Did L.L. Bean need to change its return policy?

L.L. Bean got plenty of publicity when it announced a change to its longstanding policy of “no questions asked” returns. Apparently the cost of abusive returns (products bought at yard sales, twenty-year-old clothing with normal wear and tear) was an unsustainable cost of doing business — to the tune of a reported $50 million annually. The RetailWire panel discussed whether this was a good strategic move, and here’s my point of view:

L.L. Bean is among the last retailers to abandon “no questions asked” return policies. The company is right that abuses of the policy make it unsustainable. A cost of $50 million per year has been reported, although it’s not clear whether this is the cost of “abusive” returns or all returns. I’ve noticed other companies with generous policies (Kohl’s, for example) tightening their processes, in part to avoid being swamped by e-commerce returns to physical stores.

Loyal shoppers will not be put off by the change, but L.L.Bean took a PR hit because of widespread media coverage. There was a missed opportunity to manage the message more effectively, even if the decision was justified, given that the policy was a central branding message.

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