The Ethics of Online Shopping
by Rabbi Aron Moss
Here's the scenario. I walk into an electronics store and ask the sales staff for advice on which digital camera is best for my needs. The guy spends half an hour explaining the pros and cons of all the different models. I say thanks and walk out of the store, go on the internet and order the exact camera he recommended, but much cheaper from an online store. Am I being dishonest?
"Thou shalt not steal" does not only apply to outright thievery. The Torah warns against stealing people's minds, which means misleading them through words or actions, in order to gain some personal benefit.
Say you are getting married, and you send an invitation to an acquaintance who you know won't attend the wedding. If your true motive is just to earn a gift in return, and you don't really want the person to come to the wedding, then that's stealing their mind for selfish gain. But if you are extending the invitation to honour them, or so they don't feel insulted, then that's fine. In such a case, you are not taking, you are giving. It all depends on your intent.
The Talmud prohibits asking a shopkeeper the price of an item that you have no intention to buy. You are stealing his mind, by making him think he has a customer. It would seem that the same applies to your camera shopping expedition. The sales guy invested half an hour in you, thinking he has a buyer. If you never intended to purchase the camera in that store, you stole his mind, as he gave you his time for nothing.
Now you could argue that your case is different to the Talmudic one. The guy who served you doesn't own the store, he is just in sales. It makes no difference to him if he made the sale or not, his job is to answer customers' questions. Ok, but perhaps he gets commission on each sale, so he wouldn't have bothered wasting his time on you if he knew there was no chance of sealing the deal. And even if not, are you not stealing from the shop owner, who pays his sales team to serve genuine customers?
You might say that you would be more than happy to purchase the camera from the store, if they would match the online price. So you weren't deceiving, just comparative shopping. That may indeed be the case. Only you and G-d know.
In most questions of right and wrong, actions count more than intentions. But when it comes to stealing minds, the action is always defensible. Your intentions should be too.