Q. I usually visit America for a few weeks a year -- not enough to justify membership in a warehouse club. So when I go, I sometimes borrow a card from a friend who is a member. Is there an ethical problem with this? After all, the store benefits from the added business! IT
A. This is a common practice, but we have to carefully examine its ethical consequences.
For readers who are not familiar, "warehouse clubs" are a special kind of department store. These stores usually hold a comparatively limited inventory and relatively few salespeople, and charge unusually low prices. One reason they can afford to do this is because the members pay dues; a more important reason is that the membership fee filters out the casual shoppers and leaves the serious buyers, enabling the store to move merchandise more quickly and pass the savings on to members.
Rabbi Zvi Shpitz writes that it is forbidden to borrow a card to buy at one of these stores. The management has good reasons for wanting to limit its clientele, and also has a right to payment for access to special prices. Using a non-transferable member's card without the knowledge of the management is a misleading practice and an unfair way of obtaining a discount.
However, there is another variety of "club stores" where the membership aspect is not really primary from the company's point of view but is only present in order to meet some government regulation or to give an illusion of exclusivity. One Israeli supermarket chain used to require membership; it was said that this was the only way it could legally impose a dress code requiring shoppers to dress modestly.
Rabbi Shpitz writes that in this case, there is no deceit involved in buying with someone else's card, since the store has no desire to exclude others. Here there would only be a question if non-members were somehow breaking the law by shopping at such a store.
So if you can't convince the card owner to come along with you, then you shouldn't use his or her card unless you have the permission of a store manager who is authorized to make such a decision.
SOURCES: Mishpetei HaTorah on Bava Kamma, chapter 95
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