Your browser is out-of-date!

Update your browser to view this website correctly. Update my browser now


Losing Customers One Return At A Time

It seemed easy enough: Pick up a can of WD-40 from Home Depot and spray the front door so my wife would no longer know when I was sneaking out for a jelly donut in the morning.

A week later I pulled the cap off the can and found that the nozzle head was broken. Dismayed, I opened the door, it squeaked, my wife woke up, and I went directly to Home Depot. I put my $3.98 can of WD-40 on the returns counter, showed the associate the broken head, and asked if she could please exchange it. I knew I’d be out in no time, leaving plenty of time for a donut run. Oh boy!

Suddenly I noticed a change in her expression. I determined that she was either about to pass gas or that things were about to get ugly. Either way I wasn’t going to like it.

“Where is the receipt?” she quickly and very pointedly asked. O.K., a reasonable request, to which I replied, “I don’t have it.” You would think from her grimace that I had slapped her. She quickly volleyed with her next piercing question: “Why not?” I told her it was $4 and that I probably just threw it away with the bag. (I mean, come on, I’m a guy, what guy keeps receipts?) We both stood silently looking at each other, neither blinking, like a scene from “Deliverance.”

I cracked first and smiled, she did not. She shrugged and told me there’s nothing she can do and to take it to “J.T. in hardware.” I did so, and a very pleasant gentleman in hardware told me “No problem, just take this new one back to the counter and tell them I said it was O.K.”

I returned to the returns counter in the same way Seinfeld and George approached the soup guy, and told her J.T. said it was alright. I watched her eyebrows rise as she sputtered the word “Okay” under her breath, as if she had had tuna and onions for breakfast. Why was she upset with me? She was making me feel like a criminal.

I told her I had other shopping to do and could she put the can in a bag so that there would be no confusion at check out. “I can’t give you a bag!” she blurted, and without uttering another word she put a sticker on the can, wrote “Exchange” on it, then rudely slid it across the counter and turned away, as if I was the one with onion breath. I said thank you, to which I got no acknowledgement.

As I turned to get extension cords and a new drill, I thought “Hey, what am I doing, I just got treated like an escaped felon over $3.98!” Coming to my senses I turned and, after being stopped for attempting to leave with an open item, I left the store and bought my extension cords and drill across the road at Lowe’s, which through little effort of its own has now unconditionally won me as a customer.

How many customers with returns have you unknowingly lost? If you say none, think again. No one likes returns, neither the customer nor you, for CE retailers know that over 70 percent of electronics returns are not defective. Your goal has to be to determine as best as possible who or what caused the problem, and you can’t do that by putting the customer on the defensive.

How much training have you done with your sales managers and salespeople on what your return ratios look like, what the main causes are, and to brainstorm ideas? Make your team aware and they will become part of the solution that will allow you to lower return rates and save your customer before they become someone else’s.

And just in case you were wondering, I successfully applied the WD-40 and now leave unnoticed to enjoy my jelly donuts every morning.

Bill Stuart is CEO of Stuart & Assoc., an international consultancy serving Fortune 100 manufacturers and retailers in the areas of service contracts, professional training, and product returns reduction. For more information, visit