When companies say things like, “Satisfaction guaranteed, or your money back!” we all know there’s still one extra cost: whatever it takes to return the product for an exchange, refund or store credit.
In some cases, especially recently, that cost has involved shipping the product back to whatever brand you bought it from online. A few merchants have made this a little easier by including return shipping labels, or sending some after the fact. Even when returning the product doesn’t cost money, however, there is time and effort, both of which are in short supply for almost everyone right now.
That makes a recent trend reported by the Wall Street Journal this week understandable, though still somewhat surprising: that retailers are telling some customers they can simply keep products they don’t want, rather than return them, and yet still get a refund.
Though the precise applications weren’t described, the WSJ said Amazon and Walmart are using artificial intelligence (AI) to determine when to make such offers. Some of the factors include the customer’s purchase history — perhaps this is seen as some kind of perk for VIP buyers? — as well as the cost of the product and the shipping.
“In past years, retailers urged shoppers to return online orders to stores not only to reduce costs, but also to boost sales because customers tend to make additional purchases while there,” the WSJ article said. “Doing so this year is problematic given capacity constraints on retailers and the reluctance of some consumers to frequent enclosed public spaces.”
Donate Or Throw Away?
For some customers, this kind of policy decision will come as a delightful relief, almost like you’re getting away with something. The longer-term CX implications are another matter, and worth contemplating more thoroughly.
When a brand tells an unhappy customer “Keep it,” the only options are to give the product to someone else, or to throw it out. The latter option is obviously wasteful, though not unlikely given the difficulty of making donations to secondhand stores or charities amid the pandemic.
Even if the customer manages to find a taker for their unwanted product, though, what kind of story are they telling about your brand if the recipient is a friend or family member?
Maybe it will be a story about the wonderful company and its generosity. Or it might be a story about how the product size didn’t align with their expectations, or that the product didn’t work as advertised. Or that it works but with some tradeoffs that they’ll want the friend or family member to know about.
The “Just keep it” policy risks devaluating the product, in other words, and possibly casting a shadow on other aspects of the overall experience. Yes, not having to bring it back saves time and money, but as with any customer problem, the ideal would be that it never arose in the first place.
For all the use of AI here, meanwhile, I am willing to bet money that there will be a disconnect, in many cases, between the data about the request to return the product and the data the brand uses to continue nurturing the relationship with that customer.
Once a product has been bought and delivered, for example, how likely is it the brand will recommend products with the same wrong attributes — whether it’s size, colour or something else — next time? And if the customer is dissatisfied multiple times, how often can the company continue to let them keep it?
I’m not advocating that customers should have to shlep products back and wait in lines, or go through other headaches for the sake of it. But the “just keep it” approach ultimately sends the message that the brand doesn’t want to deal with the glitch in their customer’s experience. In subtle ways, it could damage the relationship. And while products can be returned, once the relationship goes, there’s no getting it back.
Shane Schick tells stories that help people innovate, and to manage the change innovation brings. He is the former Editor-in-Chief of Marketing magazine and has also been Vice-President, Content & Community (Editor-in-Chief), at IT World Canada, a technology columnist with the Globe and Mail and Yahoo Canada and is the founding editor of ITBusiness.ca. Shane has been recognized for journalistic excellence by the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance and the Canadian Online Publishing Awards.