How Do I Stop My Customers from Hoarding?

March 18th, 2020 Posted by Ask the Rabbi 30 comments

Dear Rabbi & Susan,

I run the general store in our small town and the coronavirus has impacted supplies of many things that people want. I recently got in a load of bathroom tissue from my wholesaler and three of my customers came in and between them cleaned me out. They bought it all. I know they are just hoarding it in their basements; it is far more than they usually purchase. I tried to argue with them and I explained that they please should not buy more than they need. When I said that I would limit it to one package per customer, one of them laughed in my face and said he’d just come back with all his cousins. (He has a huge family) This crisis is turning my neighbors into people I can barely recognize. And it’s not only toilet paper. 

Here’s my question. Can I raise prices to encourage people to buy only what they actually need and to stop hoarding? I’m frightened they’ll slander me as a price gouger. My supplier doesn’t know when my next shipment will arrive, and even worse, my supplier says that they don’t yet know what my price will be. So at the moment, I am selling merchandise for possibly less than I will need to pay to replace my inventory. 

Can I raise my prices?

Yours sincerely,

Joe F.

Dear Joe,

We sympathize with your predicament. There is little question that right now, greater suffering is being inflicted by fear, panic, and hysteria than by the virus itself. We do want to point out that while you have unfortunately seen some bad behavior, that is not universal. Our synagogue, along with many other groups in America, has organized phone trees to make sure that the elderly and those who live alone receive daily phone calls and have people shopping for and helping them. Even in supermarkets, we have seen examples of people helping each other. Unnerving times like this tend to exaggerate character traits and serve as a litmus test for all of us.

Let us examine your question through the lens of God’s word alone and try to ignore the cultural implications. There are harsh words in English that have been used for centuries to hurl slurs against business professionals. These include price gouger, slumlord, and profiteer. Occasionally they are legitimate charges leveled at people who are practicing business in styles not intended by God in His plan for human economic interaction. Other times they are used by sickly envious people imbued with socialistic thinking who flail about their own lack of industry by using these words to attack the more successful whom they envy.

The Biblical origin of our sense of morality when it comes to pricing goods is this verse: 

When you sell merchandise to your neighbor or buy any from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another. (Leviticus 25:14)

Ancient Jewish wisdom explains that this very brief Divine dictum means that God forbids us from overcharging or underpaying for a commodity when the other party is unaware of the value. For example, every store in town is selling TP for $1.25 a roll but your store is, let’s say, near a hospital so you count on people being stressed and rushed and you charge $2:50 even though your own operating costs are no higher than the store ten blocks away. You’ve just violated Leviticus 25:14. 

This principle does not apply to real estate or to rare items like antiques or collectibles. This is because there is no ‘market’ in those things; they are each unique. This Biblical rule does apply, as we said earlier when other stores are all selling the commodity for about $1 and you try to get a less knowledgeable or more harried customer to give you $3. That is a swindle and is prohibited. Obviously, this does not apply if your store is subject to considerable “shrinkage” (a euphemism for extensive shoplifting) so that vandalism and theft have raised your insurance costs, or if your store is in a higher-priced rental location or your jurisdiction mandates a high minimum wage. In other words, there may well be reasons that you have to charge a higher price and that is valid. 

However, in today’s coronavirus circumstances where other stores do not have the merchandise, there is no established ‘normal’ price, and therefore no Biblical rules about your prices. This means that you may raise your prices. However, there is more to your question.

If you do raise your prices in order to be able to replace your inventory and also in order to discourage customers from buying your products and either hoarding or reselling them out of the back of their cars at inflated prices, you may come in for vile criticism and really unpleasant ostracism for you and your family. You did say you live in a small town. People you think of as friends might accuse you of gaining from the hardships of others.

On the other hand, if you don’t raise prices you may be encouraging hoarding and scalping while also harming your own ability to remain profitable when you have to replace inventory at new, but currently unknown prices. You are also depriving some of your fellow citizens of bathroom tissue, to use that example. They might be people who’d happily have rather paid $2:50 a roll than have none. Meanwhile, cartons are sitting unused in the basements of three homes.

