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Can I Buy Something if I Plan to Return It?

Can I Buy Something if I Plan to Return It?

Halachic Guidelines for Returning Items

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Question

When I recently went on a road trip with my family, a friend suggested that I “buy” a portable DVD player for the kids to watch during the long trip. He suggested that I buy it from a store with a 60-day no-questions-asked return policy, and then simply return it after the trip. I told him that I didn’t think it was ethical, and I didn’t do it. However, this got me thinking: From the perspective of Jewish law, what are the guidelines for returning items that I purchased?

Answer

Let start with the basics.

Once a sale is complete and you’ve acquired the item, the sale is final, and in the absence of a specific return policy, neither the seller nor the buyer can nullify the transaction.1

However, if the item is later found to have a defect—even if it’s a few years later—you are permitted to cancel the sale and ask for a refund, on the condition that you didn’t use the item once the defect was discovered. If you did continue to use the item, it is as if you forgave the seller for the flaw, and you are no longer eligible for a refund.2

The above applies even if the merchandise was sold at a reduced price, but the buyer was not made aware of the item’s defects.3

Before returning an object, there are a number of things that one needs to be aware of:

  • Definition of a defect—Unless there was a specific agreement to the contrary, only flaws that are generally considered serious enough in that specific locale to be grounds for returning an object have the power to nullify a transaction. (One example may be the slight fading of color, which in many locales may not be viewed as that serious, while in others it would be grounds for a refund).4
  • Transaction is completely nullified—When a defect is found and the merchandise is returned, neither the seller nor the buyer can force the other to accept a partial refund or discount in which the buyer retains the item and the seller pays the difference for the defected item, in lieu of a full refund. The seller can simply say, “Either return the item for a full refund, or keep the item with no refund.”5
  • Store policy trumps all—As is the case with most monetary issues, if there is an official policy that the purchaser agreed to when buying the item (e.g. there is a sign displayed clearly in the store), we follow that policy.

Having established that unless the item is flawed, neither the buyer nor the seller can simply renege on the sale, the question remains: What if the store has a no-questions-asked return policy. In keeping with that policy, can you buy something with the intention of returning it later?

No-Questions-Asked Return Policy

In general, it is forbidden for one to ask a seller the price of an item if one has absolutely no intention of buying the item.6 Doing so is considered a violation of the prohibition “And you shall not wrong one man his fellow, and you shall fear your G‑d, for I am the L‑rd, your G‑d.”7 By asking the price, you are essentially raising the merchant’s hopes that you are a potential customer, only to dash his hopes when he realizes that you never had any intention to buy anything.

This would also apply if you “buy” something from a store when you have no intention of keeping it and every intention of returning it.

Another consideration is that when you return an object to the store, even if it is in perfect condition, the store has to pay to restock it, and it is often not possible to sell it as a brand new item. Thus, the store incurs a loss for you having used the item, and your using the item can be considered a form of damage.8

In addition to the above concerns, since you just plan on having the item for a short while before you return it—but you have no real intention of actually buying the item—this may be considered as if you are just planning on “borrowing” the item. However, as far as the store is concerned, the intention is to sell you the item, not lend it. This raises the issue of not only deceiving the owner and/or damaging the object, but stealing as well. For the law is that if one “borrows” an object without the knowledge of the owner, even if it does not result in any damages, it is considered as if he stole the object.9

Nevertheless, despite the above concerns, there are stores (usually bigger chain stores) that, based on their own research, have come to the conclusion that it pays for them to let you “buy” an item even if your intention is to return it in a few days. They reason that in the end, there are many who will either change their minds and decide to keep the item, or who will forget to return it. Therefore, some stores have a policy that allows you to try and outsmart them by buying an item with the intention of returning it, knowing full well that in the end, many times it is the buyer who is ultimately outsmarted when he fails to return the item.

In conclusion, unless you know for sure that the store has a specific policy that permits the practice of buying something even when the buyer’s intention is to return it, it is forbidden to buy an item with the intention of using it a bit and then returning it.

