If Amazon’s lenient return policy has always been one of your favorite things about the online retailer, you may want to take note: You can get banned from Amazon for making too many returns, according to a report published on Tuesday in the Wall Street Journal. The bans are an effort to crack down on retail fraud, but not all customers are happy about it.
“We want everyone to be able to use Amazon, but there are rare occasions where someone abuses our service over an extended period of time,” Amazon said in a statement to Bustle. “We never take these decisions lightly, but with over 300 million customers around the world, we take action when appropriate to protect the experience for all our customers. If a customer believes we've made an error, we encourage them to contact us directly so we can review their account and take appropriate action.”
Although Amazon's extensive documentation on its return and refund policies notes that not all items can be returned, it's not clear in the pages available that customers may be blocked from the site if their return behavior raises any red flags. However, the news that Amazon can ban accounts that return what the company determines to be too many items isn’t actually new; we’ve been hearing individual stories to that effect since at least 2009.
In recent years, though, retailers in general — not just Amazon — have begun tightening up their return policies across the board: To name just a few, Nordstrom stopped giving cash for exchanges in 2017 and began refusing returns on occasion dresses which had had their tags removed; Bed, Bath & Beyond began deducting 20 percent on returns made without a receipt in 2015; and L.L. Bean’s century-old lifetime return policy ended in February 2018. What’s more, according to a Wall Street Journal report published in March, a growing number of retailers are now tracking customers’ purchase and return behaviors according to something called the Retail Equation. As NPR, which published a follow-up report after the Journal’s, explained it, “The Retail Equation’s database uses consumer behavior metrics such as how frequently a consumer makes returns and the dollar amount of those returns to calculate whether a shopper is considered a risk to a retailer to prevent return fraud.”
The point of the Retail Equation and all these new return policies is to mitigate the risks of and damage caused by retail fraud to businesses, which has been a growing problem. As a December 2017 report from CNBC pointed out, the “level of fraud as a percentage of retailers’ revenues” jumped to 1.58 percent from 1.47 the previous year, with losses from retail return fraud costing companies up to $15 billion. In that respect, tighter return policies and the possibility of being banned for fraudulent behavior are understandable; if businesses don’t wise up to retail return fraud, then they likely won’t be in business for much longer.
At the same time, though, many complaints reveal that customers feel the implementation of these revised policies to be so far imperfect. As BuzzFeed highlighted recently, numerous people have taken to Twitter and other forms of social media to complain about having been banned from Amazon. Computer programmer Greg Nelson, who was banned from Amazon for returning 37 items of 343 purchased because he said they were “faulty, damaged, or not as described,” told the Guardian in 2016, “I could understand if there were evidence that I had somehow tried to abuse the system, but I haven’t.”
(Said a spokesperson for Amazon in response to Nelson's complaint at the time, “Our goal is to deliver the best experience for the millions of customers who shop with us. In a tiny fraction of cases we are forced to close accounts where we identify extreme account abuse. This decision is only taken after we have reviewed the account carefully and tried to work with the customer over an extended time period to resolve any issues.”)
Again, both sides have legitimate grievances; if retail and return fraud are issues, businesses are allowed to put policies in place to curb the problem