As far as people accusing you of gaining from the hardships of others, that is another odious example of cunningly using language to stigmatize. When I sell a pair of new shoes to my customer, I make a profit because my customer suffered the hardship of having his old shoes wear out. When I summon a plumber to ease my hardship of a leaking pipe damaging my parquet floor, he indeed does gain. My lawyer gains from my hardship of needing a contract reviewed. When my wife hands over money to our local grocer, it is because we are suffering the hardship of an empty pantry. And so on.

So what are you to do? We think you might consider taking the following three steps:

1) Raise your prices to cover your best guess at the cost of inventory replacement.

2) Place signs in your store indicating that you have had to raise prices because your costs have gone up but that you kept it to an absolute minimum. Let regular customers know that if they are experiencing hardship you will do your best to alleviate their stress.

3) Restrict quantities of purchases and explain that until this crisis has passed you are limiting customers to one item per person or whatever number you choose.

We think that most people will be understanding and sympathetic.

Wishing you good health and the ability to continue serving your community with your best ability and judgment.

Sincerely,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

Many of you are spending more time at home and want to use this opportunity (as unwelcome as it may be) in a positive way. To this end, we are placing our entire store* at 15% off and hope these teachings can provide enlightenment and comfort during these difficult times.

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30 comments

Janet says:

Perhaps he can also limit the amount of inventory he displays on the shelves of the most hoarded items so that one or two belligerent people cannot clean out his whole stock at once. When these customers leave, he can restock.

Al H. says:

Sharp. “Ounce of prevention worth a pound of cure.”
A wise king knows that status of his flocks, even out in the field.” (a paraphrase)

Matthew says:

I thought the same thing, perhaps restock the inventory on ‘fast moving’ items every 3-4 hrs. or so, versus only when the stock gets there. If it is in demand it will sell out whenever it’s there, but more people will be able to buy it.

This is a great article point, there is nothing wrong with profiting, the store owner has to pay his utilities, workers, supply costs, etc., and still needs money to live. If it is harder to acquire stock and it costs more, then naturally it should sell for more, but of course we all don’t want to pay more than we have to… Lord help us.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Dear Matthew–
One of the problems with your prescription, as any shopkeeper will tell you, is that nothing sparks the panic-let’s-buy instinct as only a few items left on the shelf. Thus, you get exactly what you were hoping to avoid.
One very important point of which I wish to remind you is that there is nothing wrong with profiting, as you say, but not because the store owner has needs. Paying someone on the basis of what we perceive to be his needs is evil and Marxist. We pay someone because of the good he does us; the benefits he provides and the services he furnishes us. There is no morality in paying less to the person who has saved and invested and thus has a small fortune in his bank than to the other person doing the same job but who has consumed and spent and has nothing. How much someone ‘needs’ is irrelevant to my calculation of how much I’d be willing to pay him for whatever he brings me.
I hope that helps
Cordially
RDL

Sam says:

Maybe you could keep the items being hoarded in the back and have customers request the max number that you will sell to a customer.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Dear Sam–
Please meet Gina and Linda nearby!
Cordially
RDL

Vienna Brewer says:

It’s an infectious hysteria, isn’t it? And seems to have become a competition. My husband got caught up in it, and I finally had to tell him to cool it because he would not be bringing toilet paper home, but definitely germs would be coming back with him for free. He agreed and stopped going to see the drama first hand which has ramped up in Southern California to police and firefighters being sent to the groceries.
We both agreed that this self quarantine was like watching the South get ready for a hurricane. My storm prep check list keeps coming into my mind. Surely people won’t get so hysterical that I will be filling the bathtub for toilet flushing? Will it really get that bad?
I’m really uncomfortable with the thought that I am actually preparing for people’s bad behavior not a true emergency. How do I deal with this feeling?

