"Free Engraving" For Electronics Really Means "Ha, Ha, You Can't Return This Unless It's Defective"

Certain electronics retailers such as Apple and Sony offer engraving for laptops, cameras and MP3 players. It may seem like a nice service, but it really saves them lots of money. Why? Engraved products can’t be returned just because you couldn’t figure out how to use the product or because you realized that you spent too much on it and now have to eat peanut butter and corn tortilla sandwiches for a month to avoid defaulting on your student loan.

Returns caused by problems like “I can’t figure out how this works” and “buyer’s remorse” make up all but 5% of returns says the Wall Street Journal, and retailers are using engraving to fight back:

The company in 2006 added an option allowing consumers to engrave their name or other message on a Vaio computer. It expanded the program to its digital cameras last year. Sony says the program was started to let customers personalize products, but a side benefit for Sony is that engraved products can be returned only because of defects or other reasons that are the company’s fault.

Return rates on engraved Sony Vaios are negligible, compared with about 5% for non-engraved PCs, the company says, saving more than $1 million so far. “I have a feeling that people are understanding the condition that you can’t return it,” Mr. Abary says. “But also once they have engraved it, they feel like it’s a part of them.”

Electronics retailers spend a mind-boggling $13.8 billion a year reboxing and reselling the crap that you return, says the Wall Street Journal. Most returns are “because a product was too confusing to use.”

The War On Returns [WSJ](Thanks, Robert!)
(Photo: gothick matt )


Edit Your Comment

  1. heyimbobo says:


  2. Tightlines says:

    Article aside, that picture cracked me up.

  3. ShirtGuyDom says:

    Okay, I understand buyer’s remorse, but not knowing how a product that you bought works? Who are these people, I want to meet them.

  4. RandoX says:

    In other words, it keeps people who are too stupid for their own good from returning it.

  5. Parting says:

    So? It’s the same for every industry, once personalized = no return unless defective.

    The problem doesn’t lie within these companies, the problem is lack of budgeting on the consumer part.

    Unless there is an exceptional situation, it’s your own fault that you have to eat peanut butter and corn tortilla sandwiches for a month.

  6. Parting says:

    @ShirtGuyDom: Mainly older people, who are afraid of technology in general, and freak out when the said technology acts too unpredictable to their taste.

  7. ShirtGuyDom says:

    @Victo: Well, you think that any logical, sane person wouldn’t buy a product until the at least knew how to work it.

    But this is a very small percentage, so I guess it’s reasonable.

  8. vladthepaler says:

    It also encourages comsumers to buy direct from the company rather than from a third party retailer, which means more profit for the company…

  9. Tightlines says:


    Agree with you on the returning part, although it should be made explicitly clear that a return will not be possible when purchasing the engraving feature, unless defective.

  10. @Victo: Yes, same with us (jewelry sales). If it’s engraved, we can’t take it back. Some people still don’t understand that.

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

    I’m sure there are many sales people who make items seem very easy to use, in an attempt to “dup” older customers. Look what happens with HDTVs, that many customers aren’t even hooking it up to an HD signal. Sales peopel can over simplify the use of a product to get sales. It may seem easy to press buttons on an ipod to play music, but it is harder (for some customers) to actually install it on thier PC, and rip CDs.

  12. Wormfather says:

    OK, who is the victim here? Anyone who gets something engraved has got to know that it’s a one way street.

    My favorite are the people who buy electronics and then want them engraved afterwards. It’s like do you know how engraving works? Because you’re asking Apple to take your iPod and using a heavy gague needle, bang it really hard for a few minutes.

  13. kimsama says:

    I can only assume that the push to make engraving seem cool and personalization seem necessary is a response by businesses to “retail renting.”

    If you evolve camouflage, they’ll evolve better eyes. The best bet will always be to go with consumer-friendly companies (e.g. not Sony), and know the return policies in advance.

  14. tcp100 says:

    I’d think that a consumer would know a little bit about a product before deciding to have his or her name indelibly etched into it?

    I think the applicable term for someone who buys something sight unseen AND has it personally engraved is umm.. it’s coming to me.. an idiot?

    P.S. Consumerist, can you put a little button next to the “submit” on the comment form that automatically types in “why is this news, Consumerist?”

  15. ChuckECheese says:

    @Victo: True, true. No returns on engraved products was invented as a policy by Things Remembered in 1976, when some chick tried to return her half of a divided heart pendant after breaking up with her bf (and because the chain turned her neck green).

