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Should chronic returners be banned?

August 12, 2014

Excessive returners are being banned by some retailers from returns for 90 days to a year. In some cases, a few online retailers are banning these problem customers from shopping at all.

I know two people who have gotten banned. One, who got banned at Target, was admittedly a somewhat frequent returner. But the ban for one year came after she returned 60 items at once. The high number was due to the theme of a birthday party for 20 kids — with three gifts per goodie bag — being changed. Target doesn't say anything about potential bans in its return policy.

The other individual was banned from Saks for returning more merchandise than she bought. She worked at a fashion house and would "borrow" items for design ideas. The ban likewise lasted one year.

In its return policy, Saks warns: "To ensure a positive shopping experience for all our customers, if we identify through electronic analysis an unreasonable return pattern, we may restrict or refuse future transactions from such customers at Saks Fifth Avenue or at saks.com."

Across the internet, Best Buy is particularly known for frequently banning customers for 90 days due to excessive returns. Best Buy warns in its return policy: "Based on return/exchange patterns, some customers will be warned that subsequent returns and exchanges will not be eligible for returns or exchanges for 90 days."

On a forum on blu-ray.com, one man claimed he was banned from returns from 90 days by Best Buy in January 2013 after returning three Samsung TVs that all had dead pixels and/or vertical banding on arrival. After not returning any items for a year, he claimed to have been banned again in January 2014 for returning a single unopened Blu-ray.

Lowe's, Home Depot, Victoria's Secret, and eBay are also among those who reportedly ban customers from returns after reaching certain limit.

Amazon reportedly maintains a much stricter policy. Many reports indicate Amazon bans people from shopping at all on amazon.com for excessive returns.

A letter on an Amazon buyers forum purportedly from Amazon Executive Customer Relations in answer to a complaint about being banned stated, "A careful review of this account and related ones shows you've requested refunds and replacements on a majority of your orders for a variety of reasons. In the normal course of business, we expect there may be occasional problems. However, the rate at which such problems have occurred on your account is extraordinary, and it cannot continue. Your Amazon.com account has been closed, and you will no longer be able to shop in our store."

HSN and QVC likewise have lifetime ban for excessive returns, according to reports.

Many retailers have been tracking customer returns for years - often through third-party parties - to detect fraud as well as chronic returners.

Discussion Questions:

Should chronic returners face bans from further returns? What do you think of the purported lifetime bans from shopping for excessive returns from Amazon, HSN and QVC?

While we value unfettered opinion, we urge you to show respect and courtesy for people or companies about whom you comment. Keep in mind that this is a public, professional business discussion. RetailWire reserves the right to edit or refuse the publication of remarks that we deem unsuitable. We may also correct for unintended spelling and grammatical errors.

Instant Poll:

What level of ban should be imposed on chronic returners?

Comments:

From a customer service standpoint, I don't like the idea—it's not good service or good customer relations. On the other hand, I'm sympathetic with the retailers—apparently it can become abusive. I think a one-size fits all policy probably isn't the best approach, though. I had to return the same item three times on Amazon before the vendor (not Amazon itself) got it right. I do think if it continues after a warning, a ban might be appropriate. They ought to have the right, just like a restaurant, to refuse service for a policy violation.

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Dr. Stephen Needel, Managing Partner, Advanced Simulations

Lifetime bans may be a bit much for all but the worst cases, but retailers face a major problem of theft, fraud and serial returns. Chronic returners are like chronic complainers, only worse. It is a small percentage of shoppers who cause the problem, but it can be a major problem. A few shoppers at a high-end retailer I am familiar with return fragrance bottles that are half gone and luxury candles that are half burned, saying they didn't like the scent. And high-end clothing gets returned, too, sometimes after clearly being worn to a party.

"The customer is always right" was a great slogan years ago, but I would apply it only within reason in today's world. The downside of bans for retailers is that chronic returners are going to typically be chronic complainers, and if they have a large social media network, that spells trouble. Although, I think all retailers are getting used to the idea that you can't please everybody anymore, especially on social media. Today's analytics make it pretty easy to see who the serial returners are and make the length of the ban appropriate.

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Al McClain, CEO, Founder, RetailWire.com

Chronic returners should be called to task for their actions. We just need to be careful not to ban our good, loyal customers. The rules of engagement, or disengagement in this case, must be clearly defined and make sense. The Best Buy example show exactly what needs to be avoided.

