Are you relatively new to this bustling metropolis? Don't be shy about it, everyone was new to New York once upon a time, except, of course, those battle-hardened residents who've lived here their whole lives and Know It All. One of these lifers works among us at Gothamist—publisher Jake Dobkin grew up in Park Slope and still resides there. He is now fielding questions—ask him anything by sending an email here, but be advised that Dobkin is "not sure you guys will be able to handle my realness." We can keep you anonymous if you prefer; just let us know what neighborhood you live in.

This week's question comes from a New Yorker who wants to know if he can return "inedible" mozzarella he bought from a local grocery.

Dear Native New Yorker,

I am a frequent shopper at a range of grocery stories, upmarket and wanna-be-upmarket delis, and other purveyors of fresh foods. I try to inspect the food I buy carefully at the store, but some foods can't be inspected because they are packaged. You can only look at the sell-by date.

Often, I will open packaged fresh food (this is particularly an issue with arugula, perhaps because of its large surface area) and discover that it has gone bad. Can I go back to the grocery store and ask for my money back or at least a replacement product? If so, is there a statute of limitations? Obviously, after a long day of work and then a shopping trip, I can't just run back out with a bag of arugula.

My policy has been that the next time I go back, I mention that something I bought was bad, and ask if I could get a replacement. I've done this with milk and greens.

A related question: what if something hasn't turned, but just turns out to be a thoroughly lousy product that doesn't meet expectations for what one is buying? For example, cherry or grape tomatoes that taste like cardboard. Clearly, one can't taste these at the supermarket. (They should allow this, actually—have a little tasting station.)

A while back, I purchased a $7 mozzarella at a grocery store. It looked reasonably good for packaged mozzarella, but when I brought it home, it was inedible. I returned to the store a couple days later and explained the situation. The owner said that because I did not have the mozzarella with me, I could not get my money back. Ultimately, he agreed to issue a refund, but is it realistic to expect that I carry around a mozzarella? I'd thrown the thing out because it was no good.


Principled or Cheap?

A native New Yorker responds:

Dear POC,

The rule we follow in New York: you can try to return anything you want, since it's a free goddamn country and you shouldn't be cheated out of your hard-earned money by shopkeepers selling expired arugula. However, state law is somewhat nebulous here and allows the retailer to fashion their own return policies, so whether they will accept your return and give you satisfaction depends on a number of factors:

First, do you have the item in question and a receipt? This is to prevent the old expired-arugula scam, where you go from grocery store to grocery store with a tall tale of bad arugula, or a bag full of wilted leaves, and demand a refund from supermarkets you didn't actually shop at. The shopkeep is within his rights to make sure you're on the level, and if you care enough to get your money back, you should bring the item, complete with the packaging, back for inspection. At the very least, it will give you satisfaction to force the grocery store manager to admit this is not an acceptable form of roughage.

Second, was the item packaged or loose? Packaged items should always be returnable, because the shopper cannot open the package and inspect it before they get home—this goes for canned goods, boxed cereal, and any vegetables or fruit that come in those pre-wrapped containers, like the arugula you bought. What about loose fruit or olives that you bag or place in a container yourself? This is a tougher call—obviously it's in the store's interest not to sell crappy product, but here you may have had a chance to inspect the fruit or eat a sample of the olives, and in that case, buyer beware.

Third, what is your reason for the return? Take the mozzarella you mentioned, or a bad tomato that tastes like ashes in your mouth. If the taste is so bad that no normal person would eat it, I think you deserve a full refund. But what if it's just a different type of mozzarella than you normally eat, or the tomatoes are in the off-season, so they're those genetically modified monstrosities that have no flavor at all? Don't you, as the shopper, have some responsibility to expand your palate a bit, or know better than to buy non-organic tomatoes in the off-season? You'll probably get your way if you shlep all the way back to the store, but I'm not sure you're in the right here.

Finally, are you a regular customer? Obviously, regulars can return anything they want, because they've earned some credibility with the establishment, and as long as they're not returning half a bag of groceries a week, they'll always get a refund—transients and tourists, less so. This may seem unfair, and it is. Just because this policy tends to benefit natives and long time residents, we shouldn't pretend it's moral or correct, so if you see a visiting French family trying to return some moldy brie they bought, consider sticking up for them.

With other items there are all sorts of special rules. For instance, with clothes, once you buy and wear them, it's going to be hard to return them at many stores (though there are some people who specialize in this kind of thing—buying expensive dresses, wearing them to one fancy event, and then returning them; or buying a mini-fridge from Bed Bath and Beyond and then trying to get them to take it back at the end of the NYU semester). I'd say you know when you're in the right, and the product or service you bought turned out to be subpar, and when you're really trying to put one over on the store. You might say, what's wrong with defrauding a big store every once in awhile? They're capitalist vampires! But sadly, two wrongs do not make a right, and you cannot justify your lying by pointing to their high prices or exploitation of foreign workers.

Final thought: I applaud you for shopping locally, despite the occasional subpar produce—it's far better to spend money in the community, even at shifty grocery stores, than order these items from the Internet, where they're often bagged and boxed in large out-of-state warehouses before they're shipped to you. Sure, the workers at your local grocery store might be just as oppressed as Amazon factory workers in the South, but at least they're oppressed people you know, and not strangers. Plus, if everyone shopped online, all the grocery stores would go out of business, and then you'd be in for a tough time for those last minute purchases, like beer when you're late for a party.


N.B.: I can't emphasize enough, at this time of year, how important it is to include gift receipts with all your gift items! This will make your recipients' lives so much easier when they return your thoughtful gift, and show that you are more concerned with their happiness than their appreciation of your specific present, which is very zen of you.

N.B. 2: Sell-by dates aren't a great guide for purchasing food, because they're just manufacturer suggestions for peak freshness, and can be altered by the store. Always trust your nose.

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