Take my gift back...please!

Cost of shipping: $9, time expended: about three hours. All this for an item priced at $20!

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Cost of shipping: $9, time expended: about three hours. All this for an item priced at $20!

By Jeff Bairstow

Two relatively new commercial labels for retail shopping entered my consciousness recently: "Black Friday" and "Cyber Monday." I'm sure you have seen these terms used ad nauseam in retail news stories. I'll briefly explain these terms and give you a novel third term I am proposing shortly.

The first label—Black Friday—applies to a day of frenetic buying activity, usually on the day immediately following Thanksgiving, whereby devoted shoppers drop enough dough to cause several major retailer balance sheets to produce black numbers, i.e. to become profitable.

Cyber Monday is a neologism coined by the U.S. National Retail Federation a few years back as a result of observed online sales rising rapidly on the Monday following Black Friday. The term "Cyber Monday" is still gestating but that need not concern us here.

In my view, the day after Christmas day (usually called "Boxing Day" in the U.K.) should be named "Returns Day." On this day, shoppers and gift recipients would be able to return items purchased or given as gifts between Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day (plus or minus three or four days) with no questions asked.

I'm sure FedEx or UPS could set up several temporary storefronts in shopping malls to handle the deluge of returnable items. The process would work somewhat like getting a medical prescription filled at a supermarket pharmacy. All the work would be done by the staff of what I'll call "The Returns Store."

You would take in the return items and their packaging. The Returns Store staff would figure out the refunds and shipping costs, obtain a Returned Merchandise Authorization (RMA) number, print shipping labels, box the returns and send them, and you would walk out with a check or credit card refund.

Contrast this simple, straightforward and efficient process with a typical returns procedure for an Amazon "storefront." Just in case you are not familiar with the storefront concept, let me explain as briefly as I can. Storefronts are electronic online retailers whose products are displayed on Amazon's website in the same style as Amazon's goods and are processed just like any other items.

The differences are that the shipping and handling are done by the storefront and any returns have to be processed by the storefront employees according to that company's own policies, which can be, and often are, very different from Amazon's policies. This procedure can work well but it can also be a nightmare for the purchaser.

Let me give you an example that I had to deal with recently. I am omitting the actual name of the storefront to protect the guilty. I'll just call it the "storefront." The process began with reviewing my Amazon account to find the storefront's return polices. This consisted of a full page of single-spaced tiny type—Sections (a) through (m) with detailed descriptions of getting an RMA, restocking fees, unacceptable returns and much more.

I followed the storefront's instructions to the letter. After three 800-number calls (long waits), I obtained an RMA, boxed up the product, and dropped it off at the local post office. Cost of shipping: $9, time expended: about three hours. All this for an item priced at $20! I did get an acknowledgement that the storefront had received the return but after a month had passed I had yet to get a refund. Bricks-and-mortar stores are looking much better at this point.

As I was preparing to say "Never again!" to the Amazon storefront method of online shopping, I came across an article in The Wall Street Journal (page R7, Nov. 30, 2009) entitled "Get Smart About Product Returns," which should be required reading for marketing, sales, and support managers in both online stores and conventional retail operations.

The authors, two business-school professors, show how a carefully crafted returns policy can be a revenue generator rather than a revenue drain. Such policies can build customer loyalty and increase sales, say the authors, by actively managing returns and providing first-class service.

By the way, for my money, the gold standard in online sales and service is the outdoors retailer LL Bean, a company that long before the Internet had a store in Freeport, ME, that was open 24 × 7. And, yes, LL Bean will accept returns 24 × 7, too. Now, there's a novel concept!

Jeffrey Bairstow
Contributing Editor
inmyview@yahoo.com

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