Thinking about buy-and-return habits

You go shopping, buy a bunch of things, and bring them home. Later on, you decide to return a number of items. That’s a great way to unclutter, right?

Well, sometimes — and sort of.

Certainly, you’ll want to return anything that’s defective. I bought some shoes online earlier this year and they looked exactly like what I wanted. But when they arrived, I found out they squeaked when I walked. Fortunately, I had bought them from a site that makes returns very easy.

On the other end of the spectrum, some returns are questionable, even if stores accept those types of returns. I don’t think it’s okay to buy a dress, wear it to a special event, and then return it. Nor do I think it’s okay to buy a nice TV right before the Super Bowl and then return it after watching the game. Some stores are fighting back against this practice, as The Cut reports:

Bloomingdale’s has had enough. … So they’re attaching three-inch black-plastic tags to visible places on clothing, like the front bottom hemline. … The new devices on Bloomingdale’s clothing are unhidable; once removed, they cannot be reattached. No more wearing and returning, unless you decide to pretend “visible tags” are a new trend.

But many other return situations are less straightforward. I’d never really thought about the problems returns can cause until I read a discussion on Ask Metafilter, where a number of members who worked in retail shared what goes on behind the scenes. Here are just two of the many perspectives:

I can talk about retail for clothing, two industries I worked retail in. For clothing, if the garment was still selling at full price, and showed no signs of wear, we would re-tag and sell it again at full price. If it were no longer selling at full price, we would re-tag and sell it at the current sale price. If it did show signs of wear but we were obliged by policy to accept it, we’d deeply discount it, donate it or just throw it in the trash.

I can tell you from my experience in working at Restoration Hardware and at a few convenience stores/pharmacies: a good portion of stuff is thrown out. Everything that is possible to put back on the shelf is (unopened, like-new packages, unworn clothing, unused cushions and the like) and all products that can be returned to the manufacturer are. This is, at least at those stores, maybe 40% of returns. Everything else is logged and thrown away. We are trying to find more avenues to donate returned items, but most items that are returned are thought of as liabilities. … If you’ve tried on headphones, they were chucked. I mean, would you want to buy something that someone else had put in their ears?

Another thing I just learned is that a number of retailers are using a program called The Retail Equation aimed at helping to eliminate return fraud and to control what the company calls returnaholics. Some of these returnaholics may have a problem with compulsive shopping and need help in fighting that condition.

But most of us can be more thoughtful about our initial purchasing behaviors. If we don’t buy things we don’t need we won’t have to return those things we later don’t want, irrespective of the reason. Additionally, do we have valid reasons for the returns we do wish to make? Or, are we needlessly creating more work for the stores, and causing good merchandise to wind up in the trash? Would donating the item to a charity that needs that item be a better way of handling the unwanted merchandise?

Of course, if you need to return defective merchandise, you’ll want to be very aware of the store’s return policy. I overlooked this recently, and bought some non-returnable “fits all sizes” socks, which didn’t come close to fitting me. I wound up donating them to charity. When making purchases, you’ll want to check for:

  • Whether the item is returnable at all.
  • How long you have to make the return.
  • If a receipt is required.
  • Whether you’ll get cash or a store credit.
  • If there’s a restocking fee.

16 Comments for “Thinking about buy-and-return habits”

  1. posted by Jean on

    I can say this as a consumer. I do not abuse the return system and would not want to go back to the days of difficult returns. I remember needing your receipt, a really good reason, and your first born in order to return anything. I only shop at brick and mortar stores that have easy returns…as in I don’t even need the credit card I used to get it credited. So, stores have to be able to quantify the loss due to low life people who buy things as though they are on loan, and losing a customer like me who will not dick around in long return lines.
    Also, I would LOVE to see a giant bruised and reduced section in big box stores. Throw all returned merchandise in there, at half off. I’d be all over it.

  2. posted by WilliamB on

    I don’t think returning is a good way to unclutter, but I do think that planning on returning is an excellent solution to a certain few challenges.

    One such situation is when it’s very hard to tell at the store if the item is the right one. For example: I wanted some cabinet organizers for a bathroom sink cabinet. It was a very small cabinet with the usual assortment of pipes – short of building a full-scale model I would not be able to tell which organizers would fit. So I bought 3-4 options, tried them in the space, and returned the other ones.

