Taking Advantage – or Over-Advantage – of Customer Service

Cam writes in:

I got a sweater from Land’s End for my birthday with the receipt included. I wore it twice, but I just don’t like the sweater. It fits fine and is well made and everything, but I just don’t like the look. I’m thinking of sending it back to them under their unconditional warranty but it feels wrong to me. What do you think? Should I send it back and get something I want or should I give it to Goodwill or something?

For me, this is a question with an easy answer that leads to some much more difficult questions.

So, let’s dig in.

Should Cam return the sweater? Absolutely. Part of what you’re buying when you buy from Land’s End is that very unconditional guarantee. If I were Cam, I’d return it as soon as possible and pick out something I liked to replace it with.

Having said that, if Cam had worn the sweater for years and years and it was showing wear and tear from tons of use, I wouldn’t think it was cool to return the sweater at that point. Their guarantee would cover the sweater, but you’ve already received what you’ve paid for if you’ve worn the sweater into oblivion.

And that’s where it gets sticky.

There’s a cost for returning items. When companies figure out the price of their products, one of the factors they have to consider is how much the customer service for this item is going to cost. They look at factors like how often the item will be returned and how many customer service calls it will generate. Those things cost the company money and they have to directly tie it into the cost of the product.

Normal, reasonable customer service requests are usually incorporated into the cost of items you buy. Thus, when you open something and find that it’s faulty, it’s the right thing to do to return it and put it right.

Where things become more difficult is with the unreasonable requests. Most companies will do what they can to help you with your attempted returns and customer service complaints, so if you think you’re justified, you should do what you can to make it right. If the request is really unreasonable, however – like returning a very worn sweater and demanding a full refund – it alters the numbers on which the company runs.

To put it simply, if the number of unreasonable customer service requests goes up, the price goes up – for everyone.

If you’re looking at a potential unjustified return on a very small scale – just your individual return, with no one else or no future purchases considered – it’s justified to push hard against their customer service rules and get every complaint met.

However, once you back up in scale a bit, you see that there are problems with that. First, it eats up a lot of time, as many such non-standard requests eat up your time to resolve them. Second, it increases the future costs of products for you. Perhaps even more notable is that the costs go up for everyone else as well.

My solution is pretty simple: unless it’s clearly a defective product issue, I don’t bother with the customer service. The time investment, plus the potential impact I have on future cost increases, usually doesn’t make it worthwhile unless you’re talking about a very high-end item.

What’s a frugal person to do, then? The best step is to buy less stuff, but when you do buy, buy quality stuff. Items that are backed up with strong reviews, strong customer service, and a great warranty and/or guarantee on the product are what you should sink your money into.

I look at it this way. You might have a choice between a $40 enameled cast iron pot and a $300 enameled cast iron pot. The more expensive one has tons of great reviews and is backed by a ridiculously thorough warranty, while the cheaper one has no reviews at all other than a few negative comments on blogs. What’s the better buy?

First of all, my question is whether I need the item at all or whether I have something else I can use. After that, I ask myself if I’ll use the item frequently. If the answer to both is obviously yes after a lot of experiences in the kitchen and study of what the item actually does, I’ll buy the more expensive one. Why? The more expensive one will do the job better and will last longer, and if something goes wrong with the cheap one, I’m going to be thrust into a customer service nightmare – most likely, I’ll just wind up burning a bunch of time and replacing it out of pocket.

Of course, the best choice of all is to either find another item that fills your need, but that’s an entirely different story.

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35 thoughts on “Taking Advantage – or Over-Advantage – of Customer Service

  1. Daniel says:

    You wrote about something similar during “Ethics Week.” Of course she should return it and not feel guilty, but for every person that doesn’t return it and who doesn’t take advantage of the warranty the way they should, there’s someone who abuses the systems. It evens out and it’s up to each individual to decide whether they want to be abused by the system, use it when necessary, or take advantage of it whe they can.

  2. Des says:

    The same logic holds true when buying loss leaders. The store that holds these sales can offer them because they expect you to purchase other items while you are there. If you don’t, the company loses money and you are increasing the cost for everyone. Additionally, using credit cards rather than paying with cash increases the cost of products for everybody.

