Thinking Out Loud

February 20, 2018

The Parable of the Shopkeeper

Once there was a shopkeeper who sold very expensive widgets, some of the best widgets you could buy. While people came from all directions to purchase his widgets, he had only two customers who he would consider regulars and they would both arrive every other Friday.

One came in usually shivering in the cold. His cloth coat just wasn’t enough to keep the winter temperature from getting through. Fussing with a packages of tissues for a runny nose, he would usually buy two or three or sometimes four widgets, paying the price that was on the sign above the counter. Occasionally, he would say he was buying four, only to find himself short on cash, and have to put one back.

The other arrived in a luxury car, the car was obviously quite warm, because he never shivered. He would buy in multiples of ten; usually sixty, eighty or a hundred and he never paid the price on the sign. Instead, the shopkeeper would sell him product at a generous discount, or he would charge him for 60 but give him 20 free, for a total of 80.

Until one day.

The shopkeeper had been listening to the words of the one called The Master or sometimes called The Teacher. He had some interesting stories, but none about shopkeeping or widgets or retail pricing. But there was a tone or a tenor to his teaching that seemed to reach beyond the specific stories and have all manner of ethical ramifications.

So one of the alternate Fridays rolled around and the first customer came in and asked for four widgets. “This is your lucky day;” he told him. “You only need to pay for two and you get two free.” The customer was quite pleased. He asked if he could pay for three and get six. “Absolutely;” said the shopkeeper, adding with a wink; “Remember, I said today is your lucky day. But we have another lucky day coming up two weeks today!”

Then the second regular customer rolled up in his expensive car. “I’ll take a hundred widgets today;” he said; so the merchant went to the cash register and keyed in 100 at the price on the sign above the counter and told him the total.

“Wait, that’s not right;” said the wealthy customer, “That’s full price.”

“Today;” said the shopkeeper,  “We’re offering generous discounts to people who truly can barely afford to buy, but people of means like yourself, are able to pay full price and today are paying full price.”

The customer was in a state of shock and —

–and what do you think happened next?  …

Three days ago, we asked the question if offering certain bonuses to some customers but not other customers was the type of thing that Jesus had in mind when he gave the Sermon on the Mount and other teachings, inspiring James to write about what we call The Sin of Partiality.

My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

The gospel is all about inclusion. Paul wrote to the Romans, “Accept the one whose faith is weak,”and while he was speaking to something specific, accepting the one whose pocketbook is weak is also a good fit.

The widget salesman’s decision to rethink who was getting preferential treatment in his shop was well founded; it was a very Jesus thing to do.

But the retail economy does that. It rewards volume buyers. The grocery store near our house offers “multi pricing;” giving those who buy two (or four) a much, much better price than those who buy one (or two). It’s unfair to those who live alone such as singles or seniors; or people on fixed income; or couples where one has a diet restriction that means they can’t share the same meal items or meal ingredients.

My wife and I automatically boycott “multi” offers, which is hard because they are many each week.

A couple of full disclosures are necessary here.

First, I own and manage a retail store and we do have a year-round “Buy 4, Get 1 Free” program that covers well over half the items in our store. It’s flexible, there are modifications throughout the year, and I don’t think it excludes people from the margins, but at the first sign of complaint, I would sit down and talk with them and work something out.

Second, we do have a situation from time to time involving one or two people who are like the second customer in today’s opening story. We appreciate being able to participate on volume deals. I think we are able to obtain competitive prices. They might feel they’re doing us a favor, or supporting us in an industry that is often in survival mode. We feel we’re helping them get pricing that is compatible with what they have already seen online. Sometimes there are complications in these orders, and then we have to eat some extra expenses. There are days I’m not sure who is blessing who, or if it’s totally mutual. But I often think about the principle behind the story above and wonder if we’re doing right. I don’t think saying, ‘Today you’re paying list price for all these items’ is a viable option in this case. But I fret these issues.

Also, we have a policy to never offer to one person a deal we’re not prepared to offer to anyone making a purchase at a similar quantity. Or even if they aren’t a similar quantity. The last such deal involved 40 units of an item, but I ordered 45 and sold the extra 5 to 3 different individuals for the same price as the larger customer had paid for the 40. It seemed like something right to do.

In the story, it’s pointed out that The Master aka The Teacher doesn’t say anything directly about retail marketplace ethics, though he wasn’t very charitable to some profiteers at the Temple. But the key word is directly. I think Jesus sets us up with other ethical teaching that asking the proverbial ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ question in a wide variety of situations isn’t usually a stretch…

…The story is all mine, as far as I know, so don’t go searching online for the ending. If you have one, feel free to leave a comment.




December 23, 2017

A Retail Celebration of the Birth of our Lord

Filed under: Christianity, Christmas — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 10:16 am

Reading the Retail comic helps keep me sane at this time of year.

This is the 23rd year that our celebration of the birth of Christ has been directly tied to the operation of a retail store. While this is somewhat of a full-time occupation, I am only present in the physical location for 14-16 hours weekly, which means that while we are immersed in the running of it, I can also observe it with a degree of detachment.

