Jim recently asked me, “Did you know that the unfettered ability to return a purchase, no questions asked, was (and is) a largely American consumer innovation? That in India the idea is largely unthinkable? You buy it, you own it.” Jim has just heard a talk by Elliot Rabinowich, an Arizona State professor, on internet commerce supply chain and returns.
I told Jim about how I’d learned that, firsthand, in Ireland, within just a couple hours of moving there. Just off the plane from Boston, and barely ensconced in our temporary housing, I was in line with a trolley full of food in a the nearby grocery, Tesco. (Anyone with three sons will understand why FOOD is always the top priority of the day, no matter what, even on a day when you move overseas.) Standing at check-out I saw a big red and blue poster, proclaiming the “No Quibble Policy” at Tesco. The sign had a rather long explanation of the fact that you could return anything you bought, no questions asked. At first puzzled (“So what?”), it then dawned on me that this policy was a special, competitive offering in my new country of residence.
The reality was that in Dublin you could actually return purchases in most stores, but it was a hassle (lines, forms) and uncomfortable (lots of questions, store credit only, still relatively unwelcome by retailers). Here’s something I wrote about the American reverse of that in 2005, after we had just returned to the US:
I go to a place like the gigantic Bed, Bath and Beyond and get an immediate headache. Too big! There is so much on offer, but so little of it is quirky or personal. And how can it be– when they have so much–that they never have what I want? I end up returning half of what I buy. I don’t remember returning much in Dublin. I think I did it once or twice a year. The shop clerks made it kind of difficult sometimes—acting suspicious like you were trying to pull a fast one. Mainly, I only bought what I needed so why would I be returning it anyway? Clearly, I don’t need much of what I am buying back here in Boston, because I find it taking up just a few days residence before it needs trotting back to the shop (too big, wrong color, poor quality, wrong wattage, etc). But those ladies at Bed Bath and Beyond sure are nice about the returns. They seem to really believe me even when I don’t have a receipt. They hold the reject stuff behind the counter until I pick out a replacement. And they cheerily credit my card when I actually don’t need anything new.
I was pretty crabby about returning from Ireland, and consumer stuff took on an uncomfortable life on its own. I have lots of complex feelings about this, that I’ll write about another time. Ironic that Grommet is a commerce business, yet I am really excited about what we intend to do differently to benefit our community. In our case, community is defined by both passionate product creators who do new and innovative things, and the people who love to support them.
But, even with our rather lofty and idealistic visions, we have to think about practical, operational things. They determine the community and company experience as much or more than a logo or product offering. Jim has great insight on this and I love to talk about these things with him.
So, we’re thinking about returns at Daily Grommet and excited about two ideas we have that could make returns a positive experience for the company and customers. Creative ways to keep costs low, not encourage waste, and even provide social benefits. We’ll try them out in a kind of low-tech way (ie. we won’t build big systems around them until they prove out) and see how they work.