Footnotes
1.
Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 189:1.
2.
Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat, 232:3.
3.
shulchan Aruch , Choshen Mishpat, 220:8.
4.
Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 232:6.
5.
Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 232:4.
6.
Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 228:4. One may, however, ask the price if his intention is to find out which store is cheapest and then buy it from there.
7.
Leviticus 25:17; see also Shulchan Aruch Harav, Choshen Mishpat, Hilchot Ona U’Geneivat Daat 11-12, 27-28.
8.
See Pischei Choshen, Nezikin 1:1.
9.
See Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 292:1 and Shulchan Aruch Harav, Choshen Mishpat, Hilchot Metziah 27.
Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin responds to questions for Chabad.org's Ask the Rabbi service.
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Paul Sterling, AK January 27, 2015

Perhaps I missed it in prior comments, but this essentially is the "Shop Keeper's Law." It is not specifically in the Torah nor the TaNak, but is in the Talmud Tractate Bava Metzia 4:10. Reply

Feigele Boca Raton FL January 18, 2015

your actions will be on your conscience! Let your conscience dictate your behavior! you will enjoy it for a moment, but then will feel guilty for a very very long time. Is it worth it? Reply

dale VA, USA January 17, 2015

UNLESS ''In conclusion, unless you know for sure that the store has a specific policy that permits the practice of buying something even when the buyer’s intention is to return it, it is forbidden to buy an item with the intention of using it a bit and then returning it.''
In that same vein of thought I imagine I can murder someone as long as they say it is OK. Now I know the Jewish view on euthanasia. Reply

Richard Smythe jax., Fl. via chabadbeaches.com January 17, 2015

purchase, intending to return If I 'purchase' an item with the hidden intent of returning it,,, I have born a 'false witness' to the retailer. Entering an agreement to purchase, am I not making a vow to purchase and thereafter own the item? Reply

David James Warsaw January 16, 2015

What's love got to do, got to do with it? Apart from the arguments mentioned so far, there is also the safety net argument of love to one's neighbour. Is this something you would do to someone you loved? Now if the person told the store person, knowing that that was the owner not just an employee on commissions, "I'm fully intending to bring this back" and the store owner said, "ok, I'll do you this favour in the hope that you'll buy from me a different time" and there was a genuine obligation set up which the borrower acknowledged and intended to honour, then in that case the borrower and the lender are still acting with brotherly love to each other, in fact the brotherly love is deepened because a trust has been set up. That requires openness, honesty and integrity. In those cases, whether love has been kept in the equation or love has departed, that in my humble hope is what Hashem would take account of. Reply

Joshua Morgan Riverside, CA January 15, 2015

Trade value I found this thought provoking on several levels. I often ponder how the simple functions are carried out, and simple trade to me never involves return. We have come so very far to elucidate specifics of what could no longer be a simple thing. Reply

Debra Fobelle January 15, 2015

The answer I followed in the past, "usually No!" I once got in a big mess, however, when I bought decorative items at a certain chain of stores whose sales managers encouraged me to take things home to see how they looked in the space, & told me I could bring back what I didn't need; merchandise was there 1 day, but may not be the next. I wasn't sure exactly what was going to work in the space, or how much I needed. I was in the process of doing a renovation for a project that I was designing, as an inspiration, to reach out to my community.The situation was complicated because I hired contractors who made me wait for 9 months, a year after I paid them to build the spaces, & at the time, inexperienced me didn't expect to wait longer than the time I had to return what was not needed for the space. I got ahead, moved by poor people walking up & down the street & couldn't reach out to them as I had in the past, because of the construction (not safe).Learned a lot; & won't do this again! Reply

Natalie Kehr London January 15, 2015

Of course it is immoral My definition of a Humanist is someone who is interested in morality, but thinks that you cannot refer to the authority of a holy text when deciding what is moral. I never expected someone to quote Jewish texts to justify such an immoral action. I am reminded that several biblical translations refer to the Israelites "borrowing" valuables from the Egyptians before leaving the country. The Hertz Chumash calls that translation anti-Semitic. Borrowing when you are about to leave a country is actually stealing. I was surprised to find that the JPS Tanach translation a few years ago retains "borrow". My more modern Christian bibles appear to use "ask", though the King James version has "borrow." Reply

KarenJoyceChayaFradleKleinmanBell Riverside, CA USA January 15, 2015

This explains why I always thought it was not kosher. When I first heard of "borrowing" by buying and then returning, something didn't sit will with me on the inside, but I had no idea what made me feel like that. It just wasn't 'kosher". Not right. So, now I know, my beliefs have validity. Thank you so much for a logical and well researched answer. Reply

SERGIO NISKI Sao Paulo - Brazil January 15, 2015

"In general, it is forbidden for one to ask a seller the price of an item if one has absolutely no intention of buying the item.6 Doing so is considered a violation of the prohibition “And you shall not wrong one man his fellow, and you shall fear your G‑d, for I am the L‑rd, your G‑d.”7 By asking the price, you are essentially raising the merchant’s hopes that you are a potential customer, only to dash his hopes when he realizes that you never had any intention to buy anything."

