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Not sexy enough: Rethinking a timeless return policy

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100% doesn't always mean forever
100% doesn't always mean forever - (Thinkstock)

A money-back guarantee gives customers a certain sense of calm and can make them more likely to pick up a product they're otherwise on the fence about. But can it go too far?

Outdoor apparel and equipment maker REI thinks so. Dan Bobkoff reports at NPR's Planet Money the company has discontinued its particularly potent brand of no-questions-asked return policy.

The original deal: return anything you bought from REI, for any reason, after any length of time.

This was obviously awesome for customers, who were free to give any explanation they pleased when returning a product.

Like the hiking sandals mentioned in Kirsten Grind's article at The Wall Street Journal. The reason they were returned? "Not sexy enough."

I, for one, have never seen a sexy pair of hiking sandals in my life, and as a lifelong hiker and backpacker, I've seen many. But hey, that's why they call it a guarantee.

But while REI has chosen to limit the window in which a product can be returned to only one year, competitor L.L. Bean is maintaining their current return policy, which mirrors REI's original eternal bring-it-back offer.

L.L. Bean is happy to soak up all the goodwill that comes with letting customers get refunds or exchanges without opposition.

The NPR report suggests that perhaps the rise of social media led to more widespread knowledge of REI's easy return policy, and the subsequent increase in returns put a strain on the company's profits, necessitating the change.

And the theory that L.L. Bean's mail order only business model makes returns inconvenient is a good one, but I would much rather mail my ten-year-old hiking boots back to the seller for a new pair than go pay someone else for replacements.

The question is really one of two conflicting but equally important business concerns: the importance of profits and image (not being seen as "Return Everything Incorporated") versus the difficulty of genuine customer satisfaction and goodwill.

Having spent a few of my younger years as a retail cash register jockey, one thing is for sure: I wouldn't want to be the hapless REI cashiers stuck dealing with the first wave of customers with returns who haven't yet heard (or claim not to have heard) about the change.

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