My blog also offers me a much wider perspective, or at least an escape.

In those 23 Christmases there have been good years and bad years. This is one of the bad ones. We are far from meeting our sales target for December — everything started unwinding in the 3rd week of November — although we are are current with all but one supplier. That we offer faith-focused, Bible-based, potentially life changing products might justify all the effort somehow — make it seem like a higher, nobler purpose than regular retail — we are still caught up in the notion that the recognition of the incarnation of the 2nd Person of the Trinity is marked by the exchanging of fashion, appliances and electronics.

Obviously, we want people to consider the eternal value of the products we represent.

I am able to set this little business aside at the end of the day, enjoy a beautifully cooked supper my wife prepares, watch a little television and then head off to bed for some end-of-day reading and sleep. But like the proverbial albatross, the store is ever-present. Like the dependent child, it requires constant care and feeding.

I would love to simply ignore Christmas altogether. Not the incarnation part, the rest of it.

The last 23 years have robbed me a little of the joy of Christmas music. In the past few weeks where I’ve been needed at the shop, I played Wow Hymns. It sounds Christmasy and besides, many people ignore the in-store music. Yesterday, it was a 6-month old bootlegged copy of the 20 The Countdown Magazine radio show.

I do enjoy giving.

I’m looking forward to seeing some pleasantly surprised look on my wife’s face when she opens my gifts. Ditto the kids. Giving is part of the Advent/Christmas narrative. Giving is a good practice; I would argue it should be among the list of spiritual practices and disciplines.

Part of me however, would like to dial it all back a notch.

I don’t want to be part of one of those sects where Christmas is simply ignored. That swings the pendulum too far the other way. I like the tasteful decorations that adorn the sanctuary in one of the two churches where I worship. I do want to sing some carols tomorrow. I hope, in all the modern worship, we still do that.

But I don’t want an extravaganza.

That’s hard to write, considering I spent my formative spiritual years in Canada’s first megachurch, and was part of the annual Living Christmas Tree production; complete with all the lights and volume. While it wasn’t the Disney fireworks — I’ve experienced those twice — it was for woman I spoke with after the ‘show’ a case of sensory overload. She knew she needed to make her way back to parking lot and get in her car and leave, but she was somewhat overcome by the energy of the production. Why do we feel we need to do that? (See, for example this video posted this morning at Internet Monk.)

Again, the retail side of Christmas leaves me scrambling next week to pick up the pieces.

We need to decide where we’re going. What to offer on sale. What to pack up in boxes. What to plan for the two remaining Christmas seasons on our present lease…if we last that long. Most of all, we need to interpret the unexpected drop in sales over the last five weeks, and what it says about our local Christian community and the nature of our ever-declining industry.

Then we need to get ready for Easter.



November 25, 2014

Holidays and Holy Days are All About Retail Spending

Filed under: economics — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:12 am

Retail 2014 11 23

The war vet said something to the effect that ‘Veterans Day should be about more than just buying a mattress.’

We’ve seen the advertising for Memorial Day or Veterans Day specials on furniture and appliances, and we’ve become accustomed to it.  Nobody blinks an eye. But the day was intended to remember the people who given life and limb; the people who have served to defend the values we hold sacred, not the least of which is freedom.

Then, not more than a handful of years ago, stores wanting to jump the gun on Black Friday started opening the evening of Thanksgiving Day itself. And being open all day followed.

Christmas is next. There can be no denying this. In Canada, the day after Christmas is called Boxing Day and it’s traditionally been a huge draw for consumer electronics and clothing reductions by retailers not wanting to have to count a lot of stock on their December 31st inventory.

While Black Friday’s mentality has now saturated the Canadian retail scene, Boxing Day is still strong, and it’s easy to foresee stores opening the evening of Christmas to beat that rush, though stricter labor laws than apply in the U.S. prevent that from happening in most jurisdictions.

But in the U.S., the economy is King. You can’t do anything to impede business. And no day is sacred, holy or sacrosanct.


The comic above is Retail by Norm Fuenti who frequently looks at this issue from the point of view of the retail staff being denied even the single day with their families. Many are caught in contracts which prevent any days off being taken during a window from now until after January 1st, which includes time off for family crises such as visiting someone out of town who only has days or weeks to live.

December 30, 2008

Shopping for a Bible – May I Take Your Order?

Filed under: bible, Christianity, Christmas, Church, Humor — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 3:50 pm

bible-bookstoreA few days ago in my Christian bookstore industry blog, I told some stories of Christmas shoppers from this year.   But this one, from ten years ago is my all-time favorite:

We’re taught to qualify shoppers needs with a few questions before making recommendations, usually asking things like “Who is it for?” and “Do you have a translation preference?”   I began with the last question first.

She said, “I’m looking for a Bible, but it has to be in one of the very modern, very easy-to-read translations.”

I went to the other question, “Is it for yourself?”

“No;” she replied, “It’s for me.”


Photo:  Store in Durham, North Carolina (which may or may not still be in business, considering their  website has been under construction since January, 2008)

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