The Angry World of Merchandise Returns

Shoppers aren't the only ones that are frustrated with returns.

Posted Sep 04, 2012

Christy has a new personal return policy. “Before, if I bought something and then got it home and maybe didn’t like it as much, I’d usually keep it. Now it goes back.” Christy says she’s also returning more things because irresistible bargains are more abundant than they’ve been in the past. “Oh man, the deals! So hard to resist, but sometimes what I end up buying isn’t really anything I needed, so I take it back.” Like many, Christy has become both a pickier shopper and also someone who impulsively purchases tempting bargains. That means more returns.

Christy’s not alone. Merchandise returns are on the rise — up 19 percent from 2007. For every dollar spent today, nine cents is returned. Consumers have a bolder mentality and higher expectations when it comes to returns.

Michelle, a 50-something empty-nester, says she’s noticed a shift in return expectations from her experience selling on eBay. “I’m a shoe junky. I used to weed out my collection every year on eBay. I’d say in the description that I don’t take returns, and for years I never had a single problem. But now people expect to be able to return if they overbid or made a hasty decision. They lie and say my shoes are defective and eBay always sides with buyers. The returns were costing me so much time and money I closed my account.”

Like Michelle, retailers are struggling to manage the financial impact of increasing returns. They’re also looking for ways to deal with mushrooming incidents of fraudulent returns. Last year retailers lost $14.4 billion (up from $9.4 billion in 2009) to fraudulent returns such as wardrobing, where people buy products like big screen televisions or party dresses to use for an event and then return them.

Susie and Pete proudly reported that they found a way to “rent” a boogie board for free when they visited Hawaii last month. “We bought two at Costco and then returned them before we went home.” Jasmine says that she bought three bras from Nordstrom but then lost weight after she’d worn them for a while. “So I took them back and exchanged them for my new size.” Casey, a stylish shopper willing to pay full price for the right piece, recalls purchasing an expensive winter coat, taking it home and finding a movie theatre salt packet in the pocket. She says she hasn’t purchased anything from that retailer since.

Despite the increasing cost of returns, many retailers are simply accommodating. Online retailer, Zappos, offers free shipping and free returns. They’ve built a wildly popular business, in part, on the philosophy that frequent returners are also frequent buyers. And, of course, Nordstrom’s return policy is legendary.

But most retailers aren’t as accommodating. And many have taken new measures to protect themselves. Some have begun to track shopper returns in order to restrict serial returners and rewarding non-returners. Others have shortened the time permitted to make returns or have ramped up requirements for receipts and identification. Electronics retailers, in particular, sometimes charge a “restocking fee.” And some retailers hang conspicuous tags on clothing or stickers on electronics to prevent wardrobing.

These new procedures and policies can feel confusing, even maddening, to shoppers.  Authenticity, transparency and “living up to promises” are important values to consumers.  Retailers use imagery, emotion and symbolism to craft an enticing image — which becomes the personality of the store. That image is an unspoken promise of a particular type of shopping experience. It’s the retailer’s job to ensure that every consumer touchpoint lives up to the promise of a store’s image.

The return - that moment when the customer effectively tells the store their sales transaction was a failure, that they found something better, or a better price — is an authenticity test. And according to my research, one that retailers often fail. When that happens, shoppers feel tricked.

Rae, a sharp executive in her mid-thirties, made an emergency purchase at an Apple store in Canada when she forgot the connector that would allow her to play a business presentation. She didn’t need it after all and tried to return the unopened connector in the US. “They wouldn’t take it back because I bought it in Canada. That’s just crazy — aren’t they supposed to be a modern, international brand? Liars.” Rae, who says she has “just about everything Apple makes” lost her devotion over a $35 return. “It’s not the money, it’s the bull****,” she says. Clearly Rae’s image of Apple was in conflict with her return experience.

When Janine goes to the mall these days she walks right by a once favorite store, Williams Sonoma. Why? She wasn’t able to return a gift without a gift receipt. Janine shops at lots of other stores that won’t take returns without receipts but Williams Sonoma is the only one that gets her cold shoulder. “I paid top dollar at Williams Sonoma,” Janine snapped. “They put on this air of graciousness, but they’re acting like a discount store. The sales clerk looked kind of smug about the new policy too — like I was cheap or dishonest or something.”

Like Rae, Janine’s tone suggests betrayal. Her long relationship with Williams Sonoma was severed by what she perceived to be a breach of promise, and a sales clerk with bad manners delivering the blow make it all very personal. If her sense of fairness hadn’t been violated she could continue to happily shop at her once favorite store, being more careful to ask for gift receipts. Janine made a point of saying that she expects to need a receipt at downmarket retailers and pays a higher price at Williams Sonoma for what she believes should be a “classier” level of service.

Robert, a self-described fashion-lover, says that salespeople often act like friends when you’re buying and enemies when you’re returning. “In addition to the hassle of the return, it becomes clear how phony the so called friendliness of the store is.”

In each of these cases, clearly the store’s image is inconsistent with their return policies.

While retailers look for better — but effective — ways to improve the return process there are things you can do to minimize the agony.

  • Check the retailer’s return policy before you buy. This is especially important when shopping online. In particular, discount sites often don’t take returns or will offer a merchandise credit, but not a refund.
  • Attach your receipt to your purchase and don’t remove tags until you’re sure you’re going to keep it. Afterwards, store all your receipts in the same place in case the product is defective. If you lose your receipt, you can sometimes find a record of your transaction online. Retailers have found that over 14 percent of returns without receipts are fraudulent and are therefore increasingly requiring receipts for returns.
  • Be prepared. Preparation lessens the likelihood of conflict and speeds up the return process. Bring your receipt and personal identification, and treat the merchandise you’re returning with respect. Says Bridgette, who works at Bloomingdales, “It’s disappointing to send someone off with their purchase nicely pressed and on a hanger and then to have it returned in rumpled ball.”
  • Hold the emotion. Though you’re sure to occasionally encounter disrespectful salespeople (especially at commission-based stores) or shipping hassles, it won’t help to get angry or emotional. You also don’t have to be apologetic. Unless you’re a serial returner or have worn or damaged the merchandise, it’s your right to return merchandise to retailers that accept returns as policy.
  • Don’t delay. Merchandise returned months after purchase is unlikely to be sold for full price — this costs retailers money. Because of mounting returns, many retailers have shortened the amount number of days after a purchase that they’re willing to accept a return — often to 20 or 30 days.
  • Think about associated costs. Sally is a sale stalker. “No matter what it is, I check constantly online to see if I could get something I purchased for less. Then I’ll buy it again at the lower price and then return the first one.” Stalking time, trips to the store or post office, gas and postage are costs many don’t consider.