A fashionable lady driving a BMW, wearing a funky pair of sunglasses covering her entire face besides her teeth, toting a Prada handbag, pulls up at a store somewhere in Johannesburg. The salespeople in the store see her and hold their head in agony: “Oh no, not that pain again!” Whilst all of them scramble from sight, one murmurs: “The last time she bought a lipstick from me, she sampled 25 different shades, bought one after two hours and returned it after using half the tube after two months.” Another murmured: “The beach thongs were on promotion that day, but she made me phone head office for a R1-50 discount!”
It seems that the Indian habit of asking for discount and our penchant for being difficult customers has finally spread to the entire rainbow nation! But nobody can still beat an Indian in discount. Someone asked Mr Patel: “What’s the time?” He replied: “Its 3:30 PM, but for you its 3:00 PM. I give you 30 minutes discount.”
Are consumers allowed to ask for discount? Definitely yes. Whilst many shopkeepers become offended with this annoying habit which some customers ridiculously even ask on cheap items like pens and pins, but in Islam, the customer has scope to bargain for a better deal. For a transaction to have blessings, both buyer and seller need to be happy. Both need to feel that they received value for their money. In fact, the friendly banter of bargaining sometimes even strengthens the customer-shopkeeper relationship and creates an opportunity for some light-hearted discussion – a much better situation than the cold “price tag” atmosphere found in most supermarkets. If haggling for a few rands here and there secures you a better deal, it is your luck. In many instances, the shopkeeper will actually give a discount to their staff, friends, relatives and loyal customers without their even asking as a token of goodwill. This is a sign of good character. However, in a situation like a supermarket which has fixed prices for basic grocery items, don’t cheapen yourself by asking for a discount – your dignity is not worth the R2-00 you are saving. If you are not happy with the price, simply find another supermarket.
Discounts are helpful and encouraged to the poor in particular as a sign of charity. Our Noble Prophet Muhammad (May Peace Be Upon Him) also asked the Almighty for discount in the skies when 50 salaats (prayers) were prescribed knowing his nation’s weakness and reduced it to five a day. Further, the Almighty Himself gave us a discount when on journey – prayers are half, not maaf (forgiven).
However, before everyone starts thinking of making all the shops bankrupt asking for afslaag or discount, this habit becomes problematic when the customer – due to thinking himself to be important – expects a discount. If it is not granted or if it’s granted below his expectation, he becomes offended. The customer will then use consumer blackmail such as “I’ve supported you from the past 25 years and I think it’s now time to go elsewhere,” or “My sister’s husband and your uncle’s niece were good friends at school way back in the 1970’s.” The scenario becomes worse when rich or influential people, scholars, professionals, and community leaders abuse their position, walk in to a shop and demand either credit, a hefty discount or a price next to nothing – as if they own all the merchandise in the shop and only they have the right to exist. In fact, some people will only shop at places where they get a discount! This is totally selfish. A discount given willingly and one extracted by force is totally different. Such people need to be taught the saying: “live and let live.” In fact, such people are equating their worth to the amount of money they are saving. If they saved R100-00 on a deal and are kidnapped thereafter, their worth will only be R100-00!
Our Noble Prophet Muhammad (May Peace Be Upon Him) had a habit that will do us good to imbibe. He (May Peace Be Upon Him) never expected things for free, nor did he fix a price that was not agreeable to the seller. In fact, our Noble Prophet would always give more than the price asked in order to gladden the heart of the seller and to win his soul. To repeat this amazing fact, he (May Peace Be Upon Him) would always give more than the price asked. The two orphans, Sahl and Suhail, offered their plot of land free of charge to him in order to construct Masjid al-Nabawi in Madinah, but he did not agree to deprive two orphans of their source of income. Even the camel which Sayyadina Abu Bakr prepared for him on his secret flight (hijrah) from Makkah to Madinah was only accepted after Sayyadina Abu Bakr agreed on a price. It is for this reason that all people, even non-Muslims, would anxiously wait for the best of creation to do a deal with them.
