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The Jewish Ethicist: Bad Buyer

The Jewish Ethicist: Bad Buyer

Can I browse in a high end store and then buy at discount retailer?


Q. Can I get advice from a full-service store and then use my new knowledge to buy at a discount retailer?

A. Many years ago specialty items (this once included high quality cameras and stereos, though these are rapidly becoming commodities) were only sold in high-end stores, which provided both advice and merchandise. Already in the 1970's these items began to be readily available in large discount stores with little sales support, and today virtually everything is available via the internet. This puts a squeeze on the specialty stores; they can compete with the internet if their disadvantage in price is offset by their advantage in expertise.

But sometimes customers want the best of both worlds; in such an environment, knowledgeable sales support cannot thrive.

One approach that has often been taken to this problem is ona'at devarim – oppressive or exploitative speech. The mishna states, "Just as there is fraud in commerce, so there is fraud in speech. You shouldn't say to [a merchant], 'How much is that item?' if you don't intend to buy." (1) At the most basic level this prohibits taunting or tormenting the seller, but it would also include pestering him with questions for your own benefit if you have no intention of buying from him.

You are taking the expertise but not paying for it.

However, there is an additional problem here. You are not merely wasting the seller's time, you are actual taking advantage of a service he provides but violating the conditions under which he provides it. An upscale store doesn't sell merely merchandise; they sell a combination of expertise and merchandise, which is naturally more expensive. But what you are doing is taking the expertise but not paying for it.

This is not unlike trying a free sample of an item when you are unable to buy it. (If you are just convinced you won't like it you can still try it. After all, that's why they offer free samples, to convince people who are sure they're not interested.) An interesting Talmudic passage discusses this exact problem:

All subterfuges are forbidden except for the following which is permitted: Someone who has [let blood] and has no other way [of getting wine] . . . can go to a [series of] wine shops [and taste a samples], until he has drunk a full cup. (2)

This is a subterfuge because the wine shops allow you to taste so that you can make sure you like the wine before you pay for it – not to give you a free mouthful. It's permissible in this unusual case because drinking something substantial after bloodletting is critical for health; not doing so could be dangerous. We have a combination of three elements: the need is compelling, the cost is minimal (he takes only a sip of wine from each store), and there is no actual deceit. When you taste a sip of wine you are not obligated to buy a glass even if you like it. The problem here is bad faith – you have no intention or even ability to buy the wine.

Your case is a similar subterfuge (the seller's time is probably worth much more than a sip of wine), but it lacks the key condition that makes it permissible. There is no compelling need to get a discount on electronics or sporting goods.

If you want to buy merchandise from an online or discount seller, you should solicit advice from friends, books, internet sites and so on, but not from full-service merchants. If you go to a full-service store in good faith and decide you can't afford the merchandise, you don't have to buy there – there is no contract and even the store itself wouldn't want to make you feel obligated because it would deter customers. But you must have a good faith intention to compare the value you obtain there with the value you can obtain from some other merchant.

SOURCES: (1) Mishna Bava Metzia 4:10. (2) Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 129a

Send your queries about ethics in the workplace to

The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.