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Debbie Hauss, Editor-in-Chief, Retail TouchPoints

Each retailer gets to define a "chronic" or what I call "professional" returner based on the business impact.

The trouble is, when the average shopper does return a lot of items in a very short time (let's say for that birthday party snafu that Mr. Ryan mentions), suddenly they fit a profile and are flagged on a "Do Not Shop" list. At what point does it verge on discriminatory action?

Lifetime bans are extreme under any circumstance. Yet, are they much different from the old adage, "we reserve the right to refuse service to anyone ... "

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Mohamed Amer, Vice President, Global Consumer Industries, SAP

It is not politically correct to do this, as these chronic abusers will attack the stores on social media, and without a filter, they will come across as victims. There are websites that promote this type of behavior. Sites on how to bring back clothes, shoes and other items after having used them for a one-time event.

I'm sorry, but bad behavior in this area is increasing, and they know that they can get away with this because stores do not want to cause a scene, which makes banning someone very hard, especially in a brick-and-mortar store.

Our society today has changed, and not for the better. I don't see it changing, as many folks feel that we are the enemy and that what they do is socially acceptable, when in fact it is not.

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Tony Orlando, Owner, Tony O's Supermarket & Catering

It's up to a retailer to make that decision. And if a retailer does, it should be prepared to face some negative feedback for making the decision to ban someone.

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Bill Davis, Director, MB&G Consulting

In a free-enterprise system, companies have the freedom and right to do business with whomever they wish. If these companies choose to ban select shoppers, then they certainly have the right. I trust that each case can be reviewed and appealed upon request. I'm certain that accounts get flagged based upon defined guidelines, but each case should be reviewed before closing the accounts. I can only imagine the lengths select folks will go to take advantage of any system. I've always been a shopper advocate but on this subject I empathize with the retailers.

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Adrian Weidmann, Principal, StoreStream Metrics, LLC

It's a more interesting question than it seems on the surface, particularly when you throw in the "banned from shopping at all" part of the equation. Would anyone protest if you banned a chronic shoplifter from your stores? Or an employee caught stealing? Except while that can be very hard to implement in stores, it's not really so hard online. And even then, it's not so hard to get around that if a shopper is determined.

Abusive returns, when it comes down to it, are a form of stealing. Returning the new TV after the Superbowl, returning the prom dress after prom, these are all pretty classic cases of what really is low-grade theft. So I don't think retailers should get a customer service hit for trying to close that door. But if retailers really are in it for customer service, then they should make their criteria transparent so that consumers know what they're getting into, and they should offer a publicized form of redress for consumers who think they have wrongly become caught up in the criteria, when a real exception applies.

And, as in all things, there is a differentiator out there in taking the opposite stance: by taking all returns no matter what. Sure, you may attract some flies with that honey, but you might also attract valuable shoppers that are put off by more draconian policies elsewhere.

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Nikki Baird, Managing Partner, RSR Research

Retailers need to balance the desire to please customers with the cost of returns. Banning customers seems like an overly harsh solution. This is particularly true of online merchants selling items that consumers cannot try on first, such as shoes and clothing.

Before banning shoppers, I suggest contacting them to ascertain their situations and problems with the merchandise. Then a mutual determination can be made.

Banning rarely produces a positive outcome and retailers should use it as a last resort.

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Max Goldberg, President, Max Goldberg & Associates

A Chief Technology Officer in the organization should have proposed a solution tracking customer returns and have a technology solution limiting the amount of returns a year, propose restocking fees and establish terms and conditions that must be signed when the customer returns an item.

To say "Ban them for life! Make an example of them!" appears to be a knee-jerk mob mentality response from retail executives who do not understand how to solve retail dilemmas with technology in the 21st century.

Ed Dunn, Founder, (Stealth Operation)

Customers are like guests in your home. When they are disruptive and interfere with your well being, its time to leave. Business should have the right to refuse service to anyone for any legal reason. It should be as simple as de-friending someone on Facebook.

David Livingston, Principal, DJL Research

Really, who returns 60 items at once?

Retailers exist to sell things, not lend them. The vast majority of customers abide by existing policies, and they should be protected from wanton returners who abuse the system and drive up costs. That said, part of the return problem is a lack of visibility into women's sizes, which is going to have to be addressed in a meaningful way.