But the shock is far from over. If our consumers are guilty of abusing their privileges, many huge businesses are guilty of the same crime, albeit on a bigger scale. Due to their huge buying power, they demand such low prices from their suppliers that it sometimes become unviable for them to operate. Having then flooded the market with goods at cost price, they would place the money in a 30-day call account, collect the interest and then settle the account. This is besides the “kickback” they would be expecting at the end of the financial year. In order to further reduce prices, some would employ foreigners whom they can underpay, some would stock goods for export (on which no VAT is paid) or worse still, buy back-door goods, whilst some would package fake washing powder in branded packaging just to keep the edge. Many other “mafia” business techniques are used – some which may be technically legal – but is aimed, not at giving consumers the best deal, but at “wiping out the competitor” or “entirely dominating the market.” Some businesses will actually foolishly operate at a loss for a time just to suffocate their competitors, in the hope of surviving the storm until just after their competitor closes down.
Many successful businessmen walk home daily with their pockets filled with gold, but they will still be uncertain of whether they will have a plate of food the next day or not. They will block companies from supplying their competitors with goods, steal their staff in order to cripple their operation, and even sell someone their business with the intention of opening the exact shop on the next block after three months. Indeed some of the super wealthy are so afraid of poverty that they think without doing a crooked deal, they will not be a success. Some millionaires, who are in a position to help others out of their financial woes, actually make their millions by mercilessly buying out struggling businesses for a dime and then re-selling them for a pound. What a shame on them!
Businesses who routinely engage in vicous “price wars,” especially in December and April, not only want the best deal, but they want the only deal. They don’t only want some profit, but they want all the profits. For them it is not “live and let live,” but “dog eats dog.” Their huge balance sheets delude them in to thinking that they hold the key to the Reserve bank of God, whereas they are just heartless aliens whose only function is to provide much-needed employment to their staff at the expense of their own health, heart and hereafter. Although consumers may benefit from this ruthless competition, but their unseen losses in the form of huge medical bills, fees for their children’s drug rehabilitation programmes, labour disputes etc. all bear the mark of money huge in quantity, but little in blessings.
Such people who take the concept of discount to a new level will surely get a dose of humanity by visiting the various markets of the Middle-East. Each market will have 100’s of shops selling exactly the same wares, but all would go home at night satisfied. I once asked such a stallholder: “Don’t you feel insecure that you have a food outlet and next to you are hundreds of other people also selling food?” “Not at all,” he smiled: “The more food outlets there are, the more people from out of town will come and buy. They will get a better a variety and will always come back. There is something for everybody in God’s distribution.”
A chapter in the Qur‘an has been named after those who indulge in transactions in which they only desire the benefit of a transaction, and not the opposite party. The Almighty says in the opening verses of chapter 83 (Al-Mutaffifeen – those who defraud by giving less in weight and measure) by saying: “Woe be to the fraudsters; those who, when they have to receive weight or measure, demand it in full; And when they have to give full weight and measure, they give less. Do they not know that they will resurrected one day (for reckoning)?”
An interesting discussion arises from the above discussion – a discussion that everyone should grasp the importance of. How does one price one’s goods or what profit margins are acceptable. The general rule of the thumb is that necessities such as food, education, water, electricity, fuel, fertilisers, medicines and transport should be as cheap as possible. However, in today’s time, many of the above items are seen to be over-priced. Since everyone is dependent on them, the market is being exploited for the benefit of a small group of greedy and corrupt people. Huge corporations have been found to fix prices of basic items such as bread and fertilisers, whilst the price of electricity, transport and fuel has today become unbearable. Decent medical treatment and schooling has become the privilege of the rich whilst the banks ensure that the poor remain always at the mercy of their masters. As Muslims, we do not follow this parasitical and oppressive western model in our businesses, unless of course, if you are parasitical and oppressive yourself.
So whilst the necessities should be basically priced, more durable items such as clothing, furniture, textiles and jewellery could have a higher margin, depending on the overheads of the business and the turn-around time on the shelf. Some unique items may be higher priced, but the aspect of exploitation due to scarcity or rarity of goods should never feature. The purpose of business is to earn a living and supports one’s dependants. It’s not a quick-rich scheme, an opportunity to trick your customers, or a playground for the rich to spite each other.
Finally, let us all start adding value to each other’s lives and become a means of each other’s prosperity, and not only our own.