    Another situation is when you urgently need the item but are very short of time. For example, if I needed a wrench to stop a pipe from leaking (not dripping but actually leaking), but couldn’t determine exactly which wrench I needed, I would buy all the possibilities and return the ones I didn’t use.

    Finally, I do this with work shoes. I have bad feet and fit is very important. So after trying shoes on at the store I’ll bring the finalists home and walk in them – inside only! – for 30 min or so as a final check for fit and comfort.

    Other than these few situations, though, having to return items just clutters up my life.

  3. posted by Rebecca | Seven2Seven8 on

    I was just listening to a story on NPR yesterday about the other extreme. LL Bean and REI have been known for VERY LIBERAL return policies, and are reacting differently to how customers are using it (and, interestingly, it seems each store’s customers are using it differently, too). REI recently ended a lifetime return policy in favor of one that is two years long, after a SURGE in returns of ancient, used-up items for full retail price paid. LL Bean on the other hand, finds that few people return items, but they are happy to take back the old items, no matter how worn, and prominently place a notice of the lifetime return policy behind the register.

    I think it’s a question of personal ethics that we all must determine, but that there are some general parameters upon which we should be able to agree.

    If you are returning something with the message that it is in new, perfect condition, but did not work for you (wrong size, color, fit, style, etc), then it is incumbent upon you to return the item in the same condition you received it. No wearing, no using.

    If you are returning something with the message that it is defective (damaged, did not perform as expected, etc). , then that should be clear, and each store has its own policy (30 days, 2 years, forever) for determining how long a product is expected to last. As LL Bean said about a woman who replaced a 10-year-old backpack when her zipper broke: “if she believes the zipper is supposed to last forever, we’re not here to question her”. NPR joked wit her that she had actually purchased a “backpack subscription”, rather than a backpack.

    As for returning as a mode of uncluttering, unless it’s to address a lapse in judgment resulting in buyer’s remorse (I’ve done this on too many occasions with impulse purchases from Target; once I’m home I question the need or usefulness of the product, often leave it in the bag with the receipt, and return it ASAP), I’d wager it’s better to buy carefully in the first place.

  4. posted by Jacquie on

    I returned a pair of (unworn) thermal long johns to an outdoors wear shop last spring. DH had bought them reduced and they first of all said no returns on sale goods.

    I pointed out that they were not fit for purpose as they were supposed to be gents and had no fly opening. How was he supposed to take a leak half way up a mountain in a blizzard with several other layers of clothes on top.

    I got the refund.

    But I would never return something that I had used unless it is faulty, then I would be there so fast you’d not see me for dust. I do what WilliamB does with tools etc, but only after asking first; most shops are quite happy about it so long as you’re up front. Shoes no though, although I always shoe shop late in the day when feet are at their largest – my first Saturday job was in a shoe shop so I learnt lots of tricks and saw lots of shoes that people bought back alledgedly unworn.

  5. posted by Bred on

    I absolutely CANNOT stand trying on clothes in department stores. The horrific lighting and cramped quarters make it extremely challenging for me – flourescent lighting either gives me the heebie-jeebies or causes me to space out into a state that is not reflective of my natural personality. I also have mild claustrophobia. As a result, I gather up multiple items, try on a few and buy the rest and take them home. I then try them on in the comfort of my own home where I can make better judgments. I have NEVER worn something out in public (or around the house) or to a function and returned it. I try them on for a few minutes and either elect to keep or return. No tags are ever removed and I never do this with undergarments or shoes.

    I am also one of those people that gets up to the register and changes her mind on multiple items. Especially when I’m shopping at one of those stores with lots of people and lots of flourescent lighting. It just overwhelms me and I tend to panic.

  6. posted by Sallee on

    It could also be noted that stores position and market items to encourage impulse buying. In a way, they are feeding into their own circle of refuse.

  7. posted by Laetitia in Australia on

    Certain countries have consumer laws such that a store may not *not* accept certain things as a return. That doesn’t stop them from ‘trying it on’ with signs near the register saying things like “no refunds on sale items”.

    If you’re buying from an Australian store (bricks & morar or on-line), you can find consumer law info here:

  8. posted by Susan on

    This summer I bought 4 pairs of party gray shoes for my daughter’s wedding. I wear a WIDE and stores do not carry wides in party shoes. So on line I found four possible and had them sent and yes, three went back to the “store” that has brick and mortar at the local mall.