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Dear Vienna–
When the chips are down, people’s natures become exposed. So let’s all try maintain our civilization. Passover is 3 weeks away and I am going to issue shortly an authentic guide to bringing the Seder alive in your own home because Passover and the Book of Exodus has valuable meaning for everyone particularly in times when we are being ‘enslaved’ by a spreading virus and it is possible that we are more imperiled by the virus of hysteria than by the virus of COVID 19
Cordially
RDL

Gina Cleveland says:

Don’t fully stock the shelves. Keep it in the back and slowly bring things out. And if people ask specifically and there is none of the shelves send someone back to retrieve one package. Customers shouldn’t be able to always see your whole stock.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Dear Gina–
Please meet Linda. If this doesn’t prove that great minds think alike, then I don’t know what would.
Cordially
RDL

Linda says:

In addition to establishing limits, here’s another possibility – Don’t display all of your inventory. If possible, keep some of the hard to acquire items out of sight and periodically restock the shelves as they are depleted. That way, no one or two people can take all of it at once.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Dear Linda–
Please meet Gina. You two should go into business together. Great minds and all that..
Cordially
RDL

James says:

The COVID-19 is indeed a terrible thing, but not as terrible as fear and widespread panic make it. Is it not a sad day in America when people are ruled by their fears, when innocuous necessities such as paper towels and toilet paper must be subject to access controls like tobacco products and prescription drugs?

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Dear James,
We agree. Please hear my overview of the corona situation here: http://rabbidaniellapin.libsyn.com/corona-virus-covid-19-the-real-story-how-to-stay-safe-from-the-real-threat
Cordially
RDL

Lia Williams says:

Dear Rabbi and Susan,
Thank you for talking about this problem.
Every day a local Costco is sold out of many of the basics within two hours of the store opening. Other large stores such as Aldi and Publix are unable to keep products in stock and these stores have long lines to enter the store. Arguments in line bordering on physical altercations are beginning to happen, people are wearing gloves, face masks and in some cases hazmat suits. People are scared to get hair cuts because they wonder if the salon is safe. This is worse than hurricane season, people are beginning to empty stores of all products. Some stores are limiting canned goods to four cans per person and limiting paper products to two per person.
What does ancient Jewish wisdom say about these times?
Respectfully,
Lia

matthew gabor says:

In the area I live in it is the same story with the toilet paper. Then a rumor was spreading that all grocery stores would be closing. Then came a run on Gun Stores. People are purchasing guns with no firearms training and most of the stores are out of ammo! The people interviewed on the news state they just want to protect themselves because they fear people will break into their homes to get food! I am praying for calm and an end to the virus.

Lace says:

I’m not a store owner, ( so from a customers perspective) it does seem to be a really good idea to just lightly stock shelves. Plus the signage idea is great! Perhaps a nice message that reminds others to be courteous shoppers to each other by limiting the amount hey are buying , and reminding shoppers there is enough to go around for everyone.

James says:

Dear Rabbi And Ms. Susan… I do NOT ask you to publish this, especially if not appropriate. But this is to you, to show you how I am trying to help promote your vital message. Here follows an excerpt from my mailing to a very dear person who unfortunately seems to have contracted the TDS virus (‘Trump Derangement Syndrome’):
For decades I believed that it might be beneficial for a war to visit our blessed shores. Whatever the cost, it would knit us together and galvanize us as a united nation, in spite of all differences, as were Londoners during the Blitz. We witnessed this phenomenon on a transient scale during 9/11, but this was all too quickly forgotten. I never thought the next great challenge would be a biological plague of menacing proportions. If this continues, perhaps it will convince members of a certain Party to withdraw their crania from their rectums and stop spraying muck and false accusations against the President and get with his program to save the nation. Cleanse the human muck and disease from megalopolis ‘Sanctuary City’ streets. Close the borders to undocumented freeloaders and marauders carrying infections and cease screaming ‘Racism!’ at the drop of a hat. Our President declared a National Day of Prayer, as did Adams and Lincoln. Biden or Sanders wouldn’t be caught DEAD dropping the name of God. These ‘progressives’ believe God is a relic of superstition leftover from retrograde, worn-out old tribal religions. They want us to worship the false god of Big Government, just like the Communists. Listen to Rabbi Daniel Lapin and return to your Bible. His tradition of Ancient Jewish Wisdom (The Bible as a Life Instruction Manual: how the world really works) explicates the hidden meaning of Nimrod and the Tower of Babel. It will scare you out of your skin. It is very true and threatening today. Enough preaching, already… This is my last word on the subject. I descend my soapbox.

