E-shops see many unhappy returns

Shipping: Online merchants are great for delivering orders, but often are unprepared to handle the reverse - frequently saddling customers with costs.

January 15, 2001|By Mary Ethridge | Mary Ethridge,KNIGHT-RIDDER/TRIBUNE

"If you don't like it, you can always return it," they say. "My feelings won't be hurt."

You may have heard this more than once during the holidays from well-meaning relatives as they handed over beautifully wrapped boxes containing - oops - the wrong size sweater or a book you already have.

Well, ha! That's easy for them to say. They might as well tell you to complete the Iditarod naked or to count butterfly ballots with your teeth.

Exchanging unwanted holiday gifts has always been a harrowing experience rife with long lines and Byzantine return policies.

But this year could be even worse for many of us. More Americans than ever will be attempting to return gifts purchased over the Internet. They'll find - as in buying from brick-and-mortar merchants - that it's often easier to buy than to return.

While online companies have worked hard this year to get gifts delivered on time (under threat from the feds, no less), they haven't paid nearly as much attention to the whole process of taking them back.

"The online retailers have had revenues, not returns, on their mind," said David Hybels, program manager for Extraprise, a business-consulting firm in Boston. "Online retailers are still missing it when it comes to customer service."

Extraprise just issued a study on the return policies of the top 50 Internet retailers and found most of them woefully lacking.

"Returning a gift bought online is probably going to cost you," said John Roynon, adviser for Extraprise. "Even with the online retailers we consider strong on service, shipping fees can add up."

Extraprise found that nearly 70 percent of the Internet retailers do not have a provision for shoppers to return goods to a brick-and-mortar location and that almost half do not explicitly assign responsibility for the cost of returning defective goods or inaccurate shipments.

That means, my friend, you're probably the one to pay.

About three-quarters of all the top online retailers neglected to put links to their return policies on their home pages, and 53 percent do not provide a phone number on the returns page for shoppers' return-related questions.

Roseanne Campbell of Akron has experienced the confusion firsthand. After Christmas 1999, she ended up spending $18 to return some pajamas and a necklace to an online retailer.

"I couldn't figure out what to do and I couldn't get anyone on the phone to help me," said Campbell, who did all her shopping at area malls this past season. "I was so frustrated. Never again."

"Some of these are very easy problems to fix," said David Hybels of Extraprise.

"Frankly, we were surprised at how poorly most of these retailers handled returns."

Only a handful of online retailers include postage-paid labels along with the package to make returns as easy as possible.

"This is a big problem, and the customer is on the losing end," said C. Britt Beemer, head of America's Research Group, a consumer marketing firm. "It's incredibly aggravating."

For those who find themselves facing big fees for returning e-gifts, Beemer recommends negotiating with the retailer.

If their return policies aren't stated clearly on the Web site, consider it permission to argue with them - nicely - to work things in your favor.

Extraprise believes it won't be long before the government requires Web sites to post their return policies prominently.

And if you're heading to a brick-and-mortar outlet to return a gift, there are several things to keep in mind.

The return policies vary greatly from retailer to retailer, but there are some general rules.

Most, if not all, merchants won't give you cash back for something without a receipt.

Some won't take an item back under any terms without one.

And most will give cash back only for cash purchases, not those paid for by credit card.

In those cases, you're most likely to get store credit for new merchandise.

Many retailers have special policies for the holiday season, so don't assume you know what a store's policy is just because you shop there all the time.

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