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Cathy Hotka, Principal, Cathy Hotka & Associates

Chronic returners play by different, more advantageous rules than those of most retailers. Such returners aren't worthwhile or fair-minded customers. They usually produce more loss than profit and their scam mindsets do not frequently change. So who needs them? The reverse is also true.

Purported lifetime bans by Amazon, HSN and QVC for excessive returns would setup a social networking and possibly media attacks against such bans and the problem would magnify and lead to possible undesired circumstances.

If such a policy is set, companies should be upfront and announce to customers before any purchase what their return policy really is. If nothing else, that will help determine the real courage of each group's tenets. If you don't want such customers and can stand the heat, go with a lifetime ban.

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Gene Hoffman, President/CEO, Corporate Strategies International

This is another case of having a one-size-fits-all solution where it won't work. As each of the examples in the article shows, there may be a very valid reason for exceeding the guidelines. In those cases, management should have a mechanism for overriding the system-generated response.

It's great to track the returns and look for trends and outliers causing higher than expected costs, but it is at this point that the alerts need to be looked at more in-depth.

If there are genuine problems/defects with the merchandise and the customer is simply returning and exchanging due to size or for a working/non-defective product, then it really shouldn't even be flagged as a return.

I realize that this does set up a way for habitual returners to game the system, but that is again why there needs to be an element of personal interaction once the limits are met, so that both an appropriate decision can be made and the result can be communicated with the consumer.

Alan Lipson, Retail Industry Marketing Manager, SAS Institute Inc.

Let's take a case in point. Zappos built a business around supporting and encouraging chronic returners. This reputation earned their company the titles of "customer friendly" and "easy to deal with" and in doing so transformed the buying process for a category of merchandise that many said would never shift to channels outside of the physical store.

There will always be the outliers that game the system, but can a retailer really risk banning a customer because they were so unfortunate to experience poor-quality merchandise or other reasons that may have led to a need to return an item? My favorite retailer, Costco, is amazing when it comes to returns. I know that if I ever have an issue with an item that I purchased at Costco, there is a no questions asked return policy. I give a more generous portion of my wallet to Costco because I know I will not be hassled with the occasional issue that may arise. Retailers beware. I would not recommend cutting off customers because they appear to be returning merchandise more than an arbitrarily set amount.

Kevin Sterneckert, CMO, OrderDynamics

My lady loves to shop. She returns a lot, but she buys even more. She buys things that she then wants to show to me for my opinion, and returns some of what she buys. I'm sure Marshalls/HomeGoods/T.J. Maxx would find her to be one of their best customers, although just based on returns, she might be banned. The policy has some justification but would need to be better thought through for these types of shoppers. Buy four things, return two—but she still buys two!

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Joel Rubinson, President, Rubinson Partners, Inc.

If the conditions are clearly stated, the violations are documented and egregious (like the examples above), and there's an appeal system, I'm with the bans. I'd say retailers can't afford the time, money or lost merchandise to resell (by the time it's returned it may be damaged or out of season), so it's a no-win for the retailers. Retailers shouldn't have to worry about social ramifications if they state the rules clearly, if consumers understand the system and play by the rules, and the consumers themselves should be first to condemn those who don't play by the rules. The poll question is too open-ended, it should have a choice for "how bad" is the violation, and I have no problem with chronic abusers (it says "chronic", right—they aren't going to be changed by a slap on the hand) being banned for life.

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Naomi K. Shapiro, Strategic Market Communications, Upstream Commerce

This is an outstanding discussion that looks directly at a decision that every company needs to make for the sake of the business, but rarely understands the ramifications of until it is often too late.

Businesses and consumers rely on some form of retail for their own existence and/or viability. A feeling of mistrust destroys any and all relationships, with no hope for a full recovery. Abuse from either side, retailer or customer, not only compromises the relationship, but it may bring about an unrecoverable financial loss which may, in turn, seriously financially damage the party that is left with the losing part of the exchange, otherwise referred to as "left holding the bag."

It is important to note that return and exchange policies should be supported by manufacturers, any and all vendors as well as the seller. While there are miles and miles of contract provisions existing to share the losses, they seldom are equal to the extent needed to allow for a clear understanding of conflict ownership. The automotive and insurance industry offer a plethora of customer satisfaction disputes that will demonstrate almost the entire gamut of return customer service and or ownership issues needed to be managed on a daily basis.

