Stores fight back with stricter return policies, databases
SIKESTON -- When it comes to returns, staff at local retailers have heard almost every excuse in the book. And it's not just that something is the wrong size or color.
"I've had to put my foot down," said Martha Payne, manager at Carol's Hallmark in Sikeston. She has worked there for eight years. "They'd try to do everything under the sun."
For instance, she's had customers attempt to return an ornament, of which they claim they've received 10. "That's not very likely," said Payne.
The National Retail Federation estimates nearly 9 percent of holiday returns this year are expected to be fraudulent. This includes returning stolen merchandise, goods bought with fake or stolen credit cards, or items backed up with fake receipts.
A big problem is "wardrobing" -- when people buy an item and wear it, then try to return it.
Barbara Graham, area supervisor at Vanity Fair in Sikeston, said those who work in returns at the store will see patrons attempt to return used items. Because of that, associates are trained to look over garments that are returned.
"They say they haven't worn it, but you can tell when something's been worn, for the most part," said Graham. "We have also had occasions where they have ripped tags out of our garments and put them in something bought at another store."
To help crack down on fraudulent returns, Vanity Fair requires a picture ID when items are purchased and returned. When it comes to returns, those IDs are kept in a database and tracked to see if there is a pattern.
"If we see the same name popping up, we get a little suspicious," said Graham. And to keep people from giving fraudulent information on return forms, associates fill it out, Graham said.
Debbie Allen, manager at MJ's Jewelry, said customers there also try to return worn items.
"It's just your average American customer that swears up and down that it has never been worn, it just doesn't match their outfit," she said.
For her, it's also easy to tell if a customer is lying. "A lot of times, it's got a lot of fingerprints on it or it has hair in it, where it got caught in the clasp," Allen said.
To help combat the problem, many stores have strict return policies -- some which have recently gone into effect. For instance, Allen said the jewelry store does not give refunds, but allows customers to exchange it for other items in the store.
Refunds also aren't offered at Hallmark, said Payne. Only exchanges are OK'd, and seasonal items must be exchanged for other seasonal items.
Retailer giant J.C. Penney changed its return policy in October, requiring customers to accompany items with a receipt, and the purchase date be within the last 90 days.
Over the summer, Target Corp. changed its policy, too. Previously, items without a receipt had to be worth $100 or less, but now that threshold is $20 or less.
And the problem isn't limited to just retail stores -- furniture stores are also hit. Mike Grimes, owner of G&H Home Furnishings in Charleston, said he has customers come in to exchange items year-round.
"They get something, keep it six months and then they want to return it," said Grimes, adding that some of the items are paid off, while customers are still making payments on others. "We try to explain to them that you can't use something for six months and then expect to get your money back."
The store also requires buyers to sign a form that everything is received in good order when it is delivered, since there have been some customers who have called one or two months later to report a scratch or problem they say happened during the delivery process.
Grimes said his staff will work with customers in most cases, though, to touch up furniture.
Those in management at the stores can't pinpoint a single reason that people attempt to make these types of returns.
"I think they just think 'the store is busy, we're distracted, it's a busy time of year, so we'll get away with it,'" said Graham. But associates focus just as much now as they do any other time of year, she stressed.
Allen said she doesn't think the customers realize what they're doing -- and believe businesses are so happy for business, they'll do anything to please the customer -- but that's not true.
"Everyone has heard forever and ever, 'the customer is always right,'" Grimes agreed. "I've even had them admit they're wrong."
Customers often assume he can afford it, or will lie to the factory to get the furniture fixed for free.
"But we're not going to lie to anyone," he said. "Then they'll assume that you'll lie to the customer, too."
The Scripps Howard News Service contributed to this report.