Tis the Season for….Returns.

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“I do not consider a sale complete until goods are worn out and customer is still satisfied.”  L.L. Bean, 1916

Research shows that nearly $50 billion in merchandise is returned to retail stores during the holiday season.  This year,  I had three items up for returns:  running shoes (wrong size), two t-shirts (wrong size) and a DVD (which didn’t work)   I had all the receipts, original bags and my story well-rehearsed to avoid any confrontation.   I figured this should be pretty easy; all three are exchanges not returns.

Store #1:  I brought in my shoes and handed the clerk the receipt.   I said “I’m looking for the same shoe in a different size”.   She grabbed the receipt and said “the best that I can do for is you give you a gift receipt”.  I said “all I want is the same shoe in a different size”.  And she snapped back, “Sorry sir, I can’t do that, since we need to be able to track all the returns”.   Two minutes later, I was walking out of the store, completely stunned and frustrated, with a plastic little gift card that I figured my wife or daughter could use on her next purchase.  They just lost $100 sale, and created a frustrated customer not to return again.

Store #2:  I brought in the DVD that failed to work.   It was only $15, but in my mind “Brian’s Song” is a rare movie I wanted to share with my son.  The clerk said “we can exchange it if you’d like”.   He looked up in his computer and said “oh we are out of it, we could order one for you, it should be here within two weeks”.   Since the store is 45 min from my house, I said “no thanks, I’ll just take the cash then”.   The store manager then murmured something to the clerk, never looking at or addressing me directly.  The clerk then said “I’m sorry sir; we can’t do a return if it’s been opened”.   I said “how can I know it didn’t work if I didn’t open it?”    After a few more back and forth, they did eventually give me my money back.  Another lost sale and frustrated customer determined to find it on I-tunes.

Store #3:  This should be easy,  I wanted the same t-shirts in a different size.   With no return desk, I went to shelf, grabbed two t-shirts and got in line at the cash.  I said “I’d just like to exchange sizes”.  She scans each of the 4 shirts in and says “that will be $2.26”, handing me a coupon for my next visit.   I said “I just want to change sizes, shouldn’t that be free?”  After a two minute conversation, the manager came over to do the classic over-ride followed by a long explanation to me of what just happened.   All I wanted was my t-shirts.  And while I was now a frustrated customer, I thought it was hilarious that the store clerk took the coupon away, since it wasn’t a sale after all.

Each store completely forgot about the consumer.   All the work the brand had done to create loyalty over the years is gone in a blink of an eye.   If your brand is loved, it can turn to Indifferent in a heart beat.  Imagine losing a life long customer over $2.26.   Most marketers think that creating a great brand is about creating awareness and demand.   But they forget the post purchase experience which includes a great returns policy.   Brands that get it include Costco, which has such an amazing returns policy it makes the membership fee worth it.  They never ask questions, sending it right back to the manufacturer.    L.L. Bean still has that same amazing returns policy fast forward to the modern day:  Customers can send any item back, at any time, with or without receipts, in any condition…and still get a refund or exchange.  Brands that get it, stand behind the sale.  

With these three brands, two out of three expected exchanges turned into full refunds.  I walked away frustrated and stunned at how bad the policies were.

And for some humour, the best clip I could find on “returns” is from the Office.   I’m sending it back!!!

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Graham Robertson

Graham Robertson is one of the voices of today's brand leaders. As the founder of Beloved Brands, he has been a brand advisor to the NFL Players Association, Shell, Reebok, Acura, Jack Links and Pfizer. He's helped train some of the best marketing teams on strategy, brand positioning, brand plans and advertising. Graham's purpose is to use is marketing experience and provocative style to get marketers to think differently about their brands, and to explore new ways to grow. Graham spent 20 years leading some of the world's most beloved brands at Johnson and Johnson, Coke, General Mills and Pfizer, rising up to VP Marketing. Graham played a significant role in helping win Marketing Magazine's "Marketer of the Year" award. He has won numerous advertising and innovation awards including Businessweek’s best new product award. As a keynote speaker, Graham shares his passion for brands to challenge and inspire marketing minds around the world, whether speaking at Advertising Week, or at the NBA Summer League, or to a room full of marketers in Bangkok Thailand or an agency in New York. He's been a guest writer for Ad Age, and his weekly blog stories have reached millions of marketers, who are trying to improve their skills. His new book, Beloved Brands, has launched with rave reviews. Many brand leaders are using this book as a playbook to help build the brand they work on. And, it serves as a brand management textbook for business schools in the US, Canada and the UK. Graham’s personal promise is to help you solve your brand building challenges, to give you new thinking, so you can unlock future growth for your brand.

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