January 2, 2015 admin

On shopping in the sales

The January sales have reminded me about an issue in shopping ethics which bothers me. I’ve particularly learnt about the issue via Nicky who, as Chief Executive of the Society of Authors, represents the interests of writers, but I’ve also heard it from people in the clothes trade. It’s part of the modern shopping style to go into a shop, maybe the local bookshop or fashion store, find something you like, photograph the details with your mobile phone and, either then and there or back at home, find the same item more cheaply on Amazon or some other outlet and make the actual purchase online. Is it ethical to behave in this manner?

It’s clearly not the same as simply shopping on-line, whatever the virtues and deficits that may have. The critical factor here is the role of the shop, which provides the ‘gallery’ where one can look for and select what one wants. Is it right to use physical shops in this way, without paying the owners anything for that service, while also undercutting them by buying elsewhere?

Jewish shopping law is governed by the principle of ona’ah, ‘overreaching’ or ‘oppression’ in buying and selling. The concept is based on two verses in Leviticus: ‘When you sell to, or buy from, your neighbour, you shall not oppress one another’ (25:14) and ‘You shall not wrong (lo tonu) one another, but you shall fear the Lord, for I am the Lord your God’ (25:17). Although the central laws of ona’ah are concerned with over-charging, an important further aspect of the principle is outlined in the Mishnah (Bava Metsia 4:10) ‘Just as there is oppression in buying and selling, so there is ona’ah in speech. You must not say to [the vendor] “How much is this object?” when you have no intention of buying…’

The issue is probably that a person’s livelihood is at stake. In Talmudic times a very few sales might make the difference between getting enough profit to have bread to eat, or going hungry. To tease a person with feigned interest is therefore cruel. Shopping no longer functions in this manner on the high street. Shop-keepers and superstores have every interest in the shopper who goes in merely to ‘browse’ and casual enquiries are therefore legitimate. Who knows: maybe we’ll be tempted by greed or curiosity to buy something we never knew we wanted, and probably don’t need. (On that note, I was very impressed by Rabbi Debbie Young-Summers who said at Limmud that one of the ways in which she is observing the Shemittah, the Sabbatical Year, is by not buying more books or clothes for its duration, as she has sufficient of both.)

However, the case in the Mishnah does have a bearing on the issue of using the facilities offered by the shopkeeper, who has to pay all the costs attendant on premises, staff and stock, while having from the first instance no intention of actually buying there. I believe this is a contemporary form of ona’ah and is wrong. It may make little difference to a large supermarket which is part of a chain, but it risks putting real shops, both small and large, out of business. Such venues are also local amenities, part of the social and cultural fabric. Do we really want them to disappear?

We should shop with due respect- and we should also consider if we want to shop with bodies that pay low wages and avoid paying tax thus depriving our economy of the much needed funds to pay for hospitals, libraries and essential services.

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