A Retailer’s Perspective: The Return Process

Hello Ladies and Gents,

It happens to everyone. A trip to the local commercial epicenter of choice yields a (fill in the blank) you think you love only to return home and find the once stellar “must-have” becomes an immediate “must-return.” Intrepid online shoppers face even more challenges, often purchasing multiple styles and sizes to account for fit, sizing inconsistencies, and quality. Naturally, some products will inevitably find their way back to the retailer in the form of a return or exchange—a situation businesses understand and develop policies to handle.

For decades, businesses relied on the the frequently espoused mantra “The customer is always right” to negotiate consumer relationships, but recently, entrepreneurs have been striking back to explain why this banal expression is so detrimental to how we conduct business. Essentially, the expression breeds a sense of entitlement in what customers think they deserve from a company, ranging from patrons who think they should see more skin from waitresses to customers who assault employees to people calling 911 for not receiving the correct item. At a certain point, we shifted in how we viewed the retail experience to being one where we, as consumers, should get everything we want and then some, simply because we are the consumers. This mentality creates an environment where many businesses face daily decisions on whether they can balance legitimate requests with unfair demands and still be successful, and returns can be a turbulent source of contention for the modern business.  As a result, I would like to add another entry to my “Retailer’s Perspective” series to discuss what returns are like for our business and what motivated us to create our return/exchange policy.

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Our shopping bags are distinct. If you leave the shop with a purchase, chances are you have a stylish black and white zebra print bag draped over your arm, but whenever I see one of the signature bags emerging from a vehicle and heading back to the shop, my heart palpitates a little.  I have a return to process, and returns cost money.

When we first created the store’s return policy, I researched other lingerie boutiques and noted most had a “Final Sale” policy on all items while others only allowed exchanges for store credit. Bright-eyed and naive, I could not fathom such a restrictive policy, and we settled on 14 days from the time of purchase to return or exchange unworn/unwashed items with their tags attached. Over time, we had customers pushing the boundaries of the 14-day mark, sometimes by several weeks, and all were wanting refunds. To a customer, the request may sound reasonable.  To a small business, returns can not only destroy our cash flow and inventory management but also chip away at our profit with added costs and fees.

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For starters, the items we accept must be in resalable condition with their tags attached—a requirement fraught with interpretation. If the customer is a smoker or wears heavy perfume, the smell of the garment can be an instant problem. Under the technical letter of our return policy, the bra may be in perfectly fine condition to return, outside of the terrible smell of course. Then, the time frame needs to be in line with the policy. Most retailers have experienced problems with customers wanting full refunds on items purchased outside the policy time. At this point, the question becomes: Do you enforce the policy and risk alienating a customer, or do you give the customer what they want and risk your bottom line? Neither case is ideal, and in both scenarios, it is the retailer who suffers. 

Assuming the return process proceeds smoothly, we are still faced a few fiscal consequences. For basics, the returned item has most likely been replenished, meaning we paid extra money for excess inventory. Furthermore, retailers who process credit cards are subject to multiple fees. For our terminal, we have a non-refundable fee for each transaction regardless of whether we are taking or giving money, and we also lose a certain percent per sale (fortunately not on refunds). This means if you buy a $60 bra, we may lose $2 or $3 to the credit card processing, and then when you return it, we still are charged for the transaction. Let’s assume the average total lost per transaction is $5. In ten purchase/return transactions, we have already outright lost $50. Imagine how quickly that escalates.

We are also meticulous in serving our customers. If you come to the store for a bra fitting, we bring you multiple styles to try, offer personalized fit advice, and then encourage thorough testing of the bras, including moving around and sitting.  The testing process is a key component of our sales strategy because it gives you a chance to listen to your body to determine which bras feel the best. We do not talk anyone into bras either, and on more than one occasion, we have actually talked people out of them. As a result, it’s more than a little disheartening to see a style come back to us when we have taken such time and care, but when it happens, we try to handle the situation with grace and respect.

The antithesis of "grace and respect," but Grumpy Cat can get away with it.
The antithesis of “grace and respect,” but Grumpy Cat can get away with it.

In certain instances, we have customers wanting to return items that cannot be resold. Sometimes this is the result of a manufacturer defect while others times it’s a simple case of not taking proper care of the bra. All of the tags on the bras we carry say to “hand wash” the item, but in our fast-paced society, throwing the bra into the washer and even the dryer (quelle horreur!) is much easier. In the first scenario, we work with the manufacturer to rectify the situation, typically in the form of a Return Authorization process with the brand. Some brands like Natori will reimburse for shipping the bra to them while others, like Eveden, will not. Shipping usually costs around $4 for us—yet another fee the business must absorb.