I need to do price research for my business, in the view of what you say above,. how can I do it? Reply

Eric Florida January 15, 2015

Open interpretation... Letter or heart of the "law"? It is my belief that we intrinsically know what a "No questions asked" return policy means. However, I would rather not be presumptuous. Here is the heart of that policy (according to 12 years of retail experience, 11 with Pub1ix): if your purchase fails to perform/provide as reasonably expected, is not what it is said to be/do, is found to be defective (exchange might be a better option here), or if you have regrets (after the fact) about your purchase, you may return it without a litany of questions on a fact-finding mission to determine if your money will be refunded. Ultimately, each will answer to G-d who knows the hearts of men. May we conduct ourselves accordingly! Reply

David Levant Emerson,NJ January 14, 2015

How does one purchase something with intentions to return it? I do not think G-D would "buy" this type of transaction, do you? Reply

Fruma Delray Beach, FL January 14, 2015

"Buying" as a form of theft By asking "permission" here, you show that you already know the answer. Reply

Sarah Masha WB, MI USA January 14, 2015

It seems there is another consideration that hasn't been touched on. Frequently the person selling items like this is on commission. That person will spend time with you, that he could spend with a true customer. He will think he has earned a commission (and has earned it) only to find that there was no commission. Even if you (oddly) try to defeat this by not identifying your salesperson when returning the item the commission will be divided and shares of it will be deducted from all the salespersons' paychecks.

Better to buy a lower grade item you can afford. Better to rent it, some libraries have items like this for just these situations. Or better to find other, better activities for your children to do while travelling. Reply

Anonymous Virginia Beach January 14, 2015

it's simple People, life is complicated enough! Simple things should be kept simple. It is just not RIGHT for anyone to do such things! The Creator always asks us to do right... That's it..!!! Reply

David J James Warsaw, Poland January 14, 2015

Addressing one of the comments I am not Jewish (as an evangelical Christian we take a friendly interest and share a lot of the ideas) however I found the moral teaching in the article to be high, practical and very glorifying to the Creator when a believer puts it into practice.

One fellow commentator raised the point that he knows a store where it is expected that people will unofficially borrow the stock. I think that, given that such a business model would be doomed to failure, what is really going on is that the store has noted that even if it allows this poor behaviour, most people will behave ethically and not abuse the policy. In this case, it is for a believer surely to aspire to be in the ethical group rather than the tolerated, poor behaviour group.

If the business model were - "borrow this for free but if it doesn't come back or comes back broken you owe me for four of them" then that's a different deal. And then either side understands the position they took and carries out the deal as mutually agreed. Reply

Shoshana Jerusalem January 14, 2015

Shocking question I was shocked that a person could even consider buying something with the intention of using it and returning it. Of course that is stealing (or whatever technical name or category you prefer to give it), it is certainly wrong. It says in the Torah "mi devar sheker tirchak" stay away from anything that has to do with falsehood -sheker. Is there anyway you could call that honest? Is it upright? Moral? Or proper role -modeling for children? We are commanded in the Torah to teach our children the Torah way of life "You shall teach them diligently unto thy children". "V'shinantam levanecha" we say it everyday in Shma. Reply

Anonymous UK January 14, 2015

Returned goods 'No Questions Asked' returns policy in many stores presents the buyer with an ethical and moral choice and not with statutory legislation.

The majority of 'No Questions Asked' returns policy DO have conditions - These conditions are not part of the 'No Questions Asked' policy but are conditions of return that every law abiding and morally living person would want to abide by.

Under a 'No Questions Asked' returns policy, if an item is returned because it is not wanted or needed, then it must be returned in such a way that it can be resold as new. If an item is opened and used and found not to be suitable for the purpose it was bought for, then it can also be returned within the stated time period. This returns policy does not affect the statutory rights contained within the guarantee.

To purchase an item with the full intention of using it and then deliberately returning for a refund brings into question a person's ethical and moral upstanding no matter the person's religion. Reply

Carol Anne yaphank ny January 14, 2015

Definitely stealing and very unethical to buy something just to use it temporarily and then return it. I am shocked a religious person would even ask this question. Reply

Anonymous January 14, 2015

Buy to return? Excellent explication, in content, context. The length is just right. Altho it may be obvious, or at least suspicious that there is an ongoing rationalization to justify a wrong doing, this gives an excellent source text. It supports the definition of the action and the intent to be prohibited. The implication, it applies to all, vendors and customers alike. Since the vendor of one is the customer of another vendor or vice versa. Reply

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