L.L.Bean ends its famous ‘lifetime replacement’ guarantee

Photo: Wikipedia/John Phelan; Source: Facebook
Feb 12, 2018
Tom Ryan

L.L.Bean, which has touted its 100 percent satisfaction guarantee for more than a century, has initiated a new one-year limit on returns and exchanges due to rampant abuse.

In a letter to customers on its Facebook page, Shawn Gorman, executive chairman, wrote, “Increasingly, a small, but growing number of customers has been interpreting our guarantee well beyond its original intent. Some view it as a lifetime product replacement program, expecting refunds for heavily worn products used over many years. Others seek refunds for products that have been purchased through third parties, such as at yard sales.”

L.L.Bean said returns of items that have been destroyed, rendered useless, acquired from thrift stores or retrieved from trash bins have doubled in the past five years, the costs of which have exceeded the annual revenue from the company’s iconic duck boot. Abuses are believed to have accelerated as return stories have been shared across social media.

“The numbers are staggering,” Steve Smith, L.L.Bean’s CEO, told The Associated Press. “It’s not sustainable from a business perspective. It’s not reasonable. And it’s not fair to our customers.”

The retailer said it will, however, continue to replace products for manufacturing defects beyond a year after purchase.

The return policy on the site now reads: “If you are not 100 percent satisfied with one of our products, you may return it within one year of purchase for a refund. After one year, we will consider any items for return that are defective due to materials or craftsmanship.”

Edgar Dworsky, founder of the consumer resource site, Consumer World, said in an e-mail to USA Today, “We’ll have to see how consumers react, but I think most will still consider their new policy very fair.”

In February 2017, L.L.Bean indicated it was exploring overhauling its generous return policy while saying it was offering voluntary early retirements to employees to shore up profitability. At the time, the company also said it was exploring eliminating year-round free shipping and last week indicated it was imposing a $50 minimum for free shipping.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: How important was L.L.Bean’s legendary return policy to its overall success? Will the retailer face negative repercussions from ending its lifetime return policy? Do you see other retailers with generous return policies altering theirs, as well?

"In the age of things going viral it’s no surprise to see this no-questions-asked policy being unsustainable."
"Sounds like the actions of a few are ‘punishing’ the majority — but the new policy is certainly beyond fair and reasonable."
"While the lifetime returns policy was memorable, what is really legendary is their commitment to quality and standing behind their products."

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26 Comments on "L.L.Bean ends its famous ‘lifetime replacement’ guarantee"

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Bob Phibbs

This was a return policy from a bygone era before computers, before texting and before consumers looked at how much they could game the system. If you remember, Nordstrom and others had similar generous policies that had to be ditched as people used their stores as a virtual closet returning ballgowns and shoes after wearing them once to an event.

I expect to see further tightening of return policies, just as we saw with coupons, as retailers connect the dots to see there is no path to profitability in being used as a doormat.

Dick Seesel

L.L.Bean is among the last retailers to abandon “no questions asked” return policies. The company is right that abuses of the policy make it unsustainable. A cost of $50 million per year has been reported, although it’s not clear whether this is the cost of “abusive” returns or all returns. I’ve noticed other companies with generous policies (Kohl’s, for example) tightening their processes, in part to avoid being swamped by e-commerce returns to physical stores.

Loyal shoppers will not be put off by the change, but L.L.Bean took a PR hit because of widespread media coverage. There was a missed opportunity to manage the message more effectively, even if the decision was justified, given that the policy was a central branding message.

Mark Ryski

Of course some L.L.Bean customers will be offended by this move, but the die-hards will stay fans. Retailers should be very careful in the expectations they set with their returns policies. Offering unlimited returns is certainly a powerful offer, but as L.L.Bean has acknowledged (and every well knows), these programs do get abused. Retailers need to be fair, reasonable and stand-by their products — offering lifetime returns doesn’t do customers much good if the company can’t survive in the long-term.

Neil Saunders

It is unfortunate that a dishonest minority of customers have chosen to abuse this generous policy. However in the face of this L.L.Bean had little choice but to end the guarantee.

Will it generate press coverage? Sure. Will it deter loyal L.L.Bean shoppers? Unlikely. Loyalty to the company is based on more than the guarantee. Moreover, the replacement policy is both fair and reasonable. Most honest people will understand the need for change.

Ben Ball

Loyal customers who value L.L.Bean for the spirit of the guarantee will understand. Those kind of people do not appreciate anyone who takes advantage of a well-intentioned individual — or company.

