Many people use “retail therapy” as an emotional tool to make themselves feel better. Later, they may experience buyer’s remorse when they see how much they have spent, so they go back to the store to return the items they just purchased. I don’t return things very often, so I wasn’t aware what a growing problem this has become for merchants. A very nice reader who previously worked as a manager in a Columbus-area specialty clothing store sent me an email in which she illuminated the issues of returns from a retail perspective. I thought her comments were so pertinent that I decided to raise the issue publicly so you can view returns from the other side of the counter.
When someone has to return something to a store, they feel a little aggravated because they have to take time out of their day to do something that is not fun. But it is even less fun for the retailer. What are the consequences on the retail end when someone makes a return? According to my source, this is what a store potentially loses when someone makes a return:
- the first “serving” time of the sales person (and possibly their bonus or commission),
- time spent making the return,
- steaming articles that have been in the bag too long, or have accumulated smells like cigarette smoke or gasoline (if it was in the car trunk).
- inventory control and daily statistic figures,
- and, last but not least, questions from the district manager as to why they “didn’t do their job properly.”
But hold on, it gets worse. This former manager says the return that “broke the camel’s back” for her was a grandmother returning a $500-600 purchase she made with her granddaughter one weekend. The woman spent two hours trying on multiple outfits, and the store associates couldn’t figure out why she brought everything back. When they examined the merchandise, they saw tell-tale creases from sitting and bending, make-up smudges, and other signs of usage. It was obvious she had worn the clothing for a period of time and then returned everything. Apparently fraudulent behavior knows no age-limits.
There has always been a small segment of the population who cheat merchants. Whether it is shoplifting or using items, wearing them and then bringing them back to the store, the end result is fraud. I’m not talking about people who occasionally have to return items because they are defective, not the right color, or the wrong size. I’m referring to shoppers who buy things to use or wear once, and then return for credit. This age-old trick actually has a name, “wardrobing;” which sounds related to clothing, but can be used to describe all use-it-and-return-it purchases. Two-thirds of merchants report they had items wardrobed last year, and the numbers continue to rise. The National Retail Federation (NRF) started tracking this trend in 2006, and the numbers of claims rose 56% in the first full year (2007). As the recession lingers, those numbers are increasing.
The NRF blames the economy and a “customer-is-always right” mentality gone too far. A loss-prevention executive for Bealls Department Stores in Florida says that customers are rooting around in their closets and trying to return things they have worn multiple times to make a little money. But the most common abuse is still one-time usage, sort of like “renting” the item for a short period of time. Women will buy an expensive outfit for a wedding, prom, job interview, or other function, wear it, and then return it for full credit. One sales associate said part of her job is to smell the armpits of clothing being returned to ascertain if it has been wardrobed. Eeuuww.
Technology returns are the newest form of wardrobing, and are more male-dominated. One man purchased a $600 LCD projector, used it for a business presentation, then returned it a few days later. Richard Hollinger, a criminology professor at the University of Florida, says that return fraud cost retailers $10.8 billion in 2007.
Because of this enormous problem, 17% of retailers tightened their return policies in 2009 according to the NRF. Besides wardrobing issues, 43% of retailers indicated they had more shoppers use fake receipts to bring back stolen merchandise and 75% said they sold merchandise to shoppers with stolen credit cards or counterfeit money. This in turn makes shopping more costly and inconvenient for the rest of us because the costs of retail fraud are passed on to the consumer. It also makes the process of returning items more difficult for honest customers. One national electronics store had to shorten up their appliance return policies because people were buying air conditioners, using them all summer, and then returning them in the fall for refunds.
Most retailers now use a computer database to track returns. When a customer makes a return, the cashier swipes their driver’s license. This goes into a national database that helps identify customers whose behavior indicates return fraud, wardrobing, or other abuse. If you’ve been given a hard time trying to make a legitimate return over the last couple of years, blame the abusers, not the store. Some stores are shortening return periods, charging restocking fees, or limiting the number of returns one customer can make.
So, bottom line, if you have a hard time controlling your purchasing impulses or use shopping as recreational therapy, you might want to consider some other method of controlling your spending than just returning everything. A therapist may be able to help you identify why you constantly feel compelled to purchase items you can’t afford. And for those of you guilty of wardrobing, please stop. The “I should be able to have or use whatever I want and the heck with the rest of you” entitlement mentality is self-serving and dishonest. There are many legitimate ways to meet your needs without resorting to stealing someone else’s property for a period of time.
Family & Consumer Sciences Educator
Ohio State University Extension