Sunday, June 10, 2007

THE RIGHT THING: NO HAPPY RETURNS

I'm not what you would call an ardent shopper. OK, I'll be honest, I pretty much loathe shopping of any sort.

A letter from a reader in Huntington Beach, Calif., reminds me why. Apparently there is a gift shop in a mall outside Los Angeles that sells imported decorative items. Nothing in the shop is priced, however. If you like something, you have to ask a salesperson how much it costs.

That's what my reader did when she found an item that she liked. After being told that it cost $65, she told the clerk that she wanted to find her husband before purchasing it. Before she could leave, however, the salesman began lowering the price in $5 increments -- but only if she bought the item right then. She purchased it for $50.

"In the excitement of the purchase," she writes, "I did not notice the handwritten signs stating `No Returns,' and I did not see it printed on my receipt."

Alas, after the item had hung on her wall at home for a few days, her husband decided that it didn't go with their decor. It was only then, when she got out the receipt preparatory to returning the item, that she saw the notation that "All Sales Are Final."

She felt foolish, and let the matter lie for several weeks before she summoned up the courage to call the store. After she had explained her predicament, the saleswoman reiterated the store's policy, but told my reader that she could exchange the item for something of equal value.

"We did go in and look," she writes. "But we weren't in the mood just to get something. Besides, since nothing is priced, I wouldn't know how fair the exchange was."

My reader believes that she's entitled to a refund. Is the store ethically bound to give her one?

I think not. There are signs in the store announcing that all sales are final, a message that is also printed on receipts. There is nothing defective about the item. The store is nonetheless willing to let my reader exchange her item for something else. That strikes me as more than fair.

If my reader is suspicious that the salespeople will inflate prices so that her exchange choices are limited, she can send in her husband ahead of time to ask about the prices of various items. That way they'll have an idea of what $50 will buy them in the exchange.

Fundamentally, however, that has nothing to do with the question of whether she should get a refund. The store has a right to establish its own policies. The right thing for her to do is either to accept the offer of the exchange or to live with the purchase. That she neglected to pay attention to the signs or to the receipt is not the store's fault.

That said, the store's policy of not labeling items with their prices makes for an annoying shopping experience. That it's willing to drop those prices by almost 25 percent to stop a customer from leaving can't help but make customers wonder if they got the best price possible. And while printed signs and a notice on the receipt are clear, salespeople could make the "sales final" policy even clearer by stating it when the customer is checking out.

Of course, it may be that the salespeople avoid stating the policy for fear of scaring off customers. If so, that's no justification for not making every effort to ensure that customers know what they're entering into when they engage in business. The store's mysteriously sliding prices and seemingly flexible no-returns policy suggest that it has a way to go in building a trusting relationship with its customers.

But then, I'm no shopper.

4 comments:

Robin said...

First off, she has no right to return it because she is functioning here within the western world and its rules of conscience. But it also proves why other world economies with this kind of bargaining price policy are in trouble long term. (How can you predict profit this way from cost of goods vs sales?) If you don't post prices and then you bargain, how solid is the store policy anyway? Can you expect store policy to be as flexible as the pricing? Who set the expectations here?

Phil Clutts said...

I agree with you, Jeffrey, depending, however, on the size, number, and placement of the signs in the store. Perhaps they were almost too obscure to notice, in which case the customer has a valid complaint. The statement on the receipt wouldn’t have been helpful, because the customer doesn’t get a receipt until after she has bought the product.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Seglin,

This comment is in response to your column that appeared in the OC Register on June 11.

Untagged merchandise and slippery pricing are standard business practices with recent immigrants from what used to be called "Third World Countries." It is simply how they do business in their country of origin. Like it or not, people who walk into their stores are evaluated for the ability/ willingness to pay a higher price. Customers are expected to bargain so the initial price is considered only the starting point. We have encountered this practice at all levels of business - from sidewalk fruit stands to expensive Persian rug stores in elegant neighborhoods. It is not uncommon to be given a lower price after you reject the first price and to have an even lower price shouted out as you leave the store. No, it is not like shopping at Macy's.

I would never dream of arguing with this system. If you are uncomfortable with haggling or do not like being "sucker scanned" the solution is easy: take your dollars elsewhere. We should just be cognizant that we are not more insulated from being ripped-off in the fixed-price stores we are so comfortable in.

Teri Klima
Orange, CA

William said...

Although many western sellers set fixed prices on goods, they are not required to and a sale is just as valid if, as in this case, the sale price was reached through negotiation.

A store is not required to take returns and it sounds as if this store did everything reasonable to notify the customer of its policy not to. The store's offer of exchanging for store credit is more than generous. The customer is completely offbase in what she believes she is ethically entitled to.

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