WSJ: Returning Things Is Hard

Working mom/WSJ reporter Suzanne Barlyn discovered it wasn’t easy to return a busted Tamagotchi. The Journal also tried to return a Target shirt that didn’t make it through the wash, a $13 camera from Toys “R” Us that broke after one use, a broken flat-panel TV from Amazon, a coat that didn’t fit from BabyGap, and an oversize duffel from L.L. Bean. At each turn, they discovered retailers tossing road-blocks in their way.

Who can blame them? Return fraud soaked retailers for an estimated $9.6 billion in 2006, according to the National Retail Federation. Returning stolen merchandise for a refund is the most flagrant offense, affecting 95% of retailers last year. Computer-generated, counterfeit receipts make the practice easier. So-called wardrobing — the unethical practice of returning nondefective, used merchandise — affected 56% of companies. About 69% of retailers have modified their return policies in response to fraud, according to NRF. Changes include shorter time limits, restocking fees and requirements for original packaging.

The Journal recommends making purchases with a credit card (paid in full each month,) since retailers look up purchases electronically. We agree, but for a different reason: credit cards allow you to dispute charges. Tell us about your fun experiences returning products in the comments. — CAREY GREENBERG-BERGER

Putting Return Policies to the Test With Rising Fraud, Retailers Get Tough [WSJ] (Subscription req’d)


Edit Your Comment

  1. kcskater says:

    Treating law-abiding customers like criminals should be criminal.

    Why should I be punished for the crime another person commits? Why is there an assumption that I’m trying to screw a retailer.

    The business practices of the RIAA (a la DRM) are rubbing off on retailers I fear.

  2. AlteredBeast (blaming the OP one article at a time.) says:

    I’d like a link to the WSJ article.

  3. I went to college in Brunswick, Maine from 1997-2001, and we used to make late-night trips to L.L. Bean in Freeport to return stuff all the time. The later the better; the CSRs gave you less crap at 2:00 A.M. I remember that, one time, I returned a pair of wool clogs that had gotten wet and shrunk. Even though it was technically my fault (as I had worn the clogs in the rain), the Bean rep was awesome, and she accepted the return. I have heard, in the intervening years, that Bean’s return policy isn’t as liberal as it used to be. That’s a shame. They used to be one of the only companies for which the axiom “Keep the customer happy!” wasn’t just a bunch of empty words.

    If you don’t raise roadblocks to returns, your customers will continue shopping at your store or on your website. Customers who feel comfortable returning things will be more likely, I think, to take risks with their purchases; to buy things that they might not otherwise buy because they know that, should the item not work for them, they will have the ability to return it.

  4. Amsterdaam says:

    I cannot wait to read the comments to be posted here! I have one that was strangely easy. About 24 days before thanksgiving I purchased a 20 inch LCD TV/DVD combo from Best Buy. I then read in the flyer for Black Friday shopping that Circuit City was selling a 32 inch Olevia television for less than what I paid for the 20 inch. I boxed the old one back up (after 24 days of use) and brought it back to best buy. I walked up to the counter, the CSR says, “return for refund?” I said yes and handed him my receipt. Without looking in the box at all, he puts in the return bin, hands me a recipt showing the credit to my account, and says “Have a good one.”

    Best. Return. Experience. Ever.

  5. orielbean says:

    Does the so-called shrink or alleged fraud balance out the retail markup? I think we are even.

  6. MeOhMy says:

    I think you forgot to link the article?

    I’ve found Target is pretty easygoing as long as you have a recipt. Although my wife bought a watch there and the metal band snapped about a week later. She tossed the receipt after she had worn it a few days figuring she obviously wasn’t going to change her mind and return it.

    Since we paid by card, they were able to look it up and exchange (or return if we wanted). The cashier told us that each card was allowed 2 non-receipt exchanges/returns per year. Which is nice of them to allow considering their strict policy, but I was annoyed that returning an item because of a material defect should count against my “quota.”

    Anyway, my advice is to always use plastic to pay at Target…it can bail you out in the end.

