Q. If a store has a two-week return policy, is it ethical to buy something from the store with the intention of using it and then returning it for money back?
A. As we explained in a previous column, in Jewish law every object has an unlimited money-back guarantee. The reason is that if there is a fundamental defect in a product, the sale is considered void. Maimonides writes:
"One who sells to his fellow land, or a slave, or an animal or other chattels and a defect is found which the customer did not know about, it can be returned even after a period of years, since it was a mistaken purchase."
However, this is conditioned on the fact that the purchaser did indeed intend to acquire the object; the problem is that it is defective. Even if the object is defective but the purchaser finds it satisfactory, he waives his right to return it.
"But this is on the condition that he doesn't use the purchase after he discovers the defect, but if he uses it after he sees the defect he has waived [his right to void the sale] and he cannot return it." (1)
Every sale is conditioned on a "meeting of the minds," informed consent of buyer and seller regarding the terms of the sale. A seller may go beyond the letter of the law and allow the buyer to void the sale not only for an actual defect, but also for any characteristic the customer finds unsatisfactory. But the underlying principle is the same: the customer has reached the conclusion that his purchase was a mistake and he wants to nullify it. This is the exact opposite of someone who is making no mistake but on the contrary knows exactly what the item is, finds it satisfactory, and plans to enjoy and then return it.
It is worth noting that a "no questions asked" return policy is different from a "free trial". A free trial is exactly what the name suggests: an offer to try out a product and see if you like it. In this case the seller wants to convince you that the product (usually an unfamiliar one) is worth buying; the only way to do this is by giving you an opportunity to try it out. There's nothing wrong with taking something for a free trial without any firm intention to buy it even if you find it of value; the seller is betting that you will like it enough to buy it and agrees to adopt the risk that you might not.
The difference is that a return policy is generally for goods that the buyer is familiar with and knows that he wants; the seller is able to guarantee that the merchandise is satisfactory. A free trial is usually for a good that is unfamiliar; in order to convince the buyer that the object is worthwhile, he is willing to offer a free trial. It's not a problem that you doubt you will want to purchase the object; that's exactly why the seller is offering you the free trial!
However, even in this case it would be improper to use the free trial if you are totally familiar with the object and learn nothing from the trial. If a number of stores are offering free trials of a certain product and you go from one to the other asking to try it out, it's not a "trial" at all since you know very well what the product is.
Free trials were common already in the time of the Talmud. Wine sellers would allow potential customers to taste a bit of wine before deciding if they wanted to buy. Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak told his students that tasting wine in this way is a forbidden subterfuge when they had no possibility of buying the wine (due to lack of means). This is a bad faith trial. But if the seller could convince you to buy if you really liked the product then you don't need any kind of prior intention or commitment.
SOURCES: (1) Maimonides Code, laws of sale 15:3 (2) Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 129a
The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.