Through a series of fortunate events, my little brother recently managed to win himself a copy of Microsoft Office Ultimate during a Halo 3 tournament on campus.
For those of you who don't know Noah, my 20-year-old brother is a bona fide scary-smart genius. He's also a typical sophomore in college, strapped for cash and struggling to stay on top of his workload. He does not want or need Microsoft Office Ultimate. Like, at all.
But he enters this video game competition. The whole thing is designed around raffle tickets. The incentive to stay in the game longer is not one top prize, but simply more chances to win the raffle. Noah drops out in the first round, but he decides to hang around on the off chance that he might still win.
When his ticket number is called, the college crowd actually laughs at him. They all seem to think that Office is a sad, sad second place prize (first place was an Xbox). They yell things like "You can download it for free!" One kid approaches him a few minutes later, saying "You know, I could actually use that - I'll give you 20 bucks for it?" Noah hesitates, then takes the kid's number just in case.
When he gets back to his dorm room, my brother looks up the product, just in case. OH MY GOD. MS Office Ultimate ("Ultimate" being the key word) is a high-end bundle of productivity software valued at over $700! Cha-ching! Who's laughing now?
And so, his journey to cash in begins.
First, he brings the bright yellow box to Best Buy. But he's turned away. Their policy: "Sorry, we can't take returns without a receipt if they are over $100."
Then, he goes to Circuit City. Again, a no-go. Their policy: "Actually, we do carry that product but after scanning this particular one, we're showing that it wasn't bought at a Circuit City."
Next, he tries CompUSA. His third rejection. Their terms: "We flat-out don't take returns without a receipt."
Finally, he heads to Office Depot. Here's how the conversation goes.
Noah: I want to return this. Will you take it back?
Office Depot Guy: Sorry, we actually just sent back our entire shipment of MS Office, because the new ones are coming out.
ODG: But wait just a minute, let me see that box - this IS the new version! Okay, here is your store credit for $727.
SEVEN HUNDRED BUCKS TO OFFICE DEPOT. That is what he has won. That is actually pretty awesome, if you like office products. (Or know someone who does - Noah ended up trading it for cash with a small-business-owning family friend!)
Of course, what his dorky older sister finds most interesting about this story is the varying return policies of these four stores. To rewind for a sec, a return policy exists to a) please unhappy customers and b) thwart criminals who steal, then return. And it has to be a balance between the two. So let's review.
Best Buy: Must have receipt if over $100. This sounds like a businessperson's decision. "Well, let's look at the numbers here. It seems that 20% of the items stolen account for 80% of the loss, so let's draw the line somewhere that sounds reasonable to a shopper...okay, $100." Basically, if people want to steal cheap things from Best Buy, and return them with no receipt, Best Buy is willing to let that go. Because they don't want to piss off Joe Honest whose universal remote is broken and his wife threw out the receipt. They are okay paying thieves for their own smaller-ticket items, as long as they're not also paying them for plasma TVs.
Still, I think Best Buy's policy is a bit confusing. I'm sure they get lots of customers scratching their heads: "How does the item being $100 relate to my ability to return it?" And technical close-calls: "It was $100 when I bought it, but now it's on sale for $79.99?" It sounds like a good compromise, but it's probably more annoying for shoppers, while still being somewhat amenable to thieves. Grade: B+.
Circuit City: Product must have been bought at their store. This seems reasonable for consumers, and the store is smart to scan the item. However, what if the product was stolen at their store? Would the scanner tell them that? (That would be really cool - front line employees could be nabbing unsuspecting criminals!) If it doesn't tell you whether the item was bought or stolen, though, this policy has little merit in stopping crime. It does, however, make good sense for honest customers, especially honest customers who live in the digital age. Grade: A if the scanner knows, A- if it doesn't.
CompUSA: No returns without a receipt. This is the most old-school, black and white, 'it is or it isn't' kind of policy. It reminds me of a simpler time, before everything we touched had electronic copies. CompUSA must be a tricky place for thieves to make headway. It's probably also a place where lots of honest customers get pissed. Grade: C.
Office Depot: We just want your product. I think this must have been a fluke. Stores typically don't take back extra items because it adds to their inventory. Inventories are planned so that the store sells everything it has. If you start accepting every Joe Schmo's unwanted products, you suddenly have an imbalance. Maybe this employee thought to himself, "That Office Ultimate is gonna be the hit of the season - it can't hurt to have an extra one on our shelves!" But this is pretty shortsighted, and I'm doubting it's company policy. My brother was a customer, bordering on dishonest, and he walked away with a giant store credit. No price minimum, no package scan, and no receipt. I have to imagine this place is somewhat easy to scam. Grade: D.
Ultimately, stores don't want you to return things. They want to take your money and give you stuff. However, as our society becomes more and more full of choice, we as consumers become increasingly indecisive. Return policies are our safety net, and stores actually use them as a selling point. "We're low-commitment," the policies tell people. "You don't have to be sure with us." They make it easy for shoppers to buy on impulse, and to buy more than they really need. "We can always return it," we say to ourselves.
Here's what I'd like stores to do. I can guarantee you they'll never do it, because it runs counter to human nature, but here it is anyway. If you want to return something, we will give you half of what that item cost. You want to return a $60 dress? Here's $30. What, you decided you don't like it anymore? Oooh, sorry. Shoulda tried it on first.
I know, I know, this would force people to actually make real decisions in the store. It would also cause them to truly consider the price of something, in relation to its worth. Which is something we all seem to have forgotten.
Stores will never do this because of all the excuses - something broke, didn't fit, the giftee hated it, dog ate the receipt, and on and on. They know humans aren't perfect, and that we need this Plan B. But I still think some responsibility should fall on our shoulders. If stores would give shoppers fewer choices and less return-policy flexibility, I actually think we'd become smarter, better shoppers. Plus, thieves would have to find something else to do.