  7. mattshu says:

    Recently I took my daughter to Toys R Us to spend her birthday money she got. For her birthday she got what was obviously a TRU $10 toy that was meant for little kids. She had no interest in it and wanted to exchange it for something along with the other money she was planning on spending. Since most kids don’t give gift receipts at their parties we didn’t have one and we were told we were out of luck, as the associate said, “because customers steal and try to return products.” So for the value of a small toy they insulted me and lost our family’s business indefinitely. These stores with strict return policies might think about giving their associates some discretion so they don’t lose business in cases that are obvious and will cause the loss of a sale. Of course she forgot TRU pretty quickly when we got to Target and they had everything she wanted (at better prices for many of the items). It’s no wonder TRU has had to close many locations recently with boneheaded inflexible policies such as this.

    By the way when we were at the customer service counter there were other people with a similar issue as us. They left without spending any money. I know this because 15 minutes later we saw them at Target with a cart full of toys and talked to them about it.

    And, for the love of all that is good, don’t buy gifts at Toys R Us.

  8. John Stracke says:

    Does the so-called shrink or alleged fraud balance out the retail markup? I think we are even.

    Um, “retail markup” pays for things like store space, clerks, shipping goods to the store, money lost on goods not sold…you know, all those things that make it possible for retail stores to exist.

  9. jamst149 says:

    My concern is how does this affect online shopping. When I buy things online I tend to return a lot, especially if its clothes. I imagine its much more common to return internet bought items rather then store bought.

  10. Trai_Dep says:

    Typical of the whacko WSJ. There’s some shrinkage, so companies are perfectly justified in erecting barriers to the 99.89% of the honest customers that attempt to return shoddy merchandise or correct for normal purchasing misteps.

    I hear some individuals abuse the tort process, so let’s make it nearly impossible to sue! Oh, wait…

  11. marshmallowfreya says:

    Target’s return policy for their wedding registries is really quite atrocious. When my husband and I registered, we were living in a different apartment than the one we ended up in after the wedding. It was much smaller, and we ended up needing to return some things on our registry. No problem, right? For most items, Target was reasonable. We had to print out a copy of our registry and bring it with us. My cousin had bought us a dustbuster that was different than the one on our registry because Target was no longer carrying the one we registered for. We didn’t have a receipt. After much sighing and hemming and hawing, they finally agreed we could exchange it as long as what we were exchanging was from the same department. So, house and home? Not hard. Nope. There was an aisle and a half of the dustbuster’s “department”. When we showed up with a pitcher and steamer basket, we were told that we could only exchange ONE item for the dustbuster. Are you kidding? How many hundreds of dollars of business did I give you by registering there? And you’re going to get snippy about a $25 dustbuster?
    We also registered at Bed, Bath, and Beyond, who were more than helpful and unbelievably nice, even giving us a discount for things not on our registry.

  12. kerrymorrison says:

    Walmart is getting tougher to deal with when it comes to in-store returns. In the past, if I had a return but couldn’t find my receipt they would look it up using my credit card number, because that’s how I almost always pay. Apparently they won’t let you do that anymore or they do not keep track of purchases that way now because I recently had a shirt, unworn and with tags still on it that they would not even let me have store credit for because I had misplaced the receipt. I know I bought the shirt with a credit card but they refused to look up the purchase for me. With all the recent press about Walmart’s unfair employment practices towards women and their employees in general, this is just one more reason why I will be avoiding “big box” stores in the future.

  13. Lewisham says:

    What’s wrong with “wardrobing”? In the UK, Marks and Spencer will take back clothes with a receipt no questions asked. I’ve found a lot of times that something I have bought at the store looks and feels entirely different at home.

    It’s not unethical at all.

  14. kcs says:

    I try to avoid stores with strict return policies if at all possible. I often buy clothes without trying them on, or quite frequently when I do try them on, decide that they don’t really look that great at home in natural light in front of a regular mirror. Any store that has a seven-day return policy or exchange only return policy is not getting my business.

