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.

 

 

 

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