The annual uproar among online consumers who try to return merchandise bought via the Internet generally occurs around the Christmas holidays, but some e-tailers make it tough on buyers all year long.
As someone who frequently shops online, I am highly motivated and persistent when it comes to researching the return policies of various Web merchants before I buy.
Recently, I decided to use shopping bot MySimon.com to do a price comparison among several e-tailers who all sold the same handheld organizer. Putting aside the price discrepancy among e-tailers — ranging from US$258 to $499 for the same item — wading through the often hard-to-find return policies was a nightmare.
For those who have not bought electronics online yet, be aware that return policies are usually strict, certainly not consumer-oriented and often deal breakers.
What stands out the most among many electronics e-tailers is the extremely limited time frame in which the buyer must decide whether to keep an item.
On my MySimon journey, it was not uncommon to find merchants with policies that allowed only three to five days from the time of delivery for a return to be sent. That short window did not work for me because I was looking to buy a graduation gift. By the time I receive the item, give it to the graduate and allow him time to take a look at it, far more than five days will have elapsed.
The limited-time return policies suggest to me that merchants are heartily discouraging returns, rather than positioning themselves as customer-friendly sellers intent on developing customer relationships.
As if the time-frame issue is not reason enough to opt for a drive to the mall, there’s the next dealbreaker issue of “restocking fees.”
What exactly is a restocking fee? I haven’t quite figured that one out. It seems that some electronics e-tailers have simply built this additional charge into their return policies, adding as much as 20 percent to the cost of the item if the buyer decides to return it.
In dollars and cents, that means if I go for the great $258 price on the handheld, and if I can think fast enough to get it delivered to me, wrapped, given to the graduate (who must decide if he wants or needs it) and then return it to the seller within the three-to-five-day period, then I’ll be blessed with a charge of almost $40, simply for the privilege of returning it.
Hello, Net merchants? Is this any way to earn our business?
Too Much Trouble
As a frequent online shopper, my overall observation is that returning merchandise bought on the Internet is too hard. This latest experience with the handheld organizer was more extreme than most, but even the most minor returns have been tough. For example, it took one e-tailer two months to credit my credit card after I returned a pair of shoes.
Take the case of Outpost.com. In general, the company is a well-organized, easy-to-use pure-play e-tailer. However, when it comes to returns, Outpost shoppers who want to return merchandise must call a customer service agent first and plead their case, before finally being given an item-return number that must accompany the returned merchandise.
Without question, requiring a phone call to get a item-return number is extremely poor customer service management. If an e-tailer wants to use a numbering system, then it should include an item-return number on documents sent with the merchandise when shipped. Not only will that process save customer aggravation about sitting on the phone, it will dramatically lower the volume of calls to the customer call center.
If the reason for return is also required, then put a few checkboxes with possible reasons on the shipping and return forms as well. It’s bad enough that it’s probably going to cost $5 to $10 to return items to many stores. Why should it also cost additional time on the telephone?
We Want Bricks
It’s no secret by now that online consumers like the option of returning their purchases to brick-and-mortar stores. Unfortunately, earlier this year, Boston, Massachusetts-based technology consultant firm Extraprise found that 68 percent of Web sites operated by the top 50 e-tailers do not have such a system in place.
Gap.com, one of the poster-children for easy returns, allows consumers to buy from the comfort of their own home and then return merchandise at any one of its hundreds of stores located throughout the country.
I used the Gap.com return system. Once in the store it took less than five minutes to return merchandise bought over the Web. Best of all, nobody mentioned a “restocking fee.”
Here we have yet another reason that pure plays probably need to start looking for some street-level affiliations.
In short, some e-tailers still don’t get it. We consumers are not going to be swayed by Web merchant demands alone into completely altering our buying habits. We’d like to see some integration between shopping systems we’ve enjoyed for decades and those that offer added value online.
It’s attractive to me, for example, that the handheld can be purchased online for $258, when most retailers charge $299. But I’m not going to work very hard to make it happen. And if I’m going to lose the approximately $40 I saved, if I have to return it for some reason, the value is lost.
Also lost, in all likelihood, is the possibility of a long-term relationship with that merchant.
Note: The opinions expressed by our columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the E-Commerce Times or its management.