This week the planet Venus transited the sun, meaning that Venus passed between the sun and the Earth, allowing people to see what appeared to be a black spot moving across the surface of the sun. Of course, even grade school children know you can hurt your eyes by looking directly at the sun, so people used various devices to watch the event safely.
Someone I know asked me if I had seen the event, and excitedly told me that he had done so. I asked him how he watched it without hurting his eyes, and he replied that he had purchased a welding helmet. Then, he casually mentioned that he plans to return the helmet to the store now.
There is nothing wrong with the helmet. He simply purchased it without intending to keep it. When I suggested it might be wrong for him to purchase something, use it for the purpose he had intended, and then return it, he replied, “But it’s not like I welded anything with it on.” No, he didn’t weld anything, but he did use it, and it worked.
This reminds me of a story I heard back when I worked for I.Magnin, an upscale department store which has since gone out of business. The Beverly Hills store catered to many of the Hollywood elite. The manager of the store told me about a celebrity (who I won’t name here), who was notorious for “buying” expensive dresses (by expensive I mean on the order of $5,000 each), wearing them once, and then returning them for a full refund.
The store manager said she was watching the Johnny Carson show one evening, and it just so happened this same celebrity was a guest. The celebrity was wearing a dress she had recently “purchased” from I.Magnin, and the store manager knew she intended to return it.
So the next day, the manager stationed herself at the front of the store, and when this celebrity walked in with the dress, the manager gushed, “Oh, I saw you wearing this dress on Johnny Carson last night. You looked fabulous! Of course you need the dress dry cleaned. I will take care of that for you, and I’ll have it delivered to your home by this evening.”
Thus, the manager gracefully let the celebrity know that the jig was up – she demonstrated that she was aware of this habit of buying dresses, wearing them and returning them, and subtly let her know it was not going to be allowed to continue. But she did it without making an outright accusation, and in a way that didn’t embarrass the celebrity.
Ok, a dress can only be dry cleaned and worn so many times. If you “buy” a dress, wear it, have it cleaned, and then return it, the dress has suffered some physical wear and tear. But what’s the big deal in the case of the welding helmet? Unless the guy sweats excessively, it didn’t need to be cleaned, and it didn’t suffer any harm.
First of all, while the helmet was out of the store being used in this manner, it wasn’t available for anyone who wanted to actually purchase it and do some welding. Therefore, the store may have lost business while the helmet wasn’t in stock. It’s possible the potential buyer won’t frequent this store in the future, now that they have gotten the impression that the store isn’t well stocked.
Furthermore, what if a bunch of people had this idea of “buying” welding helmets for the viewing and then returning them afterward? This store, and maybe others in the area, would “sell” a bunch of these helmets. Seeing their stock depleted, they would order more.
Then, just about the time the reorders arrive, the stores get in a bunch of returned helmets. Suddenly, the stores have twice as many welding helmets as they need. Their money is tied up unnecessarily in helmets for an unknown period of time. Maybe they even end up having to sell some at a discount, just to get rid of the excess. In other words, they suffer a financial loss.
Even if the scenarios above didn’t actually play out, Jewish tradition tells us it is wrong to mislead people. Specifically, we are not supposed to mess with another person’s livelihood. For example, we are not supposed to enter and browse in a store if we know we are not going to buy anything, because it would be cruel to falsely get the hopes up of the store owner, who needs to sell things to make a living.
It troubles me that people like this celebrity and my acquaintance don’t understand why it is not okay to buy something, use it, and then return it for a full refund. Society only works if we follow the rules and treat each other justly. Pretending to buy something just so you can con the store into giving you a free rental is not my idea of acceptable behavior.