    If not increasing the cost of a product for other users is a concern for you, fine. But at least be consistent. If you don’t return items because it increases cost, then don’t pay with credit cards and don’t buy loss leaders.

  3. lurker carl says:

    With most warranties and guarantees, the cost of shipping items for repair, exchange or reimbursement is on the consumer. Many retail stores no longer handle warranty issues because most items are manufactured in foreign countries – customer support at the merchant’s level no longer exists. It is now the customer’s responsibility to contact the manufacturer for resolution. Make sure shipping and handling charges don’t exceed the item’s value.

  4. aryn says:

    I heard an interesting study recently about return policies. More generous return policies encourage more returns, but they also encourage more purchases. If you know you can return it, you’ll buy more.

    That’s why Nordstrom has their legendary return policy – it gets us to buy more, knowing we can always return it, but they know that we probably won’t.

  5. annk says:

    Trent, part of being a writer is paying attention to detail. It’s Lands’ End, not Land’s End.

  6. ChrisD says:

    I think it would be different in Europe because here clothes always have tags and once those are off you can’t return the item. I would have though that wearing clothes makes them unreturnable practically and ethically.
    One argument would be if you bought a new jumper that someone else has worn and returned would you mind? This is not a foolproof argument, but if the answer is no then go ahead.
    I think the lesson here is to try clothing gifts on, evaluate them carefully (by all means ask advice or leave them on for half an hour) and then if you don’t like them, exchange them. But you shouldn’t need to wear something twice to decide that.
    I’ve had clothing gifts that I exchanged and ended up with something really nice that I could genuinely thank the giver for. An item of clothing you don’t like is not a waste, it’s a voucher. Given that getting good clothes is far more complicated than simply getting the right size, anyone who gives clothes should be prepared for this.

  7. Faculties says:

    I don’t think it’s ethical to return it after wearing it. There’s nothing wrong with the manufacture or quality of the sweater; it’s just not to her taste. I think taking two wearings to decide this and then returning it is taking advantage of Lands’ End’s policy. Would you want to buy a sweater someone wore twice? And if she gets to decide she doesn’t like it and can return it after wearing, where do we draw the line? Can she wear it for six months and then decide? A year? If it’s just a matter of taste and not a defect in construction, I think you have an obligation to decide when you get the sweater and try it on, not after you’ve worn it around town.

  8. Henry says:

    I thought this was settled. You better take what you can take and get what you can get while you can. If you hesitate to take advantage of return policies because you’re afraid of driving the price up, don’t worry me and millions like me will be inventing our own return policies and driving the price up anyhow. And we really don’t mind because we earn our savings.
    Like I said before, anything that’s about $5-15 I only have to buy once in my life, as long as Wal-Mart continues to carry it. Alarm clocks, digital tire gauges, kitchen implements I buy once. They break. I go buy a new one, take it to my car, put the old one in the new packaging and head in the other entrance with my receipt and return the old one for cash or a gift card. I take glass pitchers back too. I blame their breaking on the cashier’s packing and say I found them broke when I went to load it in my car. I buy boxes of drinking glasses there too. I save them in the old box when they break and when I accumulate several, I get me a new box, take the good ones out and pack several in with the broke ones to fill it up. They come double stacked with six on top. You can fill the bottom with broke ones and just put one broke one on top, and claim it was the only one broke, they don’t want to dig deeper through broken glass. They toss it in a bin and write it off. You can get seven new ones at a time that way. Back to the store they go, I don’t have to pay for broken glasses either. My biggest savings was a Kitchen Aid mixer, I did such a great repack on that one they didn’t even open the box. Thank god, I sure couldn’t afford the $200 for a new one and didn’t want to be stuck using the handmixer.

  9. lurker carl says:

    Outlandishly bizarre behavior, Henry. Getting caught returning a cheap hand mixer for the cost of a KitchenAid mixer will earn you a criminal record. Most stores willing press charges against customers trying to rip them off. Explaining that larceny conviction at job interviews isn’t frugal.