Then there is the issue of consumers thinking that a purchase of any kind is not permanent ownership at the time of the sale. And that if a measure of goods or services do not provide the intended or understood outcome, as seen solely by the consumer, for any and all reasons that ownership automatically reverts to the seller regardless of condition with a full refund due immediately to the customer. I suspect that it may not be to long from now that we find third-party "impartial" customer return vendors somehow in the loop. This will be sold as a cheaper alternative to the mountain range of damaged and/or otherwise worthless returns. This alternative, while admittedly somewhat radical, is no less viable than bottled water or pet rocks which were also once seen as beyond the acceptance range of the consumer.

'gjarnoldjr'

This is a free market economy and as such, I feel retailers have a right to set the rules around returns. I have no problem with a retailer banning the very few people who take advantage of a retailer's return policy. That being said, customers should be made fully aware of the retailer's return policies. For example, the policy limitations should be stated in the fine print, documented on sales receipts, perhaps a " returns warnings" included in their monthly account statements as I think a retailer needs to admonish or "coach" a frequent but not yet banned customer. Once reasonable steps have been attempted, a retailer has the right to suspend their privilege to shop at their store.

Todd Kozee, Management Consultant, Kozee Consulting LLC

One key problem identified here is: How do you separate those who have high returns for legitimate reasons from those who are scamming the system?

In general, when in doubt, err to the side of leniency. There are so few true scams that your risk of alienating a good customer is far too high.

Doug Garnett, Founder & CEO, Atomic Direct

Before banning a customer for shopping for any period of time, I would analyze how much that customer buys on average, per-year. If the purchase amount is greater than the returns, then I would not ban that customer from purchasing.

Pradip V. Mehta, P.E., Principal, Mehta Consulting, LLC

There needs to be a distinction between customers and others. Customers are people who purchase with an intended personal use, be it for self, other, gift and so on. The others include people, like in the Saks case above, who not only take time from a store's staff, but have transaction costs and also make merchandise unavailable for sale for a period of time, and depending upon markdown cycle, create an additional cost.

I also remember individuals who would purchase markdown product with the intent to re-sell. They would put it on eBay for a couple of weeks and then return what they didn't sell. The "others" are the ones who should be dealt with.

As to customers with high return rates, one needs to be very cautious. In high-end, high-service stores you can get at it through the relationship employees have with the individual. The conversation can be as blunt as, "How can we serve you better so that you don't need to return so much?" In the more mass merchants, creating that person-to-person interaction is challenging, but may be well worth the effort (you may even learn from it). Finally, the newest twist on this is with the free shipping and free returns offered by so many dot-coms. Some customers get great joy simply opening the packages. For them it's like Christmas coming every day of the year.

Don Uselmann, SVP Director of Stores, Florida and NY, Ex Saks Fifth Avenue

The customer is NOT always right! But, they are always the customer, so if they are wrong, let them be wrong with dignity and respect.

Two points to make from this:

  1. Everyone deserves a warning. If a customer is "abusing" the return policy, warn them.
  2. Some customers aren't worth doing business with, so "fire" them. However, do it right. After the warning or at some point where you can at least have a respectable conversation with the customer. Finish strong and leave the door open.

There aren't that many people who a company would want to ban from doing business with them. Look at each case/customer individually.

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Shep Hyken, Chief Amazement Officer, Shepard Presentations, LLC

It's important for retailers to clearly state their return policies on the receipt. Many stores set time limits. Some stores now ban returns without a receipt because people have been found to shoplift items and then return them for a refund. Some stores will only allow an in-store credit. Some stores ban flagged shoppers from returning items, but don't ban them from shopping. There are ways of battling losses from returns other than an outright ban. However, stores should still have the discretion of determining with whom they do business on a case-by-case basis.

'RetailRetell'

The retailer certainly can take the action of banning people—at the cost of losing prospective shoppers. I am galled by the idea of shoppers purchasing items to wear for a night on the town, just to return them the next day. I understand the convenience of purchasing 4 and returning 2 (but still purchasing 2!), and I do not have an issue with there being a "restocking fee" or similar charge.

I also understand a competitive advantage being extended to those companies that permit returns and do not charge for them. That is the free market system at work—choose who and what you are in the market and compete!

I support the retailers' choosing to ban shoppers. And, I also support the shoppers' decision to avoid those retailers if it prevents sales.

