L.L. Bean Has Ended Unlimited Returns, and I Am Fairly Certain It’s My Fault

L.L. Bean boots.
We had a good run, you and I. Bryan Snyder/Reuters

I’m responsible for this. That was my first reaction when I read Friday morning that outdoorsy retailer L.L. Bean had decided to stop guaranteeing its merchandise for life. For more than a century, L.L. Bean had offered a lifetime return policy, allowing customers to return or exchange L.L. Bean merchandise at any time for any reason—even years after the initial purchase date. Now, citing “abuse” of the policy, the retailer will only offer a one-year exchange period—and, even then, exchanges will only be granted if you have a receipt. I really feel like this is sort of my fault.

Let me explain. About seven years ago, I bought a pair of slip-on shoes at L.L. Bean—brown, bulky, waterproof shoes that were sort of like Merrells except a lot cheaper. (I think they cost $40.) I wore them through the winter, put them away for spring and summer, and broke them out again come fall. I wore the shoes hard, and they were cheap shoes to begin with, so by the end of the year the soles were damaged and the exterior stitching was starting to come undone.

I needed new shoes, and so I went to L.L. Bean to buy a new pair of the same ones that had served me well for a year. Imagine my surprise and delight when the sales associate told me of the store’s generous return policy and invited me to exchange my old shoes for new ones, free of charge. What’s more, I also got a $10 gift card because of an in-store promotion of some sort. Not only did I get free shoes, I also got free money. Six years later, I still count this as one of the greatest days of my life.

I haven’t spent a dollar on closed-toe shoes since then. Every year, around Christmas, I would drive to the L.L. Bean store in the Old Orchard Mall in Skokie, Illinois, near where I grew up, to exchange my old shoes for new ones.  Over the years, it became a cherished family outing. My mother, who is amused by my sense of thrift, insists on accompanying me on what she refers to as my “scam.” “You’d better not tell anyone about your scam,” she routinely warned me. “If too many people catch on, they’ll stop doing it.”

Well, they did, but I nevertheless take great umbrage at the idea that it was somehow dishonest for me and other customers to take L.L. Bean up on its policy. The company made much of its lifetime guarantee, advertising it on social media and elsewhere. Judging from my experiences, the company even encouraged its in-store employees to tout that guarantee. I feel no guilt about taking L.L. Bean up on its offer. If they didn’t want people to take the swap, they shouldn’t have offered it!

In a letter to customers posted Friday on the company’s Facebook page, executive chairman Shawn O. Gorman announced the decision and griped that “a small, but growing number of customers has been interpreting our guarantee well beyond its original intent.” While I agree that it’s bad karma for people to buy old L.L. Bean merchandise at yard sales for cheap and then return it at L.L. Bean as if they had purchased it there—Gorman claims that this happened, and I do not doubt him—I am nevertheless annoyed by his blamey statement. Customers of a retail store should not be expected to be strict Constitutional originalists. If the intent behind a given policy varies from the text of the policy, then it’s incumbent on the company to change the text of the policy to better reflect its intent. That’s not the customer’s responsibility.

L.L. Bean’s lifetime warranty might have been a foolish one that was prone to exploitation, but it was their policy, and it’s not one that the company kept secret, either. It was a marketing tool more than anything else, meant to foster good feelings and brand loyalty. I certainly felt warm and fuzzy toward L.L. Bean, and the company’s absurdly generous warranty certainly led me to spend more money there than I would have otherwise. But now the policy is history, and I can no longer count on getting a free pair of new shoes every single year for the rest of my life. It’s the end of an era in Justin Peters’ footwear styles—and my wife, for one, is thrilled. The shoes I’ve been exchanging for six years are hideous.