    I recently returned a dress to Nordstrom that my boyfriend bought me for my birthday last year. It was a beautiful dress but I never wore it and knew I never would (still had the tags on). Nordstrom took it back with no questions asked. While Nordstrom may take a financial hit for accepting a return from three seasons ago, it more than pays off because I spend a lot of money there in large part due to their return policy.

  15. guroth says:

    “While Nordstrom may take a financial hit for accepting a return from three seasons ago, it more than pays off because I spend a lot of money there in large part due to their return policy.”

    It is the same reason why womens clothes are so much cheaper than mens. If a pair of womens jeans costs $15 they are going to buy two. If a pair of mens jeans cost $15 they are going to buy one. Retailers realize this which is why mens clothing often costs twice as much as womens clothing, because no matter how cheap it is they will only get one.

    Nordstrom realizes that if you return an item there, you are going to put that money right back into their pockets.

  16. acambras says:


    I think by “wardrobing,” they mean actually wearing the item for a period of time, not just trying it on.

    A formalwear shop in my hometown had to tighten up their return policy when people would return evening gowns that they had bought and worn to an event. Either the clothes would be stained (sweat, wine, etc.) or the shop owners would see a photo of someone in the society page of the newspaper, attending the event and wearing the dress. Then the person would return the dress the following week, saying she’d ended up wearing something else. Um, no — see your photo right here on the society page?

    For people who claim to be “high society,” such a practice is very low-class.

  17. LatherRinseRepeat says:

    The Wall Street Journal is a pay site. So I’m not sure if direct links to the article will work.

  18. acambras says:


    I’ve heard the same complaint about Target’s baby registry. How crazy is that, when you’re bringing customers into the store for them?

  19. Frank Grimes says:

    The NRF is correct stating return fraud is a problem but look at where most of the fraud is happening, the retail employees themselves. Retailers want to blame the public but the greatest losses occur when their own people help budies bend and break the system and they are loathe to do anything about it.

    Lather is also correct (I read it this am in the print edition) the WSJ’s pay site costs more than the print edition and linking isn’t easy. I have been pleasently surprised by how much I enjoy reading it as long as I hold my nose and avert my eyes when I pass the opinion page.

  20. Frank Grimes says:

    @marshmallowfreya: Ditto for baby registry’s. We got a lot of duplicate stuff and when I returned something unused, without a receipt, I was told that I was “blacklisted” and not allowed to retuirn anything without a recipt for a year.

  21. koma says:

    I work in a kids clothing store and I have to honestly say that it is really gross when people return “wardrobed” items. Please wash ALL your clothes before you wear them. We are not allowed to sell worn items, but most of the time when there are tags on the items and a customer promises they are not worn, we sell them anyway. Even if they aren’t worn, they leave them for months in their smelly, smoky cars, or god knows where else (their asses?). I keep baby wipes and antibacterial lotion next to me at the register because it is SO NASTY.

    I work in a really wealthy town, and the richer they are the cheaper they are too. They have their kids wear the clothes in their Christmas pictures and then return them, etc. I can’t tell you all the bodily fluids and stains I have to deal with.

    On the retuns without a receipt issue — if everyone just paid with debit/credit cards and got gift receipts then there would be no problem. Just grow up. It is your end of the contract when you buy something you might return. I keep ALL my recipts in a shoebox. How hard is that?

    I DO make exceptions for people without a gift receipt, especially children, but the gift givers are silly not to give a gift receipt. If the item is marked down, we give the lowest price, so we keep the difference.

    My favorite thing to do is to be soooooo sugary sweet nice and over the top to customers that I know are cheating us. I like to say, “I value your honesty.” lol. I laugh inside because I know they are going to hell.

  22. Skeptic says:

    Since most kids don’t give gift receipts at their parties we didn’t have one and we were told we were out of luck, as the associate said, “because customers steal and try to return products.” So for the value of a small toy they insulted me and lost our family’s business indefinitely.

