Shopahanuka

[for a previous madlik post on parshat vayetze see: the first refusnik]

With Hanukah coming early this year it will be difficult to purchase our Hanukah gifts at a discount. … let alone at anything near wholesale…. For Jews… this will be the November Dilemma.

Which brings me to the sticky issue of comparison shopping and “showrooming”.

As any student of the Talmud knows, we are forbidden to go into a store, poke around, handle merchandise, ask a bunch of questions and inquire about price, if we don’t have the intention of making a purchase.

The source is a Mishnah which states:

“As there is ‘wronging’ in buying and selling, so there is ‘wronging’ in words; a man may not ask, ‘What is this article worth?’ when he has no intention of buying;

Mishna Baba Metziah iv, 10

Mishna Baba Metziah iv, 10

The crime is called ona’as devarim[i] which translates as oppression and/or cheating with words[ii].  The Biblical verse upon which this crime is tagged is Leviticus 25:17

And ye shall not wrong one another; but thou shalt fear thy God; for I am the LORD your God.

וְלֹא תוֹנוּ אִישׁ אֶת-עֲמִיתוֹ, וְיָרֵאתָ מֵאֱלֹהֶיךָ:  כִּי אֲנִי יְהוָה, אֱלֹהֵיכֶם

Unlike Leviticus 25:15 where the cheating is obvious e.g. a price gouging, in verse 17 the fact that “fear thy God” is referenced suggests that this oppression lies concealed in the intention of the would-be buyer.

Rabbinic defenders have tried to make sense of this rule[iii] but for those of us living in a free market economy, it’s a stretch.  If we lived in the USSR and walked into the local commissary where pricing was fixed and where only commodities were available for sale, clearly browsing and taking up the time of the sales clerk might be considered malevolent.  But in a market economy comparison shopping drives the market….

With the explosion of ecommerce, a retail phenomenon called Showrooming has emerged were consumers go to a brick & mortar store to touch and feel  a product, and then buy it online for less.  Since this has the potential of driving retailers out of business, there has been increased interest and relevance in ona’as devarim (at least in the yeshiva world…. ).  The Rabbis stay relevent.

But before you swear off Amazon or make an oath never to price shop at the local mall you might consider that Showrooming is just comparison shopping on steroids and at the end of the day… it makes the market more efficient.

It turns out that retailers such as Best Buy who had originally complained about Showrooming (aka ona’as devarim) are now embracing it.

According to the Wall Street Journal “With four weeks to go before Thanksgiving, the big-box retailer is running television ads that tout its stores as “the ultimate holiday showroom,”…  The new CEO of Best Buy claims: ‘to “love showrooming.” These days Best Buy executives are embracing the term with even more swagger, saying they have put in place strategies from price matching to customer-service improvements that will convert more shoppers into buyers. In the past year, Best Buy’s profit has increased and its shares have soared.’  “A year ago, people said that showrooming would kill Best Buy,” Mr. Joly said in an interview. “I think that Best Buy has killed showrooming.”.

According to the Journal ”Wal-Mart Stores Inc. says it is benefiting from “reverse showrooming” as shoppers explore products online before buying them in stores. TargetCorp. says it installed Wi-Fi at its stores partly to encourage customers to browse products on their phones.” And Amazon just announced a commission program for independent books stores when customers buy an ebook after seeing the printed book in the store.[iv]    ona’as devarim… bring it on![v]

Score: ona’as devarim 1  Rabbis   0

It would seem that the Rabbis were clueless about the free marketplace. One wants to question the widely held belief that the Talmud not only makes you smart… it also makes you rich.  It’s enough to make you want to cancel your reservation at the Taiwanese business hotel name Talmud! (check the link… it really does exist)

Other Talmudic rules that appear to be anti-free market and to dampen competition are the laws against opening a store next to the competition (e.g. hardware store next to hardware store) as well as laws against firing an employee for incompetence.

One exception to the Talmud’s ambivalence on competition is in the marketplace of ideas.The Rabbis took off the gloves and made Ayn Rand look timid in defending fierce competition when it comes to the most important gift we give… education.

When it comes to education, the Rabbis of the Talmud are free market extremists… claiming that the “Jealousy (competition) of scribes increases knowledge”.

Baba Batra 22a

Baba Batra 22a

On the subject of firing less competent teachers, the Rabbis differ in tactics, but not in strategy.

Baba Batra 21a

Baba Batra 21a

I’ll leave it to others to defend the Rabbis when it comes to commerce and to decide whether Showrooming  should be embraced or not.  I take my holiday shopping tactics from the Rabbis teachings on education.  If you want to give the gift of charity, support a progressive Jewish School or a local charter school.  If you want to buy a gift…  buy a book.  If you haven’t read it yet… think of buying Start-up Nation… here’s an excerpt which helps explain why high-tech and innovation are so successful in Israel:

Start-Up Nation p. 51

Start-Up Nation p. 51

[i] See: ONA’AH (“overreaching”) in Funk & Wagnalls 1906  Jewish Encyclopedia (I just got me a copy)

[ii] See Strongs Lexicon H3238 – yanah

[iii] See: BUSINESS COMPETITION #9

Q: May I browse a store’s showroom if I don’t intend to buy there, but from another store or over the internet?

A: Just as it is prohibited to cheat a person monetarily (ona’ah), it is prohibited to taunt him emotionally (ona’as devarim). For example, you may not ask a store owner how much an item costs when you have no potential interest in buying it.

Asking the price gives the seller the impression that you might buy the item, and he remains disappointed when you don’t. It also distracts him when he could deal with other customers. (C.M. 228:1,4)

Walking into a store similarly raises the seller’s expectation that you might buy, albeit to a lesser degree, and he is disappointed when you walk out without buying. Therefore, it is inappropriate to browse if you have no interest at all in buying there.

It is permissible to browse, though, if there is a possibility that you might buy there. Any store owner knows that potential customers comparison shop and might decide not to buy there. (Pischei Choshen, Ona’ah 15 nt. 15) It is also permissible if you ask the store owner up front, “Do you mind if I browse the products without buying?”

Furthermore, browsing in a large store full of customers is permissible if you do not distract the salespeople, since the owner or salespeople do not note an individual person who enters and browses. Similarly, it is permissible to browse in stores that emphasize feature displays, such as FAO Schwartz, since the owner encourages people to view the display and does not necessarily expect a sale.

Finally, the prohibition of ona’as devarim applies only to a fellow Jewish storeowner. (Rama 228:1)

[iv] An Offer From Amazon to Its Most Bitter Rivals By DAVID STREITFELD and JULIE BOSMAN, November 6, 2013

[v] Fear of ‘Showrooming’ Fades, WSJ 11/4/13

Hanukaturkey menora

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Filed under Israel, Judaism, Religion, social commentary, Torah

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