  16. cortana says:

    I’ll just engrave mine:

    Returnable for 200% Original Price cash refund at any time.

  17. Charred says:

    And the story is … ?

    Caveat emptor will always be the order of the day.

  18. weakdome says:

    I wonder what the most anti-Apple statement is that you could get engraved on an iPod? Or anti-sony on a Vaio? Think they’d let it pass if it were blatent libel?

  19. tande says:

    What the hell is a corn tortilla sandwich?

    Sounds like it would be pretty good.

  20. savvy9999 says:

    @weakdome: How about a generic:

    WARNING: I will be obsolete in 12-15 months!

  21. @Wormfather: It’s like do you know how engraving works? Because you’re asking Apple to take your iPod and using a heavy gague needle, bang it really hard for a few minutes.

    Apple uses laser engraving. Touch-free and much sharper than impact engraving.

    No word on if ill-tempered sea bass are involved.

  22. backbroken says:

    I got mine engraved with “www.thepiratebay.org”.

  23. homerjay says:

    Who would ever return an Apple product unless it was defective? ;)

  24. weakdome says:

    @homerjay: or buy one to begin with, for that matter? ;)

  25. ChuckECheese says:

    @tande: If you live in this part of the world (Mexico border), many things are put in a corn tortilla. Corn tortillas are cheap, even with the ethanol making. I can get 2 dozen fresh hot tortillas imprinted with the palmprints of somebody’s abuelita for less than a dollar.

  26. Ron21 says:

    Solution: Take that shiny new engraved iPod and put it into the microwave for 2 seconds.

    There it’s now defective!

  27. NewPerfection says:

    Honestly, I don’t see the issue here. Since when has anything that’s been personalized been allowed to be returned? Is it not common sense? Come on, people. If anything, the engraving makes people think a little harder about their purchase, reducing impulse buying. That both helps the company by reducing returns, and helps the consumer by reducing over spending. They way I see it, both the consumer and the producer win.

  28. Trai_Dep says:

    Measure twice, cut once. Stop whining.
    Unless you’ve bought a Zune, since mentally handicapped people deserve special protections for being “special”.

  29. Trai_Dep says:

    Yet another reason to not let your current date-of-the-month tattoo your name on her arm.

  30. macinjosh says:

    “P.S. Consumerist, can you put a little button next to the “submit” on the comment form that automatically types in “why is this news, Consumerist?””

    Someone could probably do that with a Greasemonkey script. :)

  31. Hasn’t this always been the policy? Seriously, what do you expect Apple or Sony to do with an ipod or computer that has somebody elses name on it? They can’t resell it, unless they rip off the back nameplate and put a new one on, which I don’t think they should have to do unless there was a manufacturers defect.

  32. smirky says:


    Great idea. Then time the return with a new hire who only knows how to hit the correct buttons for the return.
    /jk on actually following through

  33. Cocotte says:

    I’ve had to get my iPod replaced twice, and thought it was really nice customer service that Apple redid the engraving each time (I scuff my iPods up plenty, so it’s obvious when it’s a replacement and not a repair). They claim explicitly that they don’t have to redo it, so it’s a nice surprise to see it come back engraved each time.

  34. QuantumRiff says:

    @Cocotte: I have to agree. My ipod was replaced with the same engravings..

  35. dmuth says:

    I always saw engraving as a useful feature. In the event of less of theft, it can be used to easily prove ownership of the iPod, without having to call Apple and ask them to look up the serial number.

  36. tcp100 says:

    @graffiksguru: Come on graffiksguru, they’re a corporation, they’re supposed to reach into their pit of money and make you a new one while eating the cost. Duh.

    A more reasonable policy, at least, would be a restocking fee.. You pay for what’s lost by the parts they can’t re-use. No doubt people would complain abuot that too, though.

  37. tcp100 says:

    @dmuth: This reminds me of when someone stole my game boy in 6th grade, which had my name and initial on it.

    The kid who took it claimed that my name was his grandmother’s nickname for him.

    Points for creativity, that’s for sure.

  38. ellastar says:

    @ShirtGuyDom: You’d be surprised how many people I encounter who return something because it confuses them. It’s amazing, and not in a good way. Also, I’ve noticed that a lot of electronics products are coming with a piece of paper placed at the top of the packaging when you open it that states “STOP. If you are having problems with this product, do not return it to the store. Please call our technical hotline…” Few people actually pay attention to it, but it’s nice to see companies trying to salvage their sales and explain things to customers who can’t figure the products out.