    Sorry, cute as your kid may be you get no sympathy from me for getting huffy over trying to return an item without a receipt. ToysRUs has no way to know if the item was shoplifted or purchased, and if purchased, when.

    Although they should be polite, you are being presumptuous to expect a store to take back an item without a receipt–especially an item you didn’t buy yourself. You should teach your kid how to be generous and donate the unwanted item to charity.

    These stores with strict return policies might think about giving their associates some discretion so they don’t lose business in cases that are obvious and will cause the loss of a sale…And, for the love of all that is good, don’t buy gifts at Toys R Us.

    Asking you to have a receipt hardly qualifies as strict. Stores like Best Buy have restocking charge an “no open box” return polices and a 15 day limit. So what are all the fine stores that would let you return items without a receipt? You can bet their prices may be higher because of their liberal policies. It might be worth it, but it is a trade off. But asking for a receipt is entirely reasonable.

  23. Macroy says:

    I had an easy return at Target, as well, but I probably shouldn’t have. I had purchased a mouse at Target (the clicky kind, not the squeaky kind) about six months prior, and it crapped out. I was just going to buy another one, as I had lost the receipt, but I was persuaded (by my mother) to try to return it.

    Not only did they accept it, they let me exchange it for a much more expensive mouse. I’m not really sure if this was just good customer service or somebody overstepping their bounds, but I’ll take it where I can get it.

  24. mattshu says:

    Dear Skeptic AKA undercover retail manager,

    I worked retail for many years and thankfully don’t anymore. So I can see the point of view of the kid at the counter obeying her boss’ orders. Because of that I was in no way ‘huffy’ to the associate.

    Also I don’t understand what the store is losing by allowing me to EXCHANGE an item (I understand cash returns are different). If the toy was stolen (which it was not), what do they benefit from allowing me to leave with the toy instead of allowing me to exchange it for something of equal value. I still get the (stolen) merchandise, but they don’t get the add-on sales I may want.

    I’m not suggesting that stores should not be able to make their own rules, but for stores like Toys R Us that are having business issues and having to close down store after store, looking out for the customer might be a good way to increase the bottom line.

    And yes, my kid is very cute. Though, I don’t know why that matters to you.

  25. SecureLocation says:

    Just so you know, even trusty old LL Bean has gotten tired of return fraud. They now keep a “secret” list of serial returners and will deny returns to those folk.

  26. Skeptic says:

    mattshu writes:

    Dear Skeptic AKA undercover retail manager,

    That is a really bad way to start a post. Accusing me of being a sock puppet is an ad hominem attack on me rather than the substance of my post. It is an untenable accusation which I categorically reject.

    Because of that I was in no way ‘huffy’ to the associate.

    I never said you were nor did I mean to imply it. I was referring to what seemed to me to the presumption of entitlement in your post in regards to being able to return an item without a receipt.

    Also I don’t understand what the store is losing by allowing me to EXCHANGE an item (I understand cash returns are different).

    The store stands to loose a number of things. For one, not all returned merchandise can be resold as new. In some cases, returned items represent items that the store no longer even sells and has no shelf space for. (You don’t know if the item you received was new or when it was purchased. It could have been purchased months ago and it could easily have been a “re-gift.”) And there is a transaction cost of restocking an item–a cost the store may choose to absorb for customers. In every case, it costs the store money to accept returns, anywhere from the full retail cost of the item for fraudulent returns to the transaction cost for simple exchanges for goods that are in current stock and can be resold as new.

    looking out for the customer might be a good way to increase the bottom line.

    Indeed, this can be true. The question for all stores is where to draw that line. The line is a matter of determining how much money the store can afford to lose with liberal return policies vs. how much money it can make by having them. I think asking for a receipt is a reasonable and fair place to draw the line. I respect your opinion that the line should be drawn differently but I disagree with it.

    And yes, my kid is very cute. Though, I don’t know why that matters to you.

