Take my return, please

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.
Noah: Oh.
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.


Anonymous said...

Another return policy that is similarly interesting is Target. The best part of their return policy is that if you used a CC and know which card you used, they can actually swipe your CC and view all your Target purchases so you don't need your receipt as long as they can look it up that way (of course this wouldn't have helped Noah), but for those who legitimately have something to return and just used the plastic bag with the receipt stuck to the bottom of it on the last dog walk, this is a life saver.

On the flip side, the really stupid part of their return policy is that if you can't track a purchase to a receipt or a CC, you are allowed one return per year without a receipt, which they track to your driver's license. So in that case if Noah had for some reason already used his one free return for the year, just get his roommate to take it in and log the return to their drivers license, and wha-la, a $700 Target gift card.

Anonymous said...

This is a little off the subject but reminded me of something else my frugal (cheap) mother has done all my life...I have never really known anyone else to do this and I think it is pretty stupid/weird for the stores to allow her to do so.

She buys things...watches the sales papers and when it goes on sale she brings the receipt to the store (within a certain time period...two weeks?) and gets the difference. I don't understand why the stores do this. It kind of removes the whole "game" of shopping sales, getting the best deal, etc. I don't think its really the store's responsibility to pay the difference..but I'm not going to argue with my mom if she wants to play the game!

sara said...

Ashley, thanks for your review of the Target policy. The credit-card lookup sounds really convenient.

It also sounds like they've created an incentive for using a credit card. I'm sure Visa and MasterCard are happy contributors to this deal. They work with stores to find all sorts of new incentives to buy on plastic. This is a good one.

You've also highlighted the overall silliness of the driver's license rule. If it's that easy to get around, you'd think it couldn't be that great of a barrier to theft. However, a retail thief only has so many friends, with so many drivers' licenses. If this is his job, that rule may indeed slow him down.

Moi-Meme, wow. What your mom is doing is fascinating, and she's certainly not the only one. She's taking advantage of the whole "we'll beat our own prices" policy.

I've met women who do this not because they are poor, but because of the strong sense of satisfaction that comes from saving money. There are many people in this world for whom "what they saved" is more important than "what they spent." It's the whole retail psychology, the game of coupons and "the more you spend the more you save." I believe that the more you spend, well, the more you've spent.

But I digress. It sounds like for your mom, the thrill of the savings is actually fun. She's basically having a little laugh at the stores' expense. If she's got the time to watch the papers, then more power to her. :)

Anonymous said...

Don't you think it's pretty unethical to try and scam a retailer this way? Just because they are large, profitable companies doesn't mean it's right to take advantage of them. The losses just get passed along to the employees, who don't get paid enough. Selling the software on Craig's List or Ebay would be a better option.

sara said...

Anonymous, thanks for your comment. I do agree that my brother's actions were somewhat unethical, and I considered that before writing this post. In the post, I neither condone nor condemn his behavior.

I agree that Craigslist and eBay exist for situations like his, and I believe that if Office Depot were to have turned him down, online reselling would have been his next course of action.

My stance is that he won something, which he couldn't use, and so he looked for someone who wanted it. Office Depot did. If anything, I feel that the story highlights their poor choice over his disingenuous intentions.

However, the fact remains that the store lost money on the deal. (Well, not technically - assuming they sell the product, they just broke even). I don't mean to say this is okay. Large companies don't deserve to lose money or forfeit profits any more than small companies, or you or I.

I actually feel that the policies of the first three stores were good because they deterred him, a one-time offender. They would certainly deter more formidable criminals.

I guess I'm just saying that if he were to make this his job, and return stolen or counterfeit goods all the time, I'd have a much bigger problem with it. For now, I'm sympathetic because I'm admittedly biased. But you're right, better options exist.

Anonymous said...

I think two stores with interesting return policies are Forever 21 and H&M.