Sonia says:

James, thank you for ascending your soapbox! I agree with your assessment of the current situation. It seems that a certain party which cannot bear our President’s success – especially with the economy – is taking full advantage of an unfamiliar virus to destroy his work. Sadly, aforementioned party does not seem to care (and almost seems proud) that they are also destroying our country.

Andrew says:

I also sympathize with Joe. Most people have no idea what store owners have to go through, so keep serving people and customers will keep coming to you Joe.

Rabbi, thank you for expanding on what Leviticus 25:14 is trying to say to us. When I used to work in technology sales, the concept of “RRP” was well known to no longer truly reflect what the marketplace was really doing.

Also kudos to the people who are making helpful and sensible suggestions. Hopefully there will be more of you around to see people through the current situation.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Dear Andrew,
Yes, Recommended Retail Price is an obsolete phrase. In only a few industries do sources still exert price controls on retail. Mrs. Lapin and I worked long and hard on responding to Joe’s question and we really empathized with his quandary.
Thanks for writing
Cordially
RDL

David Alt says:

While taking advantage of a shortage is distasteful and the limits of propriety in a changing market can be hard to pin down, it strikes me as unfair to the merchants their “upside” is so limited during shortages, but there is no protection for their “downside” resulting from changing competition, unexpected surplusses or disruptive technological changes. The seller must take the full hit with no help from his customers or the government. Unless he’s a very big business, of course.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

A really important point, David,
Thank you. Your point applies at all times, not only during crises and emergencies. Which is why generally outside interference in the private deal arrangements agreed upon by two free citizens ill serves God’s plan for human economic interaction. Governmental price controls have usually been disastrous. A merchant should and usually does, price with risk as one of his factors. Restaurants charge what they do partially because they know how much food they will have to trash at the end of the night.
Cordially
RDL

J. Parsons says:

He should do like pharmacies do with some drugs; document who buys what and how much. Let the customers know this is a condition of being allowed to purchase the items and the info may be made available to the press. Many people will fear public shaming and will limit their purposes so as to not appear selfish or crazy. And those who don’t care – let them deal with the consequences.

Mark says:

For almost three weeks the supermarket where I most often shop has been totally cleaned out of many items by the time I get there. I have asked the managers to impose limits on the quantities people can buy, but they refuse to do so, refuse to accept any responsibility, which to me means a callous disregard for all their customers who leave with nothing, while enabling the selfish and uncaring customers.

Earlier this week I saw the shelves for eggs were empty, as usual. Just then an employee came out from the back room with a large cart filled with cartons of eggs. As soon as he started to place them on the shelves, what I can only call a SWARM of people surrounded him, seizing the eggs in a kind of frenzy. I thought, “Well, I guess I better grab a carton while I can.” Then I saw it was even worse than I supposed. People were not just taking a carton or two for themselves. They were grabbing every carton they could get their hands on, filling up their entire shopping carts with eggs. I managed to get my one carton, and fled, disgusted by their behavior. The eggs were the only thing I bought. Everything else on my list is gone. I’m sorry to say it, but I am not seeing many examples of people helping or being considerate of others.

Tony says:

Dear Rabbi and Susan,
Would you like to explain the biblical wisdom of governments loading us, the people, with massive unsustainable debts in order to overcome this problem, please?
Thank you in anticipation.
Tony

Dale Trembley says:

I would be very interested in a further discussion of why you state that real estate and antiques would not be included under the biblical principle for the reason of there being not market’ for them. I am missing the understanding of the mental ‘shorthand’ you used when making that statement. It is a jump I can’t seem to make on my own.

Also, as a separate question, are there not slumlords and aren’t people swindled out of the value of their property, real estate or antiques, by the unscrupulous and greedy who take advantage of the ignorant?

Thank you as always for your insight!

Very best regards,

Dale

Dale says:

Correction: no market.

Philip says:

Hello Rabbi Daniel,
I just wanted to share a quote that
seems appropriate for these times
and the owner of the rural store
who sent you a question at “Ask
the Rabbi.”
“Crisis does not change people; it
reveals them.”
I do not know the author. You and
Susan have been a blessing to me
over many years. Thanks for your
faithfulness.
Shalom,
Brother Philip, TSSF

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Very true, Philip-
Yes, very true.
Thank you for your uplifting words
Cordially
RDL

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