Metapost: Shocker! Retailers are tracking your return history

Image from Vox Daily

With the economy in rough shape many retailers tightened their return policies in 2009 and 2010. While that trend didn’t really change for the holidays some retailers loosened the reins a bit, extending return deadlines and making room in strict policies. The Wall St Journal took a look at the technology that allows retailers to track customer purchase and return habits to find serial returners. (Subscription required.) Jezebel skewered the article a little later on, noting that the angle the WSJ took was curiously unsupported by the data. The blog further noted that Retail Equation, the company many retailers use to track customer returns, seems to be building up a consumer database of return histories not unlike a credit report.

Yes, that’s right. Retailers are not only tracking our purchases and returns, they’re also using that data to make decisions about whether to let us return items in the future or not. Surprised? I’m not. While most of us are responsible shoppers who follow return policies, a few bad eggs in the layer cake are ruining the treat for everyone.

I worked in retail during the holiday season for 2 years and I saw some crazy things. People returning clearly worn and stained items as “defective.” Clothing that was over a year old with tags re-attached suddenly being returned outside of the store I worked at’s policy. Customers bringing in items with discount store tags still attached (!!!) and trying to return those at our store. I even saw people who were returning the same type of items that had been stolen from our store earlier in the month. They would then return the items for merchandise credits and sell the credits (received as a gift card). If they were the criminals responsible for the stolen goods, they sure were brazen to try to return it! So I can understand why stores want to crack down on this kind of behavior.

Then again, I’m not trying to be accusatory here. Most shoppers are fine and follow the policies because that’s what reasonable people do. There are plenty of rational reasons to return an item: you changed your mind; it didn’t fit; you wore it and it was in fact defective somehow; you placed an online order that didn’t work out. As a tall I know the fun that is placing an order for pants in three or four different sizes and lengths to find the one pair with the perfect fit. The other three? They get returned. No one wants to be treated like a criminal while making returns so I hate the thought that if I return too many items I might somehow get blacklisted.

Still, the registry idea itself doesn’t bother me. My return ratio probably hovers under 10% of the total amount of items I buy. I try to only buy the things I really want or need, and to be honest I’m often too lazy about returns and end up missing the window of opportunity. I end up donating or selling those items.

What does bother me is how our returns are tracked. I hate going to stores where I have to present my driver’s license to process a return. Talk about opening yourself up to ID theft! Some stranger now has my complete address, my license number, and my complete credit card information. Not OK! I also think this is unfair to petites, talls and anyone whose size is not carried in-store. These people will of course have a higher return rate. Is that factored into the equation? I’d love to know exactly what the criteria is that makes someone a serial returner.

I have no idea if Anthropologie uses a third party system or if they only track returns internally. But you can be sure this is part of what the anthro card is for. What do you think of this tracking technology?

Further reading: National Retail Federations’s report on return fraud

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