    I mentioned it because you mentioned your kid. Any tale of woe that involves children naturally invokes a certain level of sympathy. I meant to note that you probably have fabulous and very sympathetic kids but that should have no bering on a discussion on the merits of a store’s return policy.

  27. “I’ve found a lot of times that something I have bought at the store looks and feels entirely different at home.”

    I think they mean people who buy a prom dress, wear it to the prom, and then return it. Not people who take clothes home and then decide it doesn’t match the pants they thought it would or they just don’t like it that much after all.

    (But yeah, I quit bothering with the WSJ when I found out they didn’t have a labor beat reporter and got caught with their pants down on the dockworkers strike on the West coast a couple years ago. How bad is your business paper when you can’t keep abreast of a story that cost US businesses billions of dollars because you’re ideologically opposed to unions?)

  28. pr1nc3ss says:

    As the manager for a men’s clothing store and being in retail for over 15 years, I have heard and seen everything regarding returns. Yes, there are people out there who try to scam a return with stolen merchandise or “wardrobing”. Most of the time that’s not the case and I try to be accodomating as much as possible. But I need to point a few things to consumers. We have a fairly liberal policy for returns/exchanges. If you try to return without a receipt, we will always try to look it up. We keep a database of your purchase history. We do not keep credit cards on file, as this is illegal and saves you from potential fraud. If you refuse to give us your information to create a customer profile at time of purchase(name, address, phone number) we have no way of looking up your purchase.

    When this occurs, we will give you store credit or exchange at the lowest selling price, not the current price. Don’t like that? Keep your receipt. If you forgot it at home, don’t blame me if you claim you paid $99 and the credit is worth only $39. Go get the receipt, we will be glad to credit/refund/exchange at the price you paid.

    If you paid for alterations and now have changed your mind, not because of defect or incorrect tailoring, you are not getting your alteration fee back. We provided the service that you agreed to and the tailors should not take the hit on that, nor should I since it’s part of my operating expenses. And yes, you will pay again for new alterations on the new items. Be thankful we would even consider returning/exchanging altered items! Most are not restockable, depending on the type of alterations needed or wanted.

    Store managers are not out to get you or cheat you at most retailers. We don’t want a fight, believe me. It ruins our day as much as yours. Be nice and honest, not rude, insulting, or demanding. Don’t threaten that you will have my job by going above my head. I’ll give it you and can guarantee you wouldn’t last a week. Besides, my bosses know that I would never make a decision against taking your return unless I had a very good reason. Like you stole it, or wore it out and now want something new, or you realized you were short of cash/credit this week and the item is a year old.

    Bottom line, keep your receipt and a smile and I will always help you get what you want.

  29. robrob says:

    For people who claim to be “high society,” such a practice is very low-class.

    re: wardrobing

    eh. celebrities dont actually buy the crap they wear to society events either, they get it comped or get loaners for the occasion, and then middle class america goes into debt trying to achieve that oh so desirable vera wang red carpet look.

    doesnt make it classy, but its not really the end of the world. christ, i WISH my girlfreind would try that sometime instead of filling my closet up with jackets and dresses she wears once…

  30. jpcooper43 says:

    I used to work as a video game tester when I was younger and we’d a copy of the crappy video games we worked on as a perk of the job.

    So we’d march over to the local toys r us with no receipt and they’d issue store credit and we’d load up on good video games, or game systems, I wouldn’t do it now but the folly of youth and all that…

    This was in the 90’s and they’ve obv. changed the returns tune since then. Good for them.

  31. ahwannabe says:

    I’ve heard horror stories from some former Toys R Us employees about people who grab as many toys as they can at Toys For Tots giveaways, then “return” them for beer or drug money. So I can’t say as I blame them for changing their policy. Sucks.

  32. RobbieWilkes says:

    We actually had a terrible experience dealing with Target one time. My son purchased a PC video game from the store, and, when we got home, he opened it to find that it contained a blank CD. Obviously someone had purchased the game, replaced the cd with the blank, resealed the package and returned it.