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David Zahn, Owner, ZAHN Consulting, LLC

Retailers certainly have the right to ban a customer that has abused the returns policy. I would expect that there would be some warnings leading to the ban and perhaps some limited-time ban before a lifetime ban is invoked. It's easy to write an algorithm to determine if the customer is abusing the returns policy. Retailers are in the business of selling products at a profit and they do not need customers that abuse the policy and drive up the cost of doing business, and in turn the cost of goods for good customers.

As far as being worried about the trolls and negative social media reaction, retailers need to aggressively defend themselves from negative comments/posts/tweets. Reputation protection and systems to address negative social media criticism are going to be essential for retailers in the future.

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Larry Negrich, Vice President, Marketing, nGage Labs

According to the NRF, return fraud and abuse is a $9 - $16 billion annual issue for US retailers. Much of the time it is less than 1% of returners who cause problems for the rest of the shoppers. A deterrent such as a warning or denial of future returns is often warranted, but that should not come at the expense of providing a great customer experience to everyone else. By managing returns intelligently at the individual level, a retailer can offer friendlier return policies to good consumers, prevent return fraud/abuse, and not need to negatively impact future sales by implementing "shopping bans."

Tom Rittman, VP Marketing, The Retail Equation

Retail is not an agency or charity, it's a business, with a goal of making a profit.
I believe that any business has the right to exclude/ban anyone who is behaving in a manner that threatens the profitability of their business.

We have all heard the stories of the prom dress returns. There are people who make it their business to find ways to defraud others. However, retailers must be careful to treat customers fairly. If merchandise is defective, and not wearable, no penalty should be applied. Also, it might be good policy to deny returns of low value merchandise. An item with a value of $5 or less might not be refundable, but a store credit could be allowed.

I am the first to chide operators about poor customer service, but honestly, some customers are not worth having. I would grant any business the right to ban a customer for any reason (returns, shoplifting, poor behavior, inconsideration of others), but each has to be aware that lawyers sit in waiting, looking for big buck settlements.

Also, a real definition for chronic returners needs to be established and communicated to a retailer's customers before any penalty is enforced. This could be done on the bottom of each receipt.

Ed Dennis, Sales, Dennis Enterprises

The problem here is in defining "chronic returners." Some are easily identified and yes, they should be banned relative to their actions. It's the outliers that need to be handled with care.

A great example is the person who had to return the birthday theme gifts. Although the return volume was high, this customer should have been questioned as to the nature of the return and probably waved.

Retailers need to protect themselves as well as their reputations! And that is my 2 cents....

Lee Kent, Let's meet share and succeed in Retail, YourRetailAuthority

I think as long as return policies are clearly stated and visible to end consumers, then I think retailers are within their rights. Each case is different and I expect that retailers understand the implications and manage accordingly.

David Lubert, Industry Principal, Bridge-x Technologies

Expectation management is the key. Have a reasonably sane, communicated policy that can be used and enforced 98% of the time, but have an escalation mechanism that politely and efficiently deals with the rest. That said, 60% return rates on the web in some categories is not so unusual and has to be accounted for in the policy.

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Peter J. Charness, SVP America, Global CMO, TXT Group

When making decisions about the disposition of specific customers, I would hope that these retailers look beyond merely return volume and frequency. Overall customer value, as well as the effect of such a banning on the rest of the household, can lead retailers make decisions differently than a simply yes/no trigger would do.

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Mark Price, Managing Partner, LiftPoint Consulting, Inc.

I deal with chronic returners on a daily basis. From the homeless returning food they got from the food bank for cash (or gift cards) to the lady who didn't read her list or our ad correctly (she comes back every time she shops). I wish we could stop them, but we don't have a policy to prevent this behavior. I think a lifetime ban is a bit excessive, but it drives the point home to others considering scamming those retailers.

'jremy330'

The policy to ban shoppers needs to be very carefully monitored and policed by some central authority instead of the local store. Each store seems to have a different idea of how many returns is too many, and also where the customer bought the item makes a big difference. For example, if an item is bought at one Best Buy and returned to another, it affects the performance of the second Best Buy (the one that the item was returned to) in a negative way. To the consumer, who treats all Best Buy as one entity, this is a horrible experience. Add to this the power for the store managers to ban customers. Oh boy.

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Gajendra Ratnavel, CEO, L Squared Digital Signage

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