I long have (probably “mis”) quoted Leon Leonwood Bean as embodying the very soul of customer satisfaction and service when he said, “Our sale is not complete until the customer has used the product up and repurchases the item” or something to that effect. In essence he defined the holistic customer experience and said L.L.Bean was responsible for the entirety of it.

I don’t feel like L.L.Bean is damaging their business. But I do feel like retailing is losing one of its iconic symbols.

Bob Amster

The policy was a noble one but unrealistic and consumers will understand. L.L. Bean still carries a brand name that consumers associate with very good products.

Max Goldberg

L.L.Bean’s return policy served to boost trust in the company’s products. It’s a shame that the actions of a few greedy consumers have necessitated changing this historic brand. That said, I’m more concerned about how dropping free shipping will impact L.L.Bean, as this seems to be a consumer must-have.

Kai Clarke

L.L. Bean initiated its original policy to create trustworthiness, reliability and credibility. Because it also included refunds, this opened the door to abuse in today’s connected society. My recommendation would have been to keep the generous “return” policy for all L.L.Bean made items, and to limit it to simple repair or replacement to the original owner (L.L.Bean keeps records like any other retailer) and limit it to five or 10 years (i.e. so long as the current model is manufactured).

This allows current customers to create full records for L.L.Bean to use as part of their system, and to circle back on it when managing returns. This type of policy would keep loyal customers loyal, and still create an enhanced level of trustworthiness, reliability and credibility for L.L.Bean.

Robert DiPietro

I’m sure some customers will be angry with the change but it’s just another good intention for the masses ruined by a minority of customers. In the age of things going viral it’s no surprise to see this no-questions-asked policy being unsustainable. From a personal perspective, I remember this policy from my childhood and my parents would use it from time to time but never abused it. I recall the famed hunting boot having an issue after a couple years and sure enough it was replaced with a new one. Seems like a sign of the times.

Steve Montgomery

The key word in the question is “was.” Historically L.L.Bean’s policy was very important as it assured customers they were buying a quality product. Today the brand stands for quality and does not need the forever return policy. A one-year limit is very reasonable policy.

It is unfortunate but there will be people who will determine that they can still game the system by using items for nine months and return them and buy replacements and do it again.

Lee Kent

I am certain this generous return policy helped them grow and maintain business however, after the initial PR bump, they will get through this change. I too would have suggested some variations to the one-year limit. My sister has a coat from another retailer who guarantees their products. The coat is still extremely nice and classic however, the lining was getting worn. What did the retailer do? they offered an unbelievable discount to replace the lining. They have a very satisfied and loyal customer with this gesture. Not every product is made for life but for the ones that are, it just might make sense to go the extra mile. For my 2 cents.

Dave Nixon

I sense the diehard fans are not fans because of the replacement policy, and therefore probably aren’t the ones abusing the system. L.L.Bean could use all the help it can get to stay afloat and the people who will abandon the brand over this change, represent a dollar sum far smaller than the cost of replacing the product for people taking advantage of the system. It’s 2018 — we’re used to fair return policies and know that a small demographic of people will ultimately ruin a good thing for the rest of us.

Michael La Kier

L.L.Bean’s return policy was certainly legendary and helped build their brand as reliable and dependable above competitors. It is interesting to hear from their management that it has become unsustainable. It seems like they could have added limits for abusers rather than for all consumers.

Al McClain

The new policy is still generous and L.L. Bean can certainly afford to lose those who don’t like the new policy, and this will help their profitability. Meanwhile, I don’t think it has anything to do with social media. It has to do with a general decline of the percentage of people doing what’s right.

Ed Rosenbaum

This was an effective policy when it started and still can be. One-year return is still liberal. I give them credit for holding out as long as they did with this. Certainly they knew long before now that the policy was being abused. L.L.Bean’s customer base is very loyal. I have no doubt that they will continue to be supportive. After all, the product line and service is one of the best.

Jennifer McDermott

I’m not a huge fan of how the message was delivered — which sounds like the actions of a few are ‘punishing’ the majority — but the new policy is certainly beyond fair and reasonable. In terms of improving profitability, I would much rather see an announcement like this than huge store closures and staff layoffs.