Forever 21 is a ludicrously humongous clothing store with cheapy cheap clothes strewn everywhere you look. They have very little organization in the stores and very few employees on the floor at any given time. My guess is that their theft rate is extremely high. Probably because of this, they don't allow ANY returns without a receipt. And they ONLY give store credit. No money back!

H&M is a very similar store. Slightly more expensive merchandise and slightly more store organization, but the basic premise is the same (buy trendy clothes now, and you won't mind that they've fallen apart by next year, because they're no longer in style!). Yet H&M's policy is that they'll accept ANY returns--even without a receipt--and will refund your money, no less. Because of this, I have plenty of friends who simply run into the store and buy a few things, trying them on at home and returning what they don't like. I wonder if the theft rate is as high as at Forever 21, or if H&M just doesn't care, since they're profiting off of people's impulse buys more than F21 is.

To be honest, I'm not sure which policy is better for the store or for the consumer. Thoughts?

Perez said...


Menards (hardware store chain based out of WI) does the same thing with credit cards for returns. This makes it much easier for contractors and handymen since they don't always keep the receipts when they are in the middle of a job.

Anonymous has a point about Craig's List. Noah was a little dishonest but I don't think the store is out any money. They can return it to Microsoft if it doesn't sell. Besides, the store credit was most likely used to purchase higher margain items such as paper and pens.

Anonymous said...

All I have to say is that throughout the whole process, I never lied. And aside from that, it's not like I stole the product. I never said that I got it at Office Depot, and I never even said that I bought it. Attack me at will, but I don't think anyone claimed that what I did was completely honest.

Kristin said...

I have brought a coupon in after the fact. I bought a bunch of stuff at NY and Co. and THAT DAY when I came home I had a 40% off coupon for them. I brought it into the store and explained that I would definitely have used it if I had just checked my mail previously and they gave me the difference! They were very nice about it and it makes me more likely to shop there, probably. Not sure if that was their intent but it can't hurt.

Anonymous said...

Sara I loved your idea about geting 50% of what you paid. As you stated the problem would be that the consumer would be pissed. As someone who manages a store for a large retail chain I could go on and on about return policies and their abuse.

Consumers tend to think that their dishonesty is not really hurting anyone. The cost is absorbed by the large corporation, right? No we all pay in cost increases, lower salaries and fewer sales associates to provide service.

Return abuse is a form of theft. You feel good you pulled one over on the store? How is your integrity holding up?

Other countries where everyone is not in such a hurry-don't allow returns. You leave the store-you own it.

If we all slow down and think about our purchases we would actually save time. The person that truly needed to return a damaged or defective item would not have to go through all this rigamorall.

Bottom line. Think, act morally and ethically, and enjoy the items you have purchased.

Anonymous said...

I won an iPod Nano in October and I already had an iPod Classic and I really needed some extra cash. I tried to return it some stores to gain some money in return and with no luck due to they scanned the bar code which showed them that, it wasn't from their store's inventory.

So, I ran an add in the local paper and within the next day, I got many phone calls about it, of course I was also selling cheaper than retail.

In all, I gained some cash for me and got a person a great deal on a brand new iPod that they really couldn't afford at regular price.

So,it may me feel good to help someone out with my winning of this iPod.


Anonymous said...

i wonder if costco sells that product... they seem to take back anything. and i would be in heaven if i had a $700 shopping spree there; costco has everything

Anonymous said...

Return policies vary not only from business to business, but store to store, employee to employee, and customer to customer. If he had tried that the next day at each of those stores when a different employee was working there, he could have seen much different results.
Don't expect all Best Buys to deny you or all Office Depots to allow you your Office Ultimate returns.

Another thing to consider:
Bob gives Best Buy ProductX.
Best Buy gives Bob a $500 gift card.
Best Buy sells ProductX for $500 cash.
You use your gift card for $500 worth of merchandise.

$500 cash - $500 merchandise = Best Buy profits!

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