As someone who has been buying many of the brands we carry for years now, I know what kind of quality they purport to have, and for the most part, they live up to the high standard. Of course, some bras will slip through the quality control cracks, but the handful of problems I have seen in my short time running the store usually result from people wearing the same bra everyday and/or tossing it into the washing machine. About a year ago, I wrote a post on whether or not you had to hand wash your bras, and my inspiration was complaints we had from customers who admitted to tossing them into the wash but could not understand why the bras wore out faster.

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One customer went so far as to ask why I couldn’t guarantee our bras, and the simple answer is: I can’t guarantee bras because I can’t guarantee what customers are going to do with them. My goal with the store is to help women find bras which fit and flatter, but to accomplish this goal, the store has to make money. I can’t let you return bras months after wearing them. I can’t let you ignore both our as well as our manufacturer care instructions and then compensate you with discounts or replacement bras. If I did that, we’d be out of business in a week, and I couldn’t help anyone.

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It was with all of this in mind that led us to change our return policy this year. Now we only offer refunds for unwashed, unworn items with tags attached within 7 days of purchase (long distance customers can call or email to alert us of the item returning). Between seven and fourteen receive store credit only . So, why then should you work with small businesses who may have more restrictive return policies than big box retailers? Simple: Small businesses care about you. They will work harder to find you what you need, and they will treat you like a person, not a dollar sign. They will make exceptions to their policies to help you, and they will go above and beyond to ensure you leave happy. They will open early or stay open late to work around your schedule.  We may have to pull in the reins on certain policies to keep the doors open, but it doesn’t change the fact that we are here to help the community and to help you.

Erica

A Retailer’s Perspective: The Return Process
Erica
Erica is a lover all things lingerie and is passionate about helping people find the bra which fits and flatters. Side passions include reading, writing, hiking, dairy-free food, walking her Jack Russell terrorists, and dying her hair everything from black to red.
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17 thoughts on “A Retailer’s Perspective: The Return Process

  • June 13, 2014 at 12:52 pm
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    Well said. However, I can only wish you luck as people now feel so entitled to be unreasonable.

    Reply
    • Erica
      June 13, 2014 at 5:16 pm
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      Thanks, Argie! I have a bunch of “Retailer’s Perspective” posts, but returns is definitely a tough one to tackle.

      Reply
  • June 13, 2014 at 2:16 pm
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    amazing write up, I needed this for sure! Thank you for all your positivity for women in small business. You really keep us moving forward!

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    • Erica
      June 13, 2014 at 5:16 pm
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      Glad you enjoyed it, Maggie! I try to be fair when I discuss issues like this so both retailers and consumers can come together.

      Reply
  • June 13, 2014 at 7:21 pm
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    I’m constantly flabbergasted at the conditions under which Americans will try to return things. Until I came to the US for college I literally had never heard of people returning something because they had changed their mind, regretted the expense, found it cheaper elsewhere, worn it a while and found fault with it, etc. In my mind returning a purchase was what you did when it was (A) defective, or (B) the wrong item given to you in error (during a busy sale day at a small lingerie store I tried on a 32FF and somehow at the register they ended up putting another customer’s 30F in my bag). Even now I’ve been here for years, I would be too embarrassed to return something that turned out not to be a great fit–unless I bought it online without the ability to try it on.

    Reply
    • Erica
      June 14, 2014 at 12:30 pm
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      Wendy, I do think cultural differences can impact buying decisions. A lot of my customers from other countries, especially Africa, can’t fathom people returning anything once it is purchased. I want to say within the last 15 years or so, there have been a lot of American advertising campaigns which specifically promote generous return policies. What intrigues me is whether the advertising shifted how we view the retail experience or if the advertising was in response to changing times. Maybe both? It’s certainly food for thought!

      Reply
      • June 15, 2014 at 12:41 am
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        I imagine it might be sort of a chicken/egg thing–the early adopter companies (the first to advertise generous return policies as a way to set themselves apart from the competition) thereby started to change consumer expectations, which eventually put pressure on all retailers conform to this higher standard of flexibility on returns and exchanges.

