The Return Process and Customer Loyalty

Yesterday, two juxtaposed shopping experiences at Bayshore Mall brought to light the effect of a return process on the customer experience. The result was perhaps a little surprising.

Rewind to Black Friday. My wife and I were looking for a pair of semi-dressy, medium heeled, black leather boots for her to wear with a new dress. She wasn’t wearing the dress while shopping, so we were doing our best to imagine what the boots would look like with the  dress. We found a a nice pair on sale for around $100 at Boston Store and debated our purchase. Ultimately, we decided we liked them enough to warrant taking them home to see how they worked with the dress. If they didn’t work, we’d just bring them back. The buying experience was rather chaotic due to being Black Friday, but with our expectations lowered, we were generally satisfied with the experience.  As a side note, we also liked a pair of boots just down the hall at Ma Jolie, but knowing their “exchange only” no return policy, we didn’t even bother taking them home.

The boots didn’t work with the dress. The dreaded return was imminent.

With a potential need for the boots on the horizon, we decided to embark on the return process yesterday—a mere two days after purchase (surely a personal best).  Although I knew I had it somewhere, I wasn’t able to easily locate the receipt. Honestly, I didn’t try too hard to find it.  I figured a nice, mid-scale department store like Boston Store would surely have the ability to retrieve my purchase info with my credit card.  Being in return mode, we also grabbed three other items that had been gathering dust to go back to Kohl’s.

I arrived at the Boston Store shoe counter with assumptions and boots, but no receipt in hand. I was informed that without a receipt I could only exchange the boots or receive a store credit for the lowest sale price—a common practice in days gone by, but in the current retail environment, an unexpected response.  I asked if there was some way for them to look up my transaction with my credit card.  “No, I’m sorry, sir. We need a receipt” came the reply. After pausing for a moment to think, I decided to hang on to the boots and see how Anna was coming in  quest for a replacement.  After a cursory tour of their very large selection, a suitable replacement was not apparent. By this point I had determined that since we wouldn’t need to exchange them, and that I really didn’t want a store credit, that I would go home and make a concerted effort to find the receipt.  After all, I hadn’t really looked that hard. Excepting the items that came with us, we left empty-handed.

On to stop two, returns next door at Kohl’s.

Three items were to be returned.  One had a receipt; a hat purchased on clearance with a gift card a couple weeks prior.  Two were sans receipt; a boy’s shirt purchased with a gift card about 2 months prior, and pair of girls winter boots purchased with a debit card about 2 weeks prior. The receipted return was a slam dunk. Cash in hand.  Most stores could get that one right.  For the non-receipted boots, the associate asked for the credit card that was used to purchase them, and few keystrokes later she was handing us cash back (it was a debit transaction).  The only part of that return experience that I could not have predicted was the boy’s shirt.  I don’t often use gift cards there. With no credit card to track back to, and no receipt, I thought I would surely get a very little in return as a store credit.  The associate asked when I purchased it and how much I paid; “I don’t know exactly. Probably a couple months back, and it was around twenty bucks.” The price tag read $34. She scanned the tag and replied, “Does $25.39 sound about right?” It rung a bell. “Sure, that works.” After viewing my driver’s license, she handed me a thin plastic card labeled Merchandise Credit with the credit amount written in sharpie on the back. With about $75 in credit and cash in hand, we proceeded to shop.  Guess what? We found boots for Anna. We also found a really cute pair of boots for my daughter (not a replacement for the returned ones) and some Christmas ornaments totaling just over $100. Remembering that I had a coupon at home, I left Anna at the store, went home, and picked up my 15% off coupon. While there I took a quick peek in my coat pocket and found the Boston Store receipt for the boots. I returned to Kohl’s and left having spent about $90. I returned to Boston Store, returned the boots, and left having realized the impact of process on the customer experience

So, who has a bad process and who has our money?

As a regular Kohl’s customer, I have become accustomed to returning items without a receipt. I just bring my item to the customer service desk, show them the credit card that I used to purchase the item, and they pull up the transaction information based on the credit card that was used. It’s really a pretty simple concept to be able to track transactions back to credit cards; why don’t more retailers do this?

Granted, Kohl’s takes this idea one step further with a very generous, no hassle return policy. I’ll admit, I return things there more often there than I do anywhere else. Why? because I buy more. It’s my first stop every time I need something they might carry. More often than not, I find what I need and keep it; however, I know that when I buy something that doesn’t fit my needs when I get home, I won’t have any trouble bringing it back….when I get around to it … 32 days later. You see, we are terrible about returns, as I’m guessing you are. Most people are. This weakness is exactly what other merchants exploit to their advantage. But at what cost?

So, Boston Store, I can certainly understand needing proof of purchase.  I even understand limitations on returns.  I understand that modernizing Bon-Ton’s expansive corporate POS system to allow transaction data to be recalled by CC could be a large and expensive endeavor. I understand that you have your process and policies for a reason.  I can understand all these things, . . . and shop at Kohl’s.


7 Replies to “The Return Process and Customer Loyalty”

  1. Brian,
    The last last sentence matters so much. I know some of Kohl’s history with technology (one of my MBA professors was a VP there back in the day), and know they made a conscious decision to invest heavily in technology back in the early 90s. I’m sure much of that technology has been updated but it’s what gives them the ability to merchandise the stores so well. They have wanted to know who buys what and why for a long time. The side benefit is that they can do the reverse lookups you and I are so fond of. I remember visiting a Kohl’s store with my wife recently. She had not receipt for a return and I thought myself, this is going to be a mess. Nope, happened just as you described above. You shop there because they make it easy from cradle to grave of any transaction. Great writeup thanks for the reminders. I took a few notes 🙂

    1. Jim, thanks for commenting.  That’s an interesting bit about their history with technology.  Inasmuch as the customer experience is ultimately determined by emotion, data is king when it comes to cx strategy and execution. Technology is just the tool for making the data actionable.  Kohl’s has been taking their customer’s experience seriously for many years and the technology investments they make in the ability to deliver a great experience are really paying off. 

  2. First of all, I want to say how proud I am of Anna for even venturing out since I know how much she doesn’t enjoy shopping. She (and you as well) gets many extra points for going to a mall on Black Friday. Even I didn’t have the stomach for that.

    Second, I agree that returns are much more pleasant at Kohls. Even though I always put them off, as you do, I am always pleasantly surprised when I finally do (and end up buying more stuff). Thanks for the reminder. 🙂

    1. Thanks for taking time to comment. Indeed the mall was crazy on BF, but not nearly as bad as I expected.  Furthermore, a little parking secret meant I had no trouble parking by Boston Store and getting in without a walk.  For as crazy as it was in the store, fortunately there was no line in the shoe dept.  It was actually a rather painless experience on the front end.

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