  10. brad says:

    henry, incredibly greasy behavior, but props for being honest.

  11. friend says:

    Trent, I’m all for recycling, but this column is downright USED. Been there, read that. Even Henry & his nastiness. Maybe I’m reading here too frequently!

  12. Randy says:

    Regarding the sweater, if the person returns it, they will be more impressed with Lands’ End and more likely to purchase from them in the future. The company is counting on their good reputation and that word being spread.

    Regarding the pots, for the price of the expensive one, you could buy 7.5 cheap ones. Will the expensive one last 7.5 times as long? If not (unlikely), you’d be better off going with the cheap ones. This does ignore the cost of your time buying items 2-7.5, but it also ignores Time Value of Money.

    Sometimes, cheap throw-away items are cheaper in the long run…

  13. Henry says:

    No, Lurker. Same model KitchenAid Mixer. I returned my old broke one for a new one, same model. I cleaned up the broke one, went in, bought a new one. Went over to the neighboring parking lot so the cameras wouldn’t see me, and put the old one in the box, had the foresight to bring some packing tape and closed it up. Kept a complimentary spatula out of the new one. I went in and told them I bought it for a wedding gift (so they would assume I had no motivation to even open the box), but found out someone had bought the same thing at a different store because it was cheaper, so they didn’t even open it up to check it out. I regret not keeping the bowl so I could’ve had a spare, since those are like forty bucks. But they probably would’ve opened the damned thing had I thought to do that. Not like it added much weight to the feel of the box.
    I’m sure they put that sucker back on the shelf, and I wonder if they gave the person that bought it hell when they brought it back. It was yellowed and obviously well used, I bet they accused them of something.
    I’m not too worried about job interviews, since I’m on the disability from Social Security.

  14. Leah says:

    Wow, what a jerk, Henry. I hope you’re just trolling here.

    For Trent, I have a serious question. What about the ethics on something with a guarantee? I seem to have problems with shoes — I don’t know if I wear them harder than others or what, but my shoes don’t seem to hold up well. I used to buy cheap payless shoes, get a year or so out of them, and be happy. Recently, I’ve spent more on shoes; for example, I’ve bought a pair of Keens and a pair of Danskos at over $100 each.

    The Danskos lasted two years, and then the sole started cracking. I meant to take them back to Nordstrom’s (where I bought them) but never got around to it. It’s been several years since then, so I’m not sure if it’s still a good idea. The shoes are totally unwearable, but I still have them in my closet. I’m sad about it, since the leather is in good condition and the shoes look awesome.

    With the Keens, they’ve got a year long guarantee. I bought low hikers and wore them almost every day for my work (I work at a nature center and thus lead plenty of short walks/hikes). I had the shoes for ~ 8 months before the stitching began coming lose all around the toes. I returned them to REI and got another pair. Six months later, and I’m having the same issue. Do I return them again? Or do I just be happy that I got more than a year out of the shoes?

    I’m at an impasse here. I’m not sure it’s worth it to be spending more on my shoes if they’re still not going to last a long time. And I don’t know where I’m taking advantage of liberal return policies versus getting my money’s worth. Thoughts?

  15. Angie says:

    Ick. Don’t feed the troll, people.

  16. Kara says:

    Henry, that’s not frugal, that’s theft.

  17. Jules says:

    @ Leah:

    See if you can’t get them resoled. It might not be as good a job as the originals, but you’ll probably get another year or two out of the uppers. Assuming, of course, that you don’t have any odd orthopedic issues.

    As for the rest here: I actually completely disagree with returning the sweater at all. I wouldn’t have a problem re-gifting it (after washing), or saving it for a day when the thermostat breaks down, or donating it. But this was a gift, and the policy is not for the recipient to take advantage of. Besides, she’d already worn it *twice*. If it were truly that odious she wouldn’t have worn it again after trying it on.

  18. Henry says:

    Oh, Kara, I suppose you would be one of those people that call Wal-Mart ethical and moral. What about how they thieve the lifeblood and economy from every downtown in America? Rape children for slave labor all over Asia and other parts of the world? Wal-Mart deserves it, my shopping tactics there only reflect the examples they have set for me.