May 2, 2009

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Visitor Comments: 8

(8) Anonymous, May 10, 2009 3:54 AM

I believe it is always wrong to use anything or anyone at a store, to garner information so that the item in question can be purchased somewhere else. Here's an example of how just looking at shoes in a store ~ when you know you will be buying them online ~ is wrong. As with any business, there is a cost attached to every minute that the store is open for business. The rent, insurance, electricity, heat, debt on the inventory, supplies, and if the owner has them, employee wages. If you took the sum of these costs and divided it by the number of hours that the store is open every month, you come up with a cost of being open. And, of course, there's a cost associated just with having the store. The lights can be out, the heat off, but rent is being paid on the space every hour of the day. So, these are fixed costs that the owner must incur whether or not he makes a sale. Let's say that it cost this business owner $75 every hour he is open. He has to make $75 every hour just to break even. That says nothing about profit or making enough to pay his bills. Let's say that the store is not in a mall where there is a fixed open and close time. Instead, the owner must determine the number of hours, and what specific hours, he should be open in order to maximize his profits, given these fixed costs. Of course, he's going to choose to be open when he is most likely to make sales. He may use a variety of methods to determine his business hours, but certainly at the top of the list would be the flow of shoppers in and around the store. Now, let's say that the store owner has noticed that at least 20 people come into his store every night between the hours of 8:00 and 9:00 p.m. Because of this, he chooses not to close the store at 8:00 p.m. He does not get home in time to kiss his kids goodnight. He does not get home in time to enjoy any daylight in the summertime. Now, let's say that 18 of those 20 people, or 90% of them, who enter his shop during the last hour of his business day have no plans to buy anything. Ever. They just stopped by to check out the colors, textures, comfort, and sizes of merchandise they are going to purchase online just as soon as they leave the store. But, the shop owner does not know that. He's staying open until 9:00 because of the foot traffic. He's paying his employees to work when only 2 of those 20 people might ask for help (it does not matter that the 18 people who will not buy from him, do not bother the owner, their mere presence wastes his time and increases his expenses because he's staying open in anticipation of making sales that he won't make). It's not economically wise for him to even be open. But, how could he know that? Why would he think that 90% of the customers have no plan to purchase so much as a shoelace from him? The people that buy his shoes buy them before 8:00. But, again, he doesn't know that. All he sees is heavy foot traffic. It's not like he's open anyway, and that you wouldn't be bothering him to go browse since there's no one in the store at the moment. Being self-employed is not easy. When the possibility of a large sale looms, it can be very exciting or very stressful. You look for clues. When my husband gets off a long phone call, I may ask him if the company was going to make a decision by Monday, or if they said they hoped to do so. Why? We're both either excited at the prospect of a large job, or, as during these past few years as his clients have gone bankrupt, we are worried and stressed because if a project doesn't come in within ten days, we won't be able to pay the mortgage. It can be extremely difficult to be self-employed, when no matter if you work 80 or 100 hours per week, as my husband often does, it has no effect on your bottom line. If your clients do not have money, they cannot pay you. The thought that someone might call my husband only to secure information from him and to get an idea of how he does business and what he might charge ~ and how he might go about solving their problem ~ offends me. Finally, the best way to know if something you are doing is ethical or not, is to tell the person up front what you're doing. If, when the store owner asks you, "may I help you, ma'am?," you can say truthfully, "No sir. I came in to get a closer inspection of the items because I'm going to purchase them online when I leave here for home," without shame or embarrassment, then it's probably ethical (or perhaps you have no shame!) If you can't, it is not.

(7) Anonymous, May 8, 2009 6:46 PM

Can the Answer to the Original Question Ever be YES?

I've just read some comments from people who think they have an entitlement. That is just so wrong on so many levels. If you tried to lower my prices in my shop, I would say "I'm sorry I don't think we can do business." And I would not discuss it with you further. I would hope you would not come in again.

(6) shayna poupko, May 7, 2009 6:03 AM

The real truth

Recently I was interested in purchasing a vacuum cleaner. I spent a great deal of time on line trying to gather information. I then went out to retail stores to see who had what to offer. I found that most of the salesmen were not informed about the differences or quality of the various models they had to offer. In several stores salesmen were standing around chatting and seemed offended when I asked if someone could help me. I ended up ordering the vacuum cleaner on line because the one store I found that sold it was only willing to come down to 50 shekel above the online cost. They also were not very forthcoming with information. Secondly, most stores have special relationships with varied firms and the profit they receive from one item may be much greater than another. Therefore I find their evaluations suspect and am not likely to believe all that they say.

(5) ruth housman, May 5, 2009 5:29 PM

time is money

I found this an interesting commentary and it made me think, which is, I think, why life presents us with ethical issues. I do believe that in our culture, it is customary to shop around for the "best bargain" because we don't necessarily have that much liquidity. I have never used an "up scale" store specifically to "milk" the staff for information on an item I intend to buy elsewhere. In fact, these days, it's possible to get so much information on line without ever leaving home. The other day we purchased a printer that was missing an instruction booklet so we got all the information on use on the worldwide WEB. I think the general "ethos" and one probably also employed by the employers and employees in these specialty stores is that people do wander in and not everyone will buy. I think it's about time sharing, meaning there is down time that is simply, to inform a shopper who goes home to think about all options. I do believe the best option will win out, and this is not always just about price but the price of doing business with a store that backs its products. It's a complex issue worth revisiting.

(4) Anonymous, May 5, 2009 3:12 PM

What if I first researched on the internet, then retailer couldn't come close on price?

A few years ago, I researched cameras online and chose three that seemed promising. I printed out web pages on each, including prices, and brought them to the store. I showed the clerk and said I'd like to put my hands on the cameras to see which felt best, and then would be happy to buy one there if they could come close enough on the price. He said yes, I picked a camera, but then the price he came back with was $50 higher. I told him that if he could come within $20 I'd do it, but the manager wouldn't let him, so I bought it online. Right or wrong?

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