Question: May I browse a store’s showroom if I don’t intend to buy there, but from another store or over the internet?
Answer: Just as it is prohibited to cheat a person monetarily (ona’ah), it is prohibited to taunt him emotionally (ona’as devarim). For example, you may not ask a store owner how much an item costs when you have no potential interest in buying it. Asking the price gives the seller the impression that you might buy the item, and he remains disappointed when you don’t. It also distracts him when he could deal with other customers. (C.M. 228:1,4)
Walking into a store similarly raises the seller’s expectation that you might buy, albeit to a lesser degree, and he is disappointed when you walk out without buying. Therefore, it is inappropriate to browse if you have no interest at all in buying there.
It is permissible to browse, though, if there is a possibility that you might buy there. Any store owner knows that potential customers comparison shop and might decide not to buy there. (Pischei Choshen, Ona’ah 15 nt. 15) It is also permissible if you ask the store owner up front, “Do you mind if I browse the products without buying?”
Furthermore, browsing in a large store full of customers is permissible if you do not distract the salespeople, since the owner or salespeople do not note an individual person who enters and browses. Similarly, it is permissible to browse in stores that emphasize feature displays, such as FAO Schwarz, since the owner encourages people to view the display and does not necessarily expect a sale.
Finally, the prohibition of ona’as devarim applies only to a fellow Jewish storeowner. (Rama 228:1)
Authored by Rabbi Meir Orlian
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