  19. Lenore says:

    Henry, please don’t give the rest of us on Social Security Disability a bad name. I bring in less than half the income I did when working, and I’m not above doing a little retail sleight of hand to make it last. But there’s a difference between returning a product that broke through no fault of your own versus blaming employees for improperly wrapping glass that broke or returning something used for ages in a sealed box so the next customer will be blamed for its condition.
    Karma’s gonna get you, buddy, if you keep setting other people up and blatantly breaking the law. Maybe your disability is mental (mine is–bipolar disorder) and you truly don’t see the harm or repercussions of what you’re doing. Hopefully you’re just posting outlandish scenarios to see how people react. Since you were so candid, I will be too. I thought about shoplifting a watch last week but didn’t do it. I haven’t stolen anything in years, but once in awhile something shiny and too expensive will tempt me. There, I feel better and hopefully won’t get the urge again for years to come.

  20. Mardi says:

    Remember, this sweater was a GIFT–she didn’t buy it for herself. I think the ethically responsible thing to do would be to take it to a consignment shop, where it can find a new home and she can receive a little cash to put toward buying a sweater she likes better. Alternatively, she should donate it to Goodwill or a similar place, where, again, it can find a better home. It just seems dishonest to return it after it has been worn when there is nothing wrong with it.

  21. Henry says:

    I wouldn’t have had to blame the employee or the next customer if Wal-Mart hadn’t ran the nice little Mom and Pop shop that sold quality items that would last for years and years out of business. I don’t care if you’re on disability or making six figures a year, I wouldn’t blame anyone for creative shopping at the Wal-Mart.
    I’m not setting anyone up. It’s just unfortunate collateral damage that may or may not occur.
    At least I don’t shoplift. Actually walking out of the store with something, just like that, concealing it? No, that will get you caught. But congrats to those ballsy/lucky enough to make it like that. But the odds are not good, so I don’t play them. As long as you can get the employees to hand the items to you and smile as they hand you your freebie, you’re doing the right thing. Cameras pick up actions such as you stuffing a watch in your pocket, sometimes alarms go off. But when you get the merchandise out of the store with your plausible explanations, all is well. Good old plausible deniability.

  22. Ray says:

    You already wrote this post.

    You got a gift, you should have tried it on and realized you didn’t like it right away.
    You didn’t, too bad for you.

    NOT Land’s End’s fault. Donate it and move on.

  23. Beth says:

    Cam is stealing and is the reason honest people have to pay MORE for thier purchases to make up for the product dishonest people steal. The guarentee is for the quality of the item, NOT to cover the everchanging whims of a young woman with a greedy heart. The sweater is FINE, so returning it is dishonest and stealing since it can’t be resold to another customer since it’s been worn. The company loses money over a girl’s whims who won’t accept financial responsibility for the obligations she made. She promised to pay $29.99 for a quality sweater. Lands End honored thier side of the bargain: Cam did not. I END UP PAYING FOR HER DISHONESTY.

  24. Kevin says:

    “if Cam had worn the sweater for years and years and it was showing wear and tear from tons of use, I wouldn’t think it was cool to return the sweater at that point.”

    Huh? Why not? Isn’t that the point of an “unconditional guarantee?” They’re guaranteeing that the product will last you the rest of your life, under normal use. If, through normal use, the sweater starts to show wear, then it was shoddily made, which is exactly what such a “guarantee” is supposed to protect you against.

    I would think that returning a badly-worn sweater after years of use would be MORE ethical than the original question, of returning it after only a couple of uses because you changed your mind and don’t like it anymore. Maybe I’m misunderstanding the intention behind Lands’ End “unconditional guarantee?”

  25. Susan says:

    While I think Trent wrote a similar although not identical post, the comments followed the same path.

    As for Henry, thank you for the early morning entertainment. I read your replies to my husband. By the way, does your family theme song involve duelling bangos?

