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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.