Beginning of the Road

By Dane Sorensen

November 24, 1996

As the light dims on the Twentieth Century there is a new ray of hope on the horizon.  It is a faint ray, but I see it as a faint glimmer of hope.  Customer carte blanche is coming to an end.

Once upon a time most people were honest almost all the time.  Then secular humanism pioneered a new ethic for the post Christian civilization that was unfolding before our eyes.  The post Christian civilization was the rise of two income families.  Families that enjoyed microwaved dinners and sat at the table chewing and watching television.  The art of conversation died at many dinner tables.  This was just a tip of the iceberg.  It is around the family table that children learn what is right and wrong.  Instead they learned that Dino was smarter than Fred.

Mass retailers made shopping a guilt-free experience.  If you bought a product that didn’t work, want or whatever, you could return it.

When I was first married I worked for FW Woolworth & Company.  This was way back in the late ’70s.  Our policy on returns was to honor all returns, even if the customer did not have a receipt.  A customer, who pioneered in situation ethics, once brought back a pair of boy’s sneakers that were well worn.  The heels were curved.  The laces soiled and missing the plastic ends.  We had not had that model for at least six months. 

The lady insisted they were not old and that they had prematurely worn out.  I did not want to give her a dime.  My manager, without hesitation, agreed to a full refund.  That customer was a pioneer of the 80s and 90s.  She had reasoned that Woolworth was a giant company and could well afford to let her use a pair of sneakers for six months and then bring them back.

Another problem was shoplifting.  At Woolworth, unless two employees saw the same event, nothing was done.  The employees that the company slogan should be “Thank you for shoplifting at Woolworth.”  I thought we should offer to gift wrap the stolen items for free.  What was worse was when the shoplifter would walk out of the store and then come back in five minutes later and demand a refund for the stolen item.

The Wall Street Journal had an article in 1995 about how high school girls would buy prom dresses, wear them prom night and then return them for a full refund.  People would buy camcorders to record weddings or graduations and then return the camcorder for a full refund.  Even wedding dresses from retailers have been returned after the blessed event.  Retailers never realized that a society that was raised on consumer situation ethics would come back to haunt their bottom line.

The retailers tried to fight back.  Formal dresses had to come back with the tags still on.  Tags for dresses are usually attached inside the dress or by the sleeve.  A scarf or shawl covered that up and the refunds continued.

It has become so high a problem that between 10-15% of all merchandise is returned to retailers.  It seems retailers feel most of those returns are not defective merchandise or wrong sizes.  Add this abuse to outright shoplifting and you can see why prices are high.

My glimmer of hope is that retailers are stopping this retail borrowing.  They have decided to teach consumers responsibility.  If you love lose the receipt (or never had one) you are now out of luck at Best Buy.  No exceptions.  Best Buy will charge 15% restock fee on computers and video cameras if you have opened up the packaging.  Daytons and Nordstom no longer take back formal dresses if the tags have been removed.  They now place the tags on conspicuous places that can’t be covered with a shawl.

Nintendo Co., the makers of those tasteless arcade games, has had to pay retailers 50 cents a machine to let them know when they were sold, so Nintendo can start the clock on their 90 day no return policy.  This cut down returns by 84%.  It seems the typical Nintendo customer was ruthless as the games they played on their Nintendo.

Target and Daytons have started to keep a data base on who is returning electronic items.  They will refuse to give a refund to anyone who exceeds a certain limit.

Best Buy and other stores are imposing a 30 day limit on returns.  Wal-Mart has started a 90 day no return policy.  Too many people have tried to return summer clothes in the middle of winter.

All this will infuriate those who have adapted situation ethics.  They will have to learn responsibility.  They will have to realize when you use an item it is forever yours.  If you drop your camcorder into a lake you cannot return it six months later.  This may be one small step toward restoring a conscience.  For this we should all be thankful.

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