via Moak: How to ensure many happy (gift) returns, clarionledger.com, 12/23/2015
All across America, stores are getting their battle plans ready. You might think that they could relax a little, now that Black Friday is a distant memory and the crush of Christmas-gift procrastination has just a day or two left. But not so; every retailer knows the real battle is about to begin, as hordes queue up to return those awful ties, or trade in well-meant gifts for what they really wanted. Return season is upon us.
Holiday returns are huge business. The National Retail Federation estimates that this year shoppers will return $260.5 billion (with a “B”) worth of goods. If returns were an industry, the NRF points out, it would rank No. 3 on the Fortune 500 list, just ahead of Chevron and behind Exxon. That’s a lot of money changing hands.
And, of course, it naturally follows that wherever there’s money, there are people looking for ways to game the system, to take advantage of retailer generosity. Retail fraud is expected to surpass $9.1 billion (more money than the NFL brings in each year). The NRF’s annual Return Fraud Survey found that (on average) retailers believe 3.5 percent of their holiday returns this year will be fraudulent.
“Return fraud remains a critical issue for retailers with the impact spanning far and wide, in-store and online,” said Bob Moraca, NRF vice president of loss prevention. “While technology has played a significant role in deterring many in-person fraudulent transactions that would have otherwise gone unseen, there is little that can be done to prevent a determined criminal who will find a loophole one way or another. When it comes to retail fraud, retailers can build taller walls, but criminals continue to find taller ladders.”
Despite what most people commonly believe, merchants have no legal obligation to accept returned merchandise, unless it’s defective or was sold deceptively.Return policies originated as a way to build good will among customers. For a long time, many merchants have just accepted the reality that some percentage of sales will be returned, and some were very generous. But in recent years, as fraud increased, many retailers began to crack down on return policies. Now, most retailers have some limitations on what can and cannot be returned, and under what conditions.
Causing the biggest concern among merchants is stolen merchandise that is returned for refund or credit (reported by more than 90 percent of retailers). These tactics are often used by organized-crime rings, which target high-value items to steal, then send someone in to “return” the item, getting store credit or even cash. These tactics take advantage of generous return policies, but are likely to cause merchants to carefully weigh the risks against the possibility of losing customer good will.
Another questionable return practice is “wardrobing,” in which people return non-defective merchandise after minimal use. For example, if you want that cocktail dress for an upscale holiday party, but can’t afford it, you might buy it with no intention of keeping it. When you return it, though, the retailer has a problem; they can’t sell it as new, and they take a loss. Some retailers are getting more aggressive when it comes to preventive measures. For example, Bloomingdales has begun putting an obvious black tag on the front of high-end cocktail dresses, which must be in place if the item is returned. This tactic would likely deter style-conscious abusers.
The statistics in the study do indicate some reason for hope, however; it appears some areas of return fraud have declined considerably since last year. But the good news comes with an asterisk: the use of e-receipts to commit retail fraud is growing. Fully a third of merchants reported they had been presented with fraudulent e-receipts.
“Retailers have the difficult task of providing superior customer service by always giving the benefit of the doubt to their shoppers when it comes to returns, while simultaneously working to make sure they protect their business assets,” continued Moraca. “We expect retailers to continue their tried and true ways of combating fraud through increased usage of identification verification, as well as seeking new and innovative approaches on the back end.”
While I know none of you faithful readers would do such things, you are likely to be in one of those return lines. To help keep things as safe and sane as possible in the return line this year, here is our annual advice for returning items:
- It’s still a good idea to keep receipts. Despite some advice I’ve read, the era of the paper receipt isn’t over. Although many merchants can verify your purchase by using the credit or debit card with which you paid, some merchants require the receipt. At the very least, it will provide some backup should there be an issue, or you can’t remember how you paid. Some stores provide a gift receipt, to be given with the item.
- Read the fine print of the merchant’s return policy. Stores vary widely in what they will and won’t accept; it would be a bummer to stand in line for an hour, only to be turned away at the return desk.
- Relax; you have time. Most merchants have a long window for returns. In most cases, you have 30 or more days to return the item, so you don’t need to get in that Dante’-esque return line. But again, read the policies; some items may have shorter windows of time in which you can make exchanges.
- Expect “restocking” fees. Although many consumers consider it unfair for a store to charge a fee to return something, merchants have put these in place to deter unnecessary returns. But you might be able to get the fee waived, depending on the store and its policies.
- Stand your ground, but be polite. Retailers know their most valuable asset isn’t the merchandise on their shelves; it’s you, the customer. This gives you a big advantage. In today’s social media-intense environment, most businesses are hyper-protective of their online reputations, and — to avoid an embarrassing Facebook fiasco — may consider making an exception to a return policy. But it’s a two-way street; coming across as demanding or causing a scene can limit your options (or worse, get you thrown out by security or even arrested). Be as polite and patient as possible. Calmly ask for an exception, with the understanding the clerk might not be empowered to make the decision on her own. And, if you are denied, accept the situation and move on, or address it through corporate channels.