        I do think though that even that initial step–the businesses deciding that returns and exchanges were a “plus” that could be leveraged to increase their appeal–is part of a larger trend or rather two larger trends. The first of these is the ideology of shopping as an activity in its own right, almost like a leisure pursuit or a hobby, rather than a practical chore, so that consumers are encouraged to think of the shopping “experience” as a factor determining where they want to shop. It goes without saying that if one retailer enables you to go through the exercise of consumerism with little or no commitment, i.e. try on, choose and buy things, knowing full well that you can just return them and get your money back whenever, then that retailer has an advantage. The second trend is the “luxification” of consumption. I remember my mom and grandmother talking about certain stores’ or brands’ “satisfaction guaranteed” policies (i.e. returns allowed for any reason) as an obvious marker of impeccably high quality and white glove service, usually with prices to match. The implied message back then was that the merchants or manufacturers were so supremely confident in the quality of the goods they sold that they expected almost all customers to be satisfied–contrary to today’s climate where a lenient returns policy seems to be a reflection of the fact that customers so easily change their minds for reasons which have nothing to do with the intrinsic quality of the goods they purchased, so the only “luxe” aspect of the policy that remains is the capricious customer’s pleasure (or perhaps sense of status/power…) in being met with an accommodating response (“Of course we will take it back, we are so sorry you didn’t find it to your liking!”) on the part of the vendor. Nowadays consumers want to feel validated in their taste and status through their choice of shopping venue, and one way for even less-prestigious retailers to give them that is through lenient returns and exchanges, even if other aspects of the shopping experience–from the setting to the product–is more of the cheap-and-cheerful variety.

        Reply
  • June 13, 2014 at 8:14 pm
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    I now tend to try things from places online like Amazon and ASOS and figleaves first if I am not 98% sure they’ll work just because I feel terrible returning things to smaller online shops. Unfortunately, if everyone behaves this way, the smaller businesses will only get orders for things that have been around several seasons and are generally popular, and it wouldn’t make sense to take chances on something new that’s got eye-hurting print and a new frame and costs $65.
    My local shop (bellefleur) has a store credit within 14 days policy. The one a bit farther (Zovo) has the same, but 7 days. So A Sophisticated Pair’s policy is in line or a bit generous with small businesses in Seattle, at least.

    Reply
    • June 14, 2014 at 4:22 am
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      Oh, a fellow Seattle area bra shopper! I haven’t been to Bellefleur yet. The saleswoman at Zovo was so lovely, I don’t think I could ever face returning something to her after all the trouble she went to to help me find stuff (well, unless it made my boobs turn green and fall right off). I agree Sophisticated Pair’s new policy is very much within the norm for this type of store.

      I’m the opposite though, I will go to the store when I want to experiment, and order online when I feel pretty confident of what I need and how it’ll work (not that I’m always right with online ordering, I have ended up with egg on my face enough times in my latest refitting efforts, but that’s my general MO).

      I don’t know whether it’s age or hubris but I feel in most cases, trying on is enough to see whether it’s for me or not– if it works for me in the fitting room, it’s still going to work at home after 20 wears and a good many washes. But I am horrifically picky and conservative in the trying-on process.

      Reply
      • June 15, 2014 at 7:56 pm
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        The fitters at Zovo are pretty great in my experience, but I’ve only ended up buying other products there because they haven’t carried anything that both fit me and I liked the looks of (lace nude bras are not really my thing).
        Bellefleur only carries up to a G, sadly. I try to buy whenever they have something I like to keep them ordering anything in my size…

        Reply
    • Erica
      June 14, 2014 at 12:36 pm
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      You raise an interesting point about taking risks on new bra styles and frames–one that I hope to discuss in depth in another blog entry. When I contemplate buying new bra frames for the store, I test them on a few customers first and then bring them into the store if they are up to my standards. In some cases, this means I need to wait until next season to really get a good assortment, but in others, it may mean I’m only a month or two behind other retailers. The potential for online returns on new frame does not deter me so much because our online business is small and most people email me anyway to ask for advice. Previous sales history, on the other hand, plays a big role in determining what I will buy. No matter how much I like certain prints or colors, they just do not resonate with my customers. I’m less likely to carry a product that has bright colors, quirky prints, or some combination thereof simply because they do not sell as well here. It puts me in a tough position as a retailer and a consumer because I *want* to support brands who branch out and try new things, but I can’t justify the expense and slow inventory turnover. 🙁

      Reply
  • June 14, 2014 at 7:39 am
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    Great article! It’s kind of like following the golden rule.

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    • Erica
      June 14, 2014 at 12:37 pm
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      Thanks, Dariana! Glad you enjoyed the post. 🙂

      Reply
    • Erica
      June 27, 2014 at 4:50 pm
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      Thanks, Lynn! Glad you enjoyed the article!

      Reply
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