The Jewish Ethicist: Is the Seller Taking Advantage of Me?
I ordered labels without asking the price -- now the seller has me over a barrel!
Q. I ordered 1000 personalized address labels and left a deposit, without asking the final cost. When I came to pick up the order, I was scandalized by the seemingly outrageous price and refused to accept them. Now I feel guilty. Do I have to send the storeowner the balance? CD, USA
A. You're certainly in an awkward position. If you pay the full amount, you feel that the seller is taking advantage of you; if you don't pay, then you're taking advantage of him! Now it's too late for the best advice: never let these situations arise. Whether you are buying or selling, never let work be performed unless it's clear to both sides how much it's going to cost.
Since the work has already been done, it's clear that you have some obligation to the store. It's not fair to leave him with nothing because you were both negligent in clarifying the agreement in advance.
On the other hand, the fact that you didn't check up on the price beforehand doesn't mean that you have to pay any price the seller demands. While a seller can charge a fully informed customer any price he wants, he can't expect to foist an outrageous price on an unsuspecting shopper.
If the store has a clearly displayed policy on these matters, then it's best to follow it. Perhaps store policy is that the deposit is meant to cover exactly these situations, and you don't owe any additional amount!
If you discover that the “outrageous” price you were asked is actually about what other merchants charge, then the best course is just to pay the money. In this case, the seller had good reason to believe that you knew in advance what his price was, since other firms ask a similar amount. If the amount is small, you are also well advised to just pay the money and not create a big fuss just because you can't bear the thought that you were taken advantage of.
But ultimately, your obligation to the seller is to reach a fair settlement -- not to accept any price he demands. You should suggest a compromise; if the seller doesn't accept one, make it clear that you are willing to cooperate in reaching a settlement through discussion, arbitration, Beit Din or (if a non-Jew is involved) small claims court.
Make sure your offer doesn't sound like a threat. The seller should understand that you are genuinely interested in reaching a fair solution, and not warning him that if he doesn't negotiate with you he'll be left with nothing.
A cardinal principle of Jewish faith is that we cannot obtain atonement from God until we seek forgiveness from those whom we wronged. But this doesn't mean that the wrongdoer is now hostage to the victim's demands. Rather, it means we have to be sincerely willing to hear the claims of the injured party, and to resolve them in a fair and prompt manner.
SOURCES: Ahavat Chesed note end of chapter I:10; Shulchan Arukh Orach Chaim 606:1 and Mishna Berura 606:1.
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