    He took the game back to the store to get a replacement, receipt less than an hour old, and explained what happened, only to be told that there was nothing they could do, that they could only accept returns on unopened software… that, for all they knew, he could have opened the game and pulled the cd out himself.

    Assuming that they probably doubted the trustworthiness of a teenager, and understanding those concerns, I returned with him to the store and spoke with the manager myself, confirming that I had been witness to him opening the package and finding the blank cd.

    The manager then snottily told me that it would be impossible for that to happen because they did not accept returns on opened software. I explained that it obviously could happen, because it did, and asked if she were calling me a liar… to which she replied, “I didn’t say YOU were a liar, only that it could NOT happen the way you describe.”

    Needless to say, I was pissed.

    So, leaving Target, we went across the road to Wal-Mart and bought another copy of the game. When we got home, I then carefully opened the end of the package, slid the game cd out of the box, placed the blank cd in its place. I also included a note, apologizing to the next person that purchased the game, detailing the incident, along with the name of the Target manager and quoting how she said that this type of thing would be “impossible”.

    I then re-sealed the package, returned to the Target, with the receipt, and got a refund.

    Not only did I feel that I succeeded in making a fool of that particular manager, but I also ultimately gave the sale to their competitor. I then never set foot in that Target again, though I was a regular customer up to that point.

  33. dollface says:

    The straw that broke the giraffe’s back. Toys R Us return/and or exchang policy is shameful. My child will definately not be a toys r us kid ANYMORE!
    My boss held an easter party and bought 6 toys each for 26 kids. How generous. For Toys r Us to require a gift receipt for every six toys his check out would have been a nightmare. He bought tons of toys not cheap ones either. He distributed the toys so each kid could would have the same amount so at the time of checkout he would not have been able to sort every toy out anyways.
    I went to return a Spiderman 3 web blaster which was too big for my son and the box had the Toys R Us sticker on it with the price scratched off.
    The new display was right in front of the store Customer Service area. The supposed manager barked at me no receipt no exchange. I had no idea and have spent thousands of dollars this past year with my son and new baby which I registered for. I had not returned anything until now and was treated like a dog!!!!!!
    Many stores deal with Fraud and do not have a policy like this! Maybe they should hire better Fraud analysts instead of hurting their business with legitimate customers. Target asked for my drivers liscense once to do an exchange and I didnt mind Walmart always has a great policy, so does Home Depot, Lowes, Sears, etc. Managers should use their brains and discretion before they treat consumers like this.
    Toys R Us lost a valuable family for a lowsy $19.99 I also had a $25 gift card that I am asking Toys R Us to reimburse the money to me instead of ever shopping there again!

  34. playfor2day says:

    I, too, had an awful experience at the Rosemead,Ca. Target. I had spent thousands of dollars at this Target(which was very close to my work).Last September, I purchased a lava lamp on clearance for $3.99.When I opened the box at home,It simply would not work.The very next day, I tried to return the lamp,along with a couple of other unopened items,to the same Target.The clerk asked me if anything was wrong with the item as she scanned them.I replied no.I was fishing through my wallet to find a receipt,and was not really paying attention.She then told me that SHE was not going to take back the lavalamp,since nothing was wrong with it.I then told her I was not paying attention,apologized, and told her it was defective.She proceeded to ask me why I changed my story,and she was not going to take it back.I told her if she did not believe me, just plug it in,and it will prove it is defective. She said she was not going to do that.We argued for about a minute,and I asked then , to speak with her manager.She turned to the guy next to her, and said that’s him,.He immediately said “I heard it exactly like she did”After a heated exchange of words, Dan, the alleged manager,told HER that I can exchange the item for the same one.He said this while walking away.Just as he was exiting the retiuns section, without ever looking at me once, he said:”But make sure the item is opened before he leaves the store” The only other lavalamp was a bigger model for $7.95.The original clerk didnt say anything ,charged me the difference(along with a few other items I purchased).I promptly returned that lavalamp to another Target, where the service was extremely friendly.I never stepped into the Rosemead Target again,and took my business elsewhere.