Is There Anything Wrong With Taking Full Advantage of a Generous Return Policy?
Published 11/1/07 (Modified 3/8/11)
Costco used to have the most generous return policy I've ever seen in the history of shopping. In early 2007 they finally changed it, but previously, Costco's policy permitted anyone to return anything with or without receipt at any time, so long as you remained a Costco member. There was no product limitation, no time restriction, and no restocking fees. It was essentially a lifetime warranty on steroids. :)
Obviously this policy was ripe for abuse. I knew people who bought expensive CRT television sets from Costco, only to bring it back several years later to return it for store credit. Even without the receipt, they could still exchange it for a brand new flat screen model many years after buying the first one. Although legitimate, some returns were pretty outrageous and I'm surprised Costco let it go on for so long.
I'm a Frequent Returner
I never took full advantage of Costco's return policy to such an extreme extent but I must admit that I used to be and still am a compulsive and frequent returner. In the past I would frequently buy a whole assortment of items with the intention of only keeping less than half of what I bought. My plan was to try them all out for a while and eventually return the ones I didn't want. It didn't matter if I had already thrown the tags away or worn the items for a while, the stores always took the items back and refunded my money. I still take gratuitous advantage of generous return policies, but I guess I've developed more of a moral conscience now.
My Staples GPS Routine
As an example of how bad it got in the past, this is what I used to do. For a while I had to frequently take long road trips out of state. I needed a global positioning navigation system (GPS) for my car to map the routes out for me but at the time they were extremely expensive (more than $1000) and I didn't want to spend so much money buying one.
So I did some store research, and figured out that of all the electronic stores that sold GPS units, Staples had the most favorable return policy. I checked out other big box stores like Best Buy, and although they also had a similar 30 day return and refund policy, their policy applied a 15% restocking fee for very expensive items like notebook computers, projectors, and GPS navigation. Staples on the other hand has a 14 day return policy for all technology related products including GPS units, except there is no restocking fee.
So for over a year whenever I needed to travel, I went to Staples and bought a brand new GPS for my car, playing around with different brands each time. When I got back, I would shamelessly return the unit back to Staples for a full refund. I did this many, many times, and while no one ever questioned my practice because it was clearly within the store's policy to honor all returns, after a while I started to feel a bit guilty about the whole process. Eventually I stopped doing it and bought my own.
In retrospect I think I took it too far, but is this practice really that bad? After all you're not doing anything illegal and you are still technically abiding by the store's policy. If they felt customers were abusing it, they always had the right to change it at any time. But I think no one would deny that there is a slight guilt cringe factor to it all.