Last holiday season, retailers lost over three billion dollars to return fraud. That's why according to the National Retail Federation, 17% of stores last year tightened up their return policies. If you have the habit of returning items again and again, you might eventually be rejected, thanks to something called the Return Activity Report, which tracks where and when you make returns.
But, don't be alarmed quite yet: Retailers still accept 99% of consumers’ returns, according to The Retail Equation, a company that helps retailers monitor returns.
Returnaholic Or Smart Shopper?
The other 1% are referred to as returnaholics—consumers whose chronic return behavior points to fraud or abuse of the system (like if someone buys a dress, wears it once, then tries to return it; retailers call this “wardrobing”). This is based on the frequency of returns, the dollar amount of returns, purchase history, and whether these customers have receipts or not.
Are You A Returnaholic?
Here are 5 ways to know if you're a returnaholic:
- You return more than 50% of the things you buy.
- You spend more than one hour a day returning items.
- You feel like your return mania is interfering with your life.
- Your mood changes when you shop — usually with a strong adrenaline rush. But when you return an item, the thrill is gone.
- You buy with a mind for using something once or "trying it out," then returning it.
Returnaholism is a close cousin of shopaholism, from which 6% of the country suffers. Some shopaholics also become returnaholics as a way to get around the budgetary constraints of their shopping addiction--this pattern is like the bulimia of shopping. Constantly buying and returning allows addicted shoppers to get the repeated adrenaline rush from buying, without having to suffer the consequences of a depleted bank account. If this pattern resonates with you or someone you know, consider getting help at Shopaholics Anonymous.
How You Get Flagged
Policies vary from retailer to retailer, so there’s no magic number that automatically flags you as a returnaholic. And just because you were considered a returnaholic at one retailer doesn’t mean you’d be barred from making returns at another retailer, even if they both use the Return Activity Report.
Some retailers issue warnings before issuing return denials. If you suspect you might be at risk for a return or exchange denial, you can request a copy of your Return Activity Report.
Either Way, Mind Your Manners.
Even if you aren’t worried about having your returns rejected, it’s still smart to observe basic return etiquette. “Too many people over the years have taken advantage of loose return policies to the point that they defrauded companies, so stores are making their return policies stricter,” says Leah Ingram, author of Suddenly Frugal and The Everything Etiquette Book. “I can’t blame them.”
It’s reasonable to ask a retailer to accommodate all return hassles (such as paying for shipping) if the item you received was damaged or not what you ordered. But, if you've been struck by a case of buyer’s remorse or found a better deal elsewhere, then you should gracefully accept whatever return policies exist, and shop more carefully next time.
Walk The Line
Ethically, you should never try to defraud the retailer by returning something that is not in the condition they stipulate for returns, like trying to pass something off as unworn when it has been worn. Some retailers guarantee satisfaction and generously accept returns even for worn clothing (Bloomingdales, Nordstrom)--returning something after you have worn it several times and grown tired of it is a questionable use of that policy. But if after a few washes it has shrunk past a good fit, or you find the fabric really scratchy or the seams splitting, a return under these policies seems legit. Unfortunately, those who abuse these policies can spoil things for everyone else, since too much fraudulent returning can motivate stores to change their policies.
Research Before You Buy
If you are not a classic returnaholic, but simply return often because you buy impulsively and change your mind later, do your homework before you buy. Although Ingram is constantly looking for ways to save money, she's willing to spend more money on products that she knows are good quality. "I want to know that my well-earned money is going toward a product that I trust and that I'm less likely to return." And while it can feel like a hassle, it is worth the time saved on buying and returning later. Remember that returning takes precious time and energy and gas costs (to find out exactly how much a return is actually costing you, use our time calculator here).
Generous return policies can encourage more shopping, because in the back of our minds we have that escape hatch. Don't let return policies drive bad shopping habits and more acquisition of needless things--when possible try to buy thoughtfully and with a mind to keep, and save returning as a last resort.