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For busy shoppers, buy-and-return the only way to stay sane

Wednesday, 14 Aug 2013 | 7:00 AM ET
Scott Eells | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The harried mom. The bargain hunter. The plain-old indecisive shopper.

For many consumers, buying what catches their eye and returning what doesn't work out isn't just a convenience but a strategy for smart shopping.

"It's just easier to take things back than to go shopping most of the time," said Kimberly Alsabrook, a working mom of two children who does almost all her shopping online and often returns what she doesn't want.

The news this week that some major retailers are tracking your return habits caught the attention of some shoppers who say buy-and-return is a way to stay sane, not an attempt to cheat the system.

The Associated Press reported that many large retailers have turned to outside firms who create "return profiles" to keep track of what you kept, and what you brought back.

(Read more: Retail data not huge, yet enough to fan taper talk)

Retailers argue that it's a smart way to prevent fraud. Richard Mellor, vice president for loss prevention at the National Retail Federation, an industry trade group, said retailers are losing around $9 billion a year in fraudulent returns, a number that has not changed much over time.

But retailers do try to balance the need to prevent fraud with the need to not annoy their loyal customers, he said. In some cases, he added, retailers might be willing to accept a certain amount of loss in order to keep customers with legitimate returns loyal.

Some shoppers say they use returns as a bargain-shopping strategy, picking up what looks good in the store, then taking some time to determine if it's worth the cost.

"I impulsively buy, but I don't impulsively shop and keep," said Brittney Farrell, 26, who lives in the Cincinnati area.

Farrell said she prefers shopping in stores to shopping online because it is easier to return items. But she usually holds on to her receipts and said she's never had trouble returning an item.

(Read more: Sorry retailers, can't blame the weather this time)

Others say they are just too busy to spend a lot of time in the changing room or on the shop floor, considering whether anything from a pair of jeans to a funky lamp is the right choice. That can be especially true for working parents like Alsabrook, 38.

When faced with the choice of a long drive from her smaller community of Lawrenceburg, Ky., to the bigger shopping area of Lexington—followed by the stress of squeezing 5- and 7-year-olds into a changing room—she often opts for a mouse click.

Alsabrook said she's rarely had trouble returning items, although she was annoyed to hear that one of the retailers she frequents might have a limit on how many things you can return without a receipt. That can make it hard to return things like duplicate birthday gifts, she said.

Some retailers have made a selling point of allowing easy returns. When the discount warehouse chain Costco opened its doors in the early 1980s, Chief Financial Officer Richard Galanti said most people were unfamiliar with the concept and assumed the products would be low quality.

Costco decided the only way to counteract that was to let people return anything, anytime—including membership itself.

The company has largely stuck to that policy, although it did have to curtail the time limit on electronics returns when it started losing millions of dollars from people returning things like big-screen TVs when the product had become obsolete.

Galanti said most people are pleasantly surprised to find they can return something long after purchase, and few abuse it.

(Read more: What were moms doing during the recession? Yelling)

"There have been instances—not often—where we basically say to the member, 'It's clear that we can't make you happy. You're always returning stuff. Let's just refund the membership,' " he said.

Many online retailers offer liberal return policies because they know their products may be hard to judge without seeing them in person.

Eyeglass retailer Warby Parker offers a "home try-on program," which lets people try out five pairs of glasses before buying, and shoe retailer Zappos.com has a 365-day return policy.

The outdoor retailer LL Bean tells customers they should return "anything purchased from us at any time." Company spokesman Mac McKeever said in an email that LL Bean doesn't track returns, although it does have internal fraud detections.

A spokesman for the clothing retailer Nordstrom, also known for its generous return policy, said returns have been fairly consistent.

"Our experience is that if you treat the customer with respect, they respect you back," the Nordstrom spokesman, Colin Johnson, said in an email.

—By CNBC's Allison Linn. Follow her on Twitter @allisondlinn and Google or send her an email.

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