be destroyed by placing it where customers can handle it and not doing anything to discourage them.[1]

Origin and usage[edit]

New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman claims to have coined the term, having used the phrase "the pottery store rule" in a February 12, 2003, column. He has said he referred to Pottery Barn specifically in speeches.[3] According to Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell cited the rule in the summer of 2002 when warning President George W. Bush of the consequences of military action in Iraq:

'You are going to be the proud owner of 25 million people,' he told the president. 'You will own all their hopes, aspirations, and problems. You'll own it all.' Privately, Powell and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage called this the Pottery Barn rule: You break it, you own it.[4]

Powell confirmed the quotation on Jonathan Dimbleby's "Dimbleby" program on April 30, 2006.

Democratic candidate John Kerry cited the rule during the first debate of the 2004 Presidential election on September 30, 2004:

Powell denies using the term "pottery barn rule", but stated:

"It is said that I used the “Pottery Barn rule.” I never did it; [Thomas] Friedman did it … But what I did say … [is that] once you break it, you are going to own it, and we’re going to be responsible for 26 million people standing there looking at us. And it’s going to suck up a good 40 to 50 percent of the Army for years. And it’s going to take all the oxygen out of the political environment . . ."[5]


  1. ^ a b Daniel Grant (2005). "You Break It, You Buy It? Not According to the Law". The Crafts Report Magazine. Archived from the original on December 7, 2006. Retrieved 18 April 2007. 
  2. ^ Helen Huntley (2004). "Rule that isn't its rule upsets Pottery Barn". St. Petersburg Times. Retrieved 18 April 2007. 
  3. ^ Safire, William (18 Oct 2004), "Language: You break it, you own it, you fix it", The New York Times, retrieved 25 Feb 2014 
  4. ^ Woodward, Bob (2004). Plan of Attack. p. 150. 
  5. ^ "Aspen Ideas Festival".