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Buying With Intention to Return


Rabbi Daniel Mann

Question: I, an amateur seamstress, liked a dress I saw in a store, but it was too expensive. I wanted to buy it, learn its cut, and then return it, which Israeli law permits within 48 hours of the purchase. May I buy the dress with the intention to return it? (Additional information – in any case, I will not buy the dress; the saleswoman is a hired worker, and so neither she nor the owner loses by my actions.)

Answer: Without the special governmental provisions (not a law of the Knesset, but a takana (ordinance) of the relevant minister), the halacha is that after making a kinyan (act of acquisition) on a sales item, a buyer cannot back out of the deal unless: 1. The object was seriously blemished; 2. It was very overpriced. 3. A condition was made to allow it. However, we will work under the assumption (whose guidelines are beyond our present scope) that this law of the land is binding. Certainly, the ordinance was not instituted to help buyers in cases like yours. Furthermore, even assuming that the law would apply to this case, you seem laudably aware that this does not mean that you are morally and halachically permitted to buy the dress with the intention of returning.
While we are not experts in this ordinance (Takanot Haganat Hatzarchan, 2010), perusal shows it includes pertinent limitations. For one, the consumer can return the item only if he has not used it. It is a good question whether handling a dress minimally in order to figure out its cut counts as using it. We would assume that a use is a use, even if it is not a standard one and it does not wear out the dress. (See Bava Metzia 29b-30a, which says that one may not display to beautify his house a lost fabric that he must return. Admittedly, some factors apply there and not here.) Thus, if you disguise your "use" of the dress, this would be misapplying the law. Another provision of the law is that the seller can demand, as a charge for returning, the lower of: 5% of the sales price or 100 shekels. We will see how this may actually help you morally, but first we will look at the halachot of ona’at devarim (non-physical abuse).
It is forbidden to ask a merchant the price of a sales item if he has no intention of buying it (Bava Metzia 58b). While some describe the classical problematic case as when the "buyer" intends to upset the seller (see Mayim Chayim II:83), others refer to damage caused to the seller. The Meiri (Bava Metzia 58b) talks about the possibility that the discussion of price may take away from others’ interest to buy the item at that price and says that even if no one else is present, he still caused the seller pain and toil. These considerations do not depend on bad intentions. While any negotiations with a proprietor can lead to disappointment, a normal process of commerce (i.e., there is some chance he will buy) justifies it. (One who is overly sensitive should not be a storeowner). However, when the proprietor has nothing to gain, it is forbidden to engage him for no reason.
In your case, it is not clear to what extent a worker is upset by the return, although we would not rule it out. In any case, there are a few scenarios of loss for the owner. By occupying the salesperson, you may discourage others from buying or prevent her from doing something else of value; while the dress is out of the store, it cannot be sold; handling the dress may take away from its freshness, etc. While such concerns are not very strong, they may be enough for the halacha of not faking interest in buying to apply.
On the other hand, if indeed you will have to, or you will volunteer to pay, albeit modestly, for returning the dress, it stands to reason that this compensates for the small concerns and logically makes it permissible. That, though, would not solve the problem that the law does not apply after "usage." In any case, we would urge, if it seems possible (depending on the worker’s personality) to be open and honest on the matter - request permission to do what you want for a modest agreed price.
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