Always Right is Slate’s pop-up blog exploring customer service across industries, technologies, and human relationships.
Typically an item left in the office kitchen is a reason for celebration: leftover birthday cake, homemade cookies, fresh tomatoes from someone’s garden. But the saddest thing I ever saw in an office kitchen was an abandoned pair of brand-new women’s pants I found sitting on a table one day. I remember the pants were from Coldwater Creek, size large in a dark color, and they were still in the plastic wrap and packaging they’d been shipped in. They had a note on them that said something like “take me” or “free!”
Sure, those pants weren’t “baby shoes, never worn,” but they broke my heart anyway. Whose were they? What was wrong with them? Was the idea of visiting a store or post office to return them so upsetting that the pants’ owner couldn’t bear it and decided the only way forward was desertion? Since I was a kid, I’ve always felt apprehensive about demanding my money back, stemming no doubt from all the childhood weekend shopping expeditions I spent quietly dying inside while standing in line with my mom at Toys R Us or Caldor or Kmart, watching the women of her generation pursue returns with single-minded purpose. Even if you don’t have full-blown return anxiety, you probably don’t like returning stuff. As Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist and the author of Decoding the New Consumer Mind, told me, “People returning in a store, the emotions there are so clear to read. There’s a combination of either guilt or shame, and it’s also layered over with anger at the hassle of returning.”
But one major thing has changed about retail since my childhood return anxiety: the rise of e-commerce. Because we don’t have fitting rooms on the internet, we tend to return a whole lot more. Some e-commerce players have put in place generous return policies that seem to acknowledge the inevitability of returns and maybe even the possibility that the people who return the most might actually be the most discerning, and best, customers, as Zappos has posited. This year, Amazon introduced a service called Prime Wardrobe, wherein members of the company’s Prime program (who pay an annual fee) can try on clothes and return whatever doesn’t fit. The clothes arrive in a resealable box that already has a prepaid label for mailing it back included inside. Some experts—in particular, makers of retail software who have a dog in the e-commerce race—have encouraged companies beyond the Zappos and the Bonobos of the world to put as much thought into the “after-buying” experience as they do the purchase itself.
It’s difficult to isolate the monetary impact of doing so unless the companies themselves trumpet their results, but a few studies have borne out that it pays to create easy return policies. One 2012 paper in the Journal of Marketing found that a free returns policy at one leading website boosted consumer spending 158 to 457 percent. Another study, this one in the Journal of Marketing Research in 2015, concluded that providing positive return experiences was a valuable tool for creating customers who would bring in more money in the long run.
Yet even as e-commerce makes returns easier there’s still the matter of, as David Sobie calls it, “the dreaded arts and crafts project.” You have to find a box, fit your product back into that box, print out a label, visit the post office. Two years ago, Sobie and Mark Geller co-founded a company called Happy Returns in their own bid to improve the return process. Their idea was to open physical locations in high–foot traffic areas where people could go to return goods purchased at e-commerce-only outlets. At Happy Returns bars, “you don’t need a receipt, you don’t need to do any prep. You simply hand your items to someone, answer a few questions, and get your money back immediately,” Sobie told me. Happy Returns currently has a few dozen locations across the country and works with companies such as Everlane, Eloquii, and Tradesy.
This got me to thinking. Sobie said that what customers want with e-commerce is the ability to buy online and return in person. But even that feels a bit like a compromise—yeah, I guess I’d agree to talk to someone in person to do a return, if my only alternative is having to locate one of those weird padded envelopes and surreptitiously use the office Xerox to print out a label. Everyone knows the real holy grail solution to any problem is that it solves itself without you having to do anything at all: How about instead of sending something back, I do nothing, keep the thing, and get a refund anyway? Greedy, maybe, but it’s what the e-commerce boom has wrought. When one site offers a great perk, like free shipping, suddenly every site has to offer it to compete, and when one retailer gives you a full refund one time, you think maybe you could get accustomed to that kind of service.
I know, because it’s happened to me: Recently, the snaps on a pair of sandals I bought last summer broke. They were from one of those chichi startups that like to trumpet their superior quality and customer service, so I emailed to ask if there was any restitution the company could offer me. (Yes, I used the word restitution.) I never would have done this—complained about a year-old pair of shoes or used an embarrassing word like restitution—in person, but I had no problem firing it off in an email. The impersonal nature of e-commerce had emboldened me. Maybe it’s emboldened us all.
It’s not just that people return more of what they buy online because it doesn’t fit. The whole culture of shopping has evolved over the past few decades. “There’s a lower level of trust between the retailer and the consumer,” Yarrow told me. As mom-and-pop stores have declined and soulless chains have taken over, the power has shifted to consumers. Meanwhile, we’ve also got online stores conditioning us to expect VIP service. “At one point I think consumers felt an obligation of fairness toward a retailer,” Yarrow said. “And then at some point, that sentiment really changed and consumers lost their trust in retailers. Retailers noticed consumers were becoming much more unethical in how they shopped, and they tightened up. It is just a mentality of distrust on both sides.” Among the $260 billion worth of goods Americans returned last year were no doubt billions of dollars’ worth of fraudulent, sneaky, or just plain tacky returns. Haven’t we all seen this firsthand? A friend recently told me about a trip to Costco in which she was appalled to see that the woman in line ahead of her returned a third of a pizza.
It doesn’t feel great that my journey of self-actualization is part of a larger story of the decline of American consumer ethics. On the other hand, though, thinking back to those Coldwater Creek pants, present-me might take them and see what I could get for them. Hell, I have half a mind to write Coldwater Creek now, all these years later, and see what it’ll offer for my troubles, in the way of, ahem, restitution. The old me, who felt a sense of obligation and shame, is gone, replaced by the retail industry’s worst nightmare: a woman who isn’t afraid to ask to speak to the manager.