  9. posted by Marie on

    After I read the title, I was thinking about how difficult it can be to get rid of something once you have it in your hands or house. Even when my family buys an item that does not work, it’s usually too much energy for us to go through the bother of returning it. Knowing our tendency, we don’t delude ourselves that “we can just return it.”
    My best success with returning an item is to do it as soon as possible after I recognize the need. Within the day or two if possible. Otherwise, I’ve just bought myself another item destined for the thrift store. Same thing with things I think I “could” sell.

  10. posted by Michaela on

    I have a tendency to return items – normally completely unused, with tags attached, and a receipt – when needed. I started on my journey to unclutter my life and house in 2008, and one of my first rules was to return items if I realized they won’t work in my life.

    So I may go shopping and buy four shirts (for example, could be any item(s) really). I will hang them in the closet tags attached in a prominent location. My thinking is if I really like it – I will wear it within the first two weeks. If I don’t wear it by then, I return it. I just pulled out a shirt the other day that I realized won’t make the cut and put in on my dresser to return next time I’m out.

    I don’t think I abuse the system. I’m just being honest with myself that I probably over-shopped my needs – and why not go get my money back? I don’t try to do it on purpose. Some things just don’t work out like you might have initially wanted. Like the wreath hook that stuck out too far. The shirt that looked good in store, but hideous at home. The shoe inserts not needed for the wedding. The dog igloo that the dog shunned. The shoes that pinched your feet after 20 minutes (walking around your house). The extra tool not needed for the project you just did, or extra supplies. The list goes on and on.

    However I do balk at taking something back after I have worn it out or used and abused it. I have to chalk that up to the cost of usage, and move on. Unless I have some type of warranty, I’m not sure I would even go for a lifetime policy. What says I want it for a lifetime anyway?

  11. posted by Elizabeth on

    I once dated a guy I thought I might marry until he told me he mailed 10-year-old LL Bean shirts back for refunds when they started getting holes in them. What a cheap, sleazy trick. I knew he wasn’t for me!

    On the other hand, I am adamant about returning cosmetics, over-the-counter beauty products, and other personal items that don’t live up to their promises. This is my way of letting companies know I didn’t like their product, the color was off, their claim of “fragrance free” was a lie, etc. How else would companies know that customers were dissatisfied?

    Regarding the return of worn clothing or, heaven forbid, a television set, I think that is highly unethical. I can’t believe people would do this — so call me naive.

    I do, as many others have commented, leave tags on clothing and save receipts. If the item doesn’t work when I leave the store’s magic mirrors and try it on at home, I return it.

  12. posted by Jen on

    Read on some blog an interesting concept: If you buy something and don’t use it in two weeks return it. It has made me think how much I “need” the things I buy. And when I have things that are just sitting there for two weeks unworn/used, I do consider returning it. For those of us getting into uncluttering, it is a great way to make a wrong purchase right.

  13. posted by adora on

    I actually hesitate buying from a store with easy return policy, such as L.L. Bean, because I feel like I’m subsidizing those who abuse the system.

    It is nice that a store allow you to return a product in reasonable condition, but it shouldn’t be a regular thing. You shouldn’t buy something thinking you can return it. It’s like getting married thinking you can get a divorce.

  14. posted by Marie on

    Some of the comments above imply that it’s okay for things to wear out quickly and that to expect them to last is “shady”. Asking a product to hold up for the long-term, and returning it when it fails to do so, shows companies that we have high expectations for product quality.

    I’m sad to see lifetime guarantees becoming harder to find…nowadays returning a Craftsman tool gets you a refurbished one instead of new. The days of standing behind a product for a lifespan are a distant memory.

  15. posted by Steven J Fromm on

    Nice post. It is not fair to companies when people try to scam them. I was not aware that a lot of times the companies cannot return these items to the manufacturer. One thing I have noticed is that places like Costco allow their members to return almost anything, but I think that since it is a form of co-op that people do not abuse this privilege. Anyone, great post.

  16. posted by RM on

    Thank you for this post! I manage a shoe store and it never ceases to frustrate me when people bring back worn items. I am happy to return something that is defective, but it is your responsibility as a consumer to make sure the item you purchased is the right fit and style before you wear it outside your home. We do not resell visibly worn merchandise, which means that it is simply destroyed when it could otherwise have been sold to someone who would actually use it or donated to charity.

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