Friday, November 29, 2019

Are There Limitations to Window Shopping?

As today is known as “Black Friday,” the biggest shopping day of the year, Jewish Treats will discuss a halachic (Jewish legal) issue regarding shopping.

Window shopping is an accepted practice worldwide. In general, stores do not discourage customers from their premises who refuse to commit to making a purchase (although use of a restroom is another story). But there may be a difference with a customer who has entered the store having no intention whatsoever of making a purchase who inquires about the price of an item. Is that permitted according to Jewish law?

There is a prohibition in the Torah known as oh’nah’at devarim, verbal exploitation. Jewish law (Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 228:4) provides a few examples of the proscription, such as reminding a newly observant person, or a convert, of their past inappropriate practices, or posing a question to someone that the questioner knows they cannot answer. One of the forbidden practices is to inquire about the price of an item when one has absolutely no intention of buying it. Does this mean that Judaism bans window-shopping?

Jewish law believes in the free market, and would not fault any consumer for inspecting and pricing an item at various stores to determine where to buy. Jewish law even permits a competitor to browse a store to learn the pricing on various items. Certainly, today, when so much is posted online, learning the pricing of items should not fall under any improper practice.

How then do we understand the Shulchan Aruch’s ban on asking about the cost of a product that one does not intend to acquire?

Halachic works offer rationales why this prohibition exists and what its parameters are. Understanding the background to an injunction often helps to comprehend the infraction and apply it in different cases. In this case, some believe it would be insulting to the shop owner to countenance a customer who has no intention of making a purchase, while others believe it is wasting the time of the merchant or sales staff. Others argue about perception: some feel that if someone witnesses a window-shopper expressing interest in an item and not buying it, they may feel that the item is overpriced, or flawed in some way. Others feel that if customers who are willing to spend money see other customers spending much time with an object, they may feel that those others will buy it and they will give up hope of buying the item.

The Shulchan Aruch Harav, penned by the First Lubavitcher Rebbe, limits the prohibition to when the subject will realize that the customer attempted to deceive him. According to this view, window shopping for the sake of shopping, without any thoughts of deceiving the owner, would be permitted.

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