Mohamed Amer
L.L.Bean’s announcement on its legendary returns policy has been in the works for a long time (see my remarks a year ago on RetailWire). At that time I suggested that “There is no reason to make wholesale changes to a policy upon which the company was founded in order to address a small fraction of their customer base while alienating their core customer.” Over the past 12 months L.L.Bean has been preparing the industry and its customer base for the changes in the returns policy. Actually, Mr. Gorman’s letter framed the change as a clarification of — not a change to — the company’s returns policy. The intention of this clarification is to adjust expectations and eliminate abuses while remaining steadfastly dedicated to the company’s values of quality, value and trust. For L.L.Bean’s loyal customers, the long gestation period has allowed them to digest this expected change (update) and accept the logic and transition needed by the company to flourish. Today’s tech-filled operational and competitive environments are more prone to abuses and less forgiving to… Read more »
Ralph Jacobson

This move makes complete sense and it is only being reasonable, whereas the consumer abusers of this policy were being completely unreasonable.

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.

Given the rise in outrageous returns the change in policy makes sense, especially when the manufacturer and craftsmanship defects return policy remains for a lifetime benefit. L.L.Bean is still standing behind its products while protecting itself from consumers who were taking advantage of the system.

Mark Price

I have concerns about L.L.Bean shrinking their warranty to one year and only in case of defect. This approach makes L.L.Bean just like all the other retailers in their category and reduces their differentiation. I agree that the problem of excessive returns is a meaningful one; I just don’t think that a “me-too” resolution is in the best interests of the company. For example, do you think that returns should be so limited for best customers — either the longest tenured or the highest spending? I would call that being penny wise and pound foolish …

Ryan Mathews

I think the return policy was part of the legend of the brand and, in that sense, was critically important. That said, times have in fact changed and the policy is clearly too expensive to maintain. So, what’s needed is a new story that reinforces the brand and allows L.L.Bean to have a new policy on returns. Levi’s used to be guaranteed for the life of the owner, but the brand managed to prosper long after that guarantee was abandoned. As to other retailers, it depends entirely on who they are, what their policy is, and who much the policy contributes to their total brand messaging.

Shep Hyken

The original policy created confidence. A lifetime guarantee … that’s huge. Most customers understood the intent behind it. The new guarantee they have is more than fair and they have left the door open to take care of any problems that are due to any defects beyond the year. And, the way they did it was classy. They explained the “why” behind the change. Again, still a generous return policy with room to be flexible. This shouldn’t have any negative repercussions that haven’t already been thought out.

Ken Morris

While the lifetime returns policy was memorable, what is really legendary is their commitment to quality and standing behind their products. An unlimited return policy is not sustainable from a financial perspective. The only negative repercussions from ending the lifetime return policy will come from the people who have been abusing the policy. Frankly, it will be good for L.L.Bean to get rid of those “customers” that are abusing the system. I have personally witnessed the abuse 1st hand and overheard people discussing that they were on their 3rd return of their worn out duck boots over a 10 year period.

True customers will continue to be loyal to L.L.Bean, as they know they can count on outstanding quality products. L.L.Bean will always stand behind their products and honor reasonable returns for products that are defective due to materials or craftsmanship. I think adopting more realistic returns and shipping charges policies are imperative for retailers’ long-term success.

Craig Sundstrom

Last things first. Other retailers, of course, already have — indeed, policies have come and gone throughout history, and that’s not going to stop.

It’s a perfectly sensible — very generous, actually — policy that won’t cause problems except in rare circumstances, and shouldn’t bother 99.9% of people. Nonetheless, I expect there will be some griping, quite possibly from the abusers who caused enactment of the change in the first place.

Dave Bruno

I think this is a “must-do” strategy change for L.L.Bean. While it is certainly regrettable that a few bad actors have made the change unavoidable, the spirit of their intent is still alive and well in their new one-year return policy. If they lose a few customers because they are now unable to return products after 15 years of use, perhaps these customers are expendable anyway….

Allison McGuire

In this age of social sharing, a company’s generosity is bound to be exploited. I can’t imagine anyone not agreeing with Shawn Gorman’s decision. This is still an incredibly generous return policy and it speaks to the company’s values to not swing too far in the other direction. This was an appropriate adjustment that should not have negative repercussions.

"In the age of things going viral it’s no surprise to see this no-questions-asked policy being unsustainable."
"Sounds like the actions of a few are ‘punishing’ the majority — but the new policy is certainly beyond fair and reasonable."
"While the lifetime returns policy was memorable, what is really legendary is their commitment to quality and standing behind their products."

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