  39. @tcp100: Fine, I will concede to your point, that if they pay the “restocking” fee of putting on a blank back, that the people who “can’t figure out how to use their ipod/computer” should be allowed to return it.

  40. GreatCaesarsGhost says:

    For those asking “what’s the story?” The point is not that they won’t take the return. The point is they are actively promoting engraving as a means to prevent returns, knowing that no one’s thinking about an invalidated return when they sign up. That’s not kosher, and that’s the story. Good work, Consumerist!

  41. ConsumerAdvocacy1010 says:

    This is one where I have to side with the companies. Stupid customers who buy stuff and then return it later with buyer’s remorse? F*ck ’em!

    Though, it really should be made VERY CLEAR that when you have something engraved that certain restrictions now apply.

  42. gotroot801 says:

    @Tightlines: I want that engraved on my iPod now.

    It’d probably make for a pretty effective theft deterrent, too…

  43. Imafish says:

    A good rule to live by: Only write your name on underwear you intend to keep.

  44. Trai_Dep says:

    If you can’t figure out how an iPod works (play, stop, skip, review), you have no business living in the 21st Century.
    And, I like how people buy gadgets based on how robust the feature set is, then figure they’re above reading the manual.

  45. Starfury says:

    Some of the problem with technology is the people that design it don’t do that from the viewpoint of the average consumer. They’ll add features that most people will never use or be able to figure out how to use.

    I’d rather buy something with less complexity that does what it’s designed to do. I don’t really need a cell phone that takes pictures and has crappy sound quality. Take out the camera, MP3 playback, video playback and just sell me a phone!

  46. diddy0071 says:

    @Starfury: They figure they throw in the line “BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE” the item’s value goes up. Throw in a calculator to a 20 dollar cell phone, and now it’s suddenly worth 100.

  47. Trai_Dep says:

    @Starfury: Unfortunately, average consumers buy based on features, even ones they won’t probably use. Pros and prosumers, OTHO, are knowledgeable enough to know which they don’t need (or when they’re done poorly), and end up wanting less.
    Ironic, isn’t it?

  48. Garbanzo says:

    My husband wanted to get his iPod engraved with “Finally, a robot slave of my own!” The order-taking computer rejected it because it contained an “obscenity.”

    The final engraving reads, “Finally, a robot-slave of my own!”

    And so we learn that robot slaves are easily tricked with hyphens.

  49. wring says:

    I love it how apple appeals to the basic instinct of territorial pissing and use it for EVIL.

  50. Gorky says:

    Electronics retailers spend a mind-boggling $13.8 billion a year reboxing and reselling the crap that you return, says the Wall Street Journal. Most returns are “because a product was too confusing to use.”

    Translates to People are too stupid to use a simple electronics device with more than 2 buttons

  51. Gorky says:


    Buy a Jitterbug [www.jitterbug.com]

    They are designed for people like you that just want a phone

  52. HungryGrrl says:

    Can’t figure out how it works? support.apple.com? And can’t you bring it to the store and get help?

    I’d like the Consumerist to find an example of a company who DOES allow returns on personalized items.

    This is normal, any company that personalizes has the same policy- not newsworthy.

  53. Paperclippe says:

    @ Garbanzo: That made my day.

    And I agree. I used to work a a clothing/jewelery place and we would accept just about any return, as long as it wasn’t personalized (ie, engraved pendants, or even embroidery on sweaters/purses). This seems to pretty much make sense to me.

  54. Inglix_the_Mad says:

    Okay, last time I checked, when you go to personalize the item from Sony they don’t hide that you CAN’T return it. Who is dumba$$ enough to personalize something they’re not sure about?

  55. Pizza Club says:

    You’ll get my corn tortillas when you pry them from my cold dead hands!

  56. Meisterjager says:

    Heeeeey, my iPod Nano says ‘HANDLE WITH CAUTION: Contains heavy metal.’

    Gift from my pappy :o)

  57. mdramesh says:

    Absoulutely true. DO NOT ENGRAVE. Sony Style cheated me on this one. I bought a Vaio EB series, 320 GB, 15 inch i3, white for $789. Within a week there was an offer from Officemax for the bigger EC series, 500GB, 17 inch for $779. Sony simply folded hands (talked to supervisor, manager etc.) and said they can give only a measly 5% discount. I cannot return or exchange it as I engraved it. Really felt pathetic afterwards. Never, never engrave and be cheated by their talk of personalization.