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For happy returns, follow store rules

By Eric Fleischauer· 340-2435

For me it was the purple tie with green highlights. My wife received a skillet identical to one she already had. My son received a defective MP3 player. For my daughter, it was a coat that did not fit.

Except for the strikingly ugly tie, all were great presents. But all had to be returned.

My family is not unique, according to the National Retail Foundation. More than one in three consumers will return some of their gifts this Christmas, with total returns approaching 10 percent.

Disappointed gift recipients who once could count on a quick and easy exchange may have a tougher time this year as retailers crack down on returns that cost them money and sometimes are fraudulent.

“Shoplifting is up,” said Consumer World founder Edwin Dworsky, “so return fraud is up.”

If the connection is not obvious to you, then you probably are not part of the problem. Most return fraud involves shoplifters trying to return merchandise they stole from retailers, said Dworsky. Why use a fence when you can get 100 cents on the dollar?

Return fraud

According to the NRF, return fraud will cost retailers $3.5 billion this Christmas season. Nationwide, 95 percent of retailers have had customers seek to return stolen merchandise, according to an NRF survey.

“There are several reasons stores are clamping down on return policies,” Dworsky said. “One is you have shoplifters who steal merchandise and then bring it back claiming it was a gift and trying to convert the stolen goods into cash, merchandise credit or a gift card.”

Another, he said, involves consumers who purchase goods such as camcorders or fancy dresses, use them for a few days, then return them. Retailers call this “wardrobing.” That practice, said Dworsky, has caused some retailers to impose restocking fees, especially on electronic merchandise.

Some stores, including JC Penney, attach a “return tag” on special-occasion dresses and refuse returns if the tag is not in place.

“No self-respecting woman is going to a dance with a tag sticking out of her tushy that says ‘JC Penney,’ ” theorized Dworsky.

The root problem is economic, Dworsky said. Almost 20 percent of people have no money left over after they have paid their primary bills. That creates huge incentives to “participate in special occasions, rather than being denied the pleasure.”

Avoiding fitting room

Another practice that retailers include in the “return fraud” category is more innocuous, but still costs retailers money in terms of returned merchandise that cannot be resold at full price.

“This is people that don’t want to go in the try-on room,” Dworsky said. “They’ll take a whole bunch of things home and return the stuff that doesn’t fit.”

Ever innovative, capitalism has discovered a way to attack return fraud. Enter TheReturn, a company that many retailers hire to track how many returns particular customers make. Exceed the limit — usually not advertised — and the store will nix your effort to return the merchandise.

As they restrict returns, however, retailers increasingly have discovered that legitimate customers are less enthusiastic about buying if they have to worry about a hassle in the event of a return. That creates a contrarian capitalist niche.

Painless returns

Locally, for example, Dillard’s goes out of its way to make returns painless. It even agreed to my return of the purple tie with green highlights, an item that almost certainly will escape resale.

Dillard’s expands its return policy during the Christmas season to 90 days, acknowledging that its normal 30-day policy does not work well for presents bought early but found to be unsuitable on Christmas morning.

“We make the return process as simple as possible,” said store manager Bill Elliott.

The store even places a proof-of-purchase tag on merchandise so, if a gift recipient does not have the receipt, the store can scan the tag and determine when it was bought and for how much.

“If your wife loses the receipt, we still have the yellow sticker that has the history of the purchase,” Elliott said.

Even if the lost receipt pertained to an ugly tie.

Original condition

“It needs to be in the original condition,” Elliott said. “Customers should put boxed items in the original packaging. If it’s a clothing item, make sure the tags are attached to it. If it’s a basic return, we’re going to re-sell it to a customer, but we can’t re-sell unless it’s in its original condition. We have to make sure it’s something we can pass along to another consumer and still be 100 percent good quality.”

Restocking fees

Dworsky’s pet peeve is restocking fees, which he said are punitive when applied to merchandise — such as digital cameras — that is not easily evaluated within the store.

Don’t tell anyone, but he’s come up with a practice on digital cameras and the like that avoids the problem. He takes a memory card with him, takes pictures using the demo, and goes home to look at the pictures on his computer. Bad picture? No return hassles and no re-stocking fee.

Want to help retailers avoid the costs associated with excessive returns? That’s easy. Go to Dillard’s, find the purple and green tie, and buy it.

Oh, and don’t ask about the mustard stain.

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