  26. I find it hard enough to get people out there in the customer service world to honor their agreements rather than worrying about over-stepping my bounds.

    However, if something involves anything dishonest, or misreprpesenting something, then I usually shy away, If it is within the guidelines of their return policy, then I take advantage of it.

    After all, it is “their” return policy.

  27. Perry says:

    This comment would have been a better fit for Trent’s earlier ethics post, but here goes. I remember a Sears commercial from (I think) the 1980′s. In the commercial, an older guy has a Craftsman hammer that he’s had and used for decades. The hammer finally breaks and he takes it back to Sears, somewhat skeptical that they’ll honor the lifetime warrenty. To his amazement, they cheerfully give him a brand new hammer in exchange for the old hammer. So Sears, or at least it did back then, encourages people to make use of their lifetime warranty, no matter how long it has been and the use gotten out of the product.

  28. Des says:

    Why should Lands’ End get the benefit of their Unconditional Guarantee (in the form of great marketing, loyal customers, etc.) but not pay the cost in honoring it? They offer it because it is a win-win for them and their customer. Returning the sweater because she doesn’t like it is ABSOLUTELY within the spirit of their guarantee.

  29. Alexandra says:

    I’ll never EVER shop at Lands’ End now, knowing that the “new” sweater I just bought may have been worn several times by a stranger and then returned.

    Disgusting.

    I would rather shop somewhere with a stricter return policy that protects ME from greasy returners like that.

  30. friend says:

    @Alexandra,
    I’m surmising Lands’ End sells returned stuff in outlet stores for dirt cheap. A few years ago I got a winter parka for $7. It had the LE label cut out but was recognizable. I don’t think you’d get returned merchandise thru the general catalog.

  31. Leah says:

    Alexandra, do you also not buy clothes from stores that let people try them on?

    I agree with friend — I’m pretty sure returns get sold at outlet stores and the like.

  32. Jen says:

    If you have to ask whether it’s ethical, you might as well admit that you’ve already decided it’s unethical.

    (I’m all for good customer service, but I have to say, I think that such a liberal return policy is screwing over other retailers who will have to fight with spoiled customers to uphold their own, more standard policies.)

  33. Henry says:

    Jen, then you must find Wal-Mart unethical if you think competition with liberal return policies is unethical. If that’s not okay, there’s no way you can condone Wal-Mart moving into a town, finding out exactly what items every little store carries, start selling themselves and drastically undercutting everyone in town until every competitor is closed. And then once they are closed, they start to carry less of a selection and jacking the prices back up on what they do. Take what you can, however you can.

  34. J says:

    “If you’re not satisfied with any item, simply return it to us at any time for an exchange or refund of its purchase price.”

    I don’t know why there is an ethical dilemma here. The policy is pretty darn clear. They sell a product and stand behind it.

    I got a pair of boots from LL Bean (which has a similar guarantee) that I wore for two months in the snow and the slush. Something went wrong with them and I returned them. I didn’t feel any guilt about it, I had paid $100 for a pair of boots rather than $30 for cheap knockoffs and they should have lasted years. I also buy Craftsman hand tools, and have used their unconditional guarantee, too, with similar results — you walk in with a broken tool, you walk out with a replacement.

    Another thing that getting these types of returns do is let the retailer/manufacturer improve their product. There’s nothing like the actual thing for an engineering team to be able to analyze and improve the product line.

  35. Jill says:

    Restoration Hardware, who also does the ‘satisfaction always guaranteed’ promise, definitely sends good condition returns to their outlet stores. Once there, they price things usually slightly over their wholesale, put up a couple of signs proclaiming all sales from there are final, and people like me replace most of the lighting fixtures in their house for less than what it would cost for something of far worse quality from Lowe’s or Home Depot.

    As for the enameled pots mentioned up thread, unless you need it like right this minute, the ‘correct’ answer is to either order from the Le Creuset outlet center directly when they’re having one of their annual clearance sales (they’ll reportedly take orders by phone if you know what you want) or keep an eye out at your local T.J. Maxx or Tuesday Morning until you score the $300 pot for something in the $150-$165 range.

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