Is There Anything Wrong With Taking Full Advantage of a Generous Return Policy?

Published 11/1/07 (Modified 3/8/11)
By MoneyBlueBook

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.

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10 Responses to “Is There Anything Wrong With Taking Full Advantage of a Generous Return Policy?” 

  1. Mrs. Micah says:

    I don't know. I think it's good that you weren't so hampered by buyer's remorse or anything that you couldn't return stuff--that's a strength. Buying, using while you need them and returning---well, I guess it depends on whether you took good care of the items and they'll be resalable. Legally, it's not wrong, ethically it's a gray area.

  2. Raymond says:

    When I returned the items I saw the manager tell his sales clerk to repackage the unit back into its box to be resold as new. I think that might work for electronics, but not sure about clothing.

    Either way, I can only do that so often till I start getting the guilt trip.

  3. Kyle @ Rather-Be-Shopping says:

    Interesting ethical dilemma. Like you, I think seeing that the GPS that I just used for a long trip was being re-packaged and sold as new to some unsuspecting guy would keep me from doing it. For me, it is all about keeping good Carma.

  4. Pinyo says:

    You're right about it not being illegal or against the policy, but it goes against the spirit of the policy, and this is definitely something that I would not do.

  5. Andrew S says:

    Yeah, there is the guilt trip thing. But do those large corporate CEO's have guilt trips after their endeavors? I think not. I generally find myself returning so much crap from these large department stores mainly because of the awful quality of it all.

  6. m says:

    I think it would be ok if you bought, changed your mind, and hadn't caused any damage or wear to the product, and returned it. But bying with the intention of using it and returning it definitely goes against my ethics.

    I'm fairly certain that any generous return policy is not set up for that purpose. It is for those who buy with the genuine intent of possibly keeping the item and then have a quick change of heart. It is not intended for those who are essentially renting the store's items without paying any rent or leasing fees. Doing that is within the letter of the policy, yes, but not in line with the spirit of the policy.

    Additionally, if enough people took advantage of the policy this same way it could result in a much more stringent return policy that would then make genuine returns much more difficult or even impossible for those who were using the original policy as intended.

    Like Ms. Micah said, it isn't wrong legally, but neither are a lot of practices that aren't so great morally/ethically.

  7. Hao says:

    One more comment, the reason for why they allow this kind of generous return policy may be that the chance of buying a product is increased even if you returned some of the products. Let's say, if you tried 10 products, you may end up with buying 5 of them. If you didn't try anyone, you probably won't buy one. So, the strategy of the store.

  8. lakawak says:

    There should be no "slkight" guilt. It should be full guilt. Or embarrassment about how much of a cheap ass white trash pathetic a****** [editor's bleeps] you are.

  9. Raymond says:

    Lakawak,

    I Googled your listed email address, which I won't list here for privacy's sake. Apparently you've been spending lots of time posting angry ranting comments throughout the web on other blogs and websites as well. Your first and second sentence were legitimate comments, but your third sentence was totally off the deep end.

    Please relax and take your soothing meds. :)

  10. Joe says:

    I think its bad. You can't compare this to a CEO's greed. A lot of these CEO's of private companies that make all of this money are worth there weight. I mean some of these people have grown fantastic org's. I look at people taking things and returning them as pretty sleezy, because someone else is going to buy that, at full price, dont they desirve a "new" product? Reason why people charge so much for things is because of people stealing, the CEO doesnt feel the pain, we do as the consumer. The only person you are hurting is the other consumers like you and me.

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