“I do a lot of online shopping. I try to stick with the merchants that offer free two-way shipping and unlimited return policies (e.g., any time, any condition, no questions asked). I often order items in three sizes and four colors and return most of them. I keep something for a year or more and then decide I don’t want it, often after I’ve used it.
“Some people have told me that what I’m doing is disgraceful, but I don’t see why. The stores make a big deal promoting these policies, and if they didn’t offer them, I wouldn’t shop there. Am I missing something? I’m becoming ashamed to tell anyone what I do, but I can’t resist getting my money back if I can’t tell in advance what the colors or cut will look like on me in real life, or if I will no longer want something after I discover it forgotten in my closet.
—Deliver Me not Evil
You’re right—with a caveat. If merchants tout a return-any-time-for-any-reason policy and offer to pick up the shipping charges in both directions, you’re certainly entitled to take advantage of that. As you point out, this policy brings these companies business that you (and others) otherwise might not give them (unless no one had such a policy—but that’s not the case at this time). The organizations must have calculated that they make more money and earn good will eating the cost of postage and returned goods than they would if they required customers to pay for shipping or be stuck with unwanted items. They build those costs into their prices, and if it isn’t working out for them, they increase the prices or reduce the benefits (e.g., switch to limited-time or unused return policies, or charge for shipping).
The caveat: It’s in your own interest (as well as the companies’) not to take excessive advantage of this “generosity.” If you return items unused and promptly, they can be resold and the companies have only lost the cost of shipping and restocking—plus the environmental costs of sending them back and forth. But if you hang onto things for years, or use them and then return them, that will be a loss to the seller. Although some items may get donated to people who are grateful to have them, many will just end up in landfills.
Another thing: thanks to modern technology, companies are keeping track of our buying habits, including our returns. If yours get to the point of being deemed abusive, companies may cut you off. It’s also possible that you might be a “returnaholic.” If that’s you, seek professional help. But if you’re just milking the system, be careful not to wear out the cow or get kicked.
My comment: From time to time we all have ethical issues that pose dilemmas. I thought readers might like to see an answer to one from Joan Reisman-Brill, who responds in The Humanist magazine to those who have ethical problems. Questions to The Humanist Dilemma at firstname.lastname@example.org (subject line: Humanist Dilemma. All inquiries confidential)