Categories Finance, Retail

Spilling Bean: Behind L.L.Bean’s latest returns policy revamp

“You take that back!”

People are not easy to please. They will always have grievances about the food they eat, the things they buy, the people they live and work with, and sometimes their lives in general.

This is why, in the retail world, companies have a returns policy in place. Businesses have to make the consumer happy if they are to survive. So most of them offer perks like returns, refunds, and exchanges to increase the convenience of the customer.

L.L.Bean’s new policy dictates a one-year limit on returns with a proof of purchase

Amazon allows customers to return, replace or exchange items but its returns policy comes with a time restriction of 30 days. Target’s system enables returns of unopened items within 90 days. However, items without receipts are denied refunds. Walmart allows returns and exchanges with or without a receipt within 90 days of purchase.

But allow people to use something, and there will always be someone who will misuse it. So just how much is too much?

Recently, privately-held retail company L.L.Bean decided to change its returns policy as the rampant misuse was becoming too hard to deal with.

L.L. Bean has had its 100% satisfaction guarantee for more than a century, a generous returns policy with no time limit. This has now given way to a one-year limit on returns with a proof of purchase.

The company said the reason for the change was that people were returning items that were completely worn out and unusable in exchange for new goods. Some went as far as procuring stuff from garage sales, thrift stores, and even trash cans in order to return them.

Examples include people exchanging school backpacks for the latest model and old clothes once their kids outgrew them. Some clear out attics and basements and bring back piles of old clothes and stuff that they want to return. Most of this stuff is what can be called “destroy quality”.

First-quality goods are placed back on store shelves while second-quality ones are sold at outlets or donated. Destroy quality, however, can only go to the landfill. L.L.Bean lost $250 million over the past five years due to returns of destroy-quality goods.

Many people have justified the company’s action stating that it was a long time coming although some went on to criticize the retailer.

L.L.Bean is not alone. Outdoors retailer REI, once nicknamed Return Everything Inc., scrapped its unlimited returns policy in favor of a one-year restriction a couple of years ago.

Sears too amended its returns policy to include a 30 to 90-day time limit versus the earlier policy where returns were permitted within a “reasonable period of time.” I guess some people take the idea of ‘reasonable’ rather flexibly. Costco too adopted a 90-day deadline a few years ago.


Talking of returns, the holidays are a season not just to spread joy but to also return stuff you don’t want. In a bizarre incident on January 4 this year, a woman was said to have returned her Christmas tree to Costco for a refund. Her reason? It was “dead.”

Most of the time, store employees are quite amicable and take care of the returns graciously. In this case, however, Costco wasn’t too kind. The woman was given her refund only after a round of questioning, verification and a slight degree of shaming.

Costco employees have shared their experiences over Reddit on the weirdest returns they have seen. These include old mattresses, empty wine bottles, and even dead plants.

Stores keep returns policies for the sake of the convenience of their customers. It is up to the people to use them responsibly.

The sad part is a customer has now sued L.L.Bean over the change of its returns policy. This too is alleged as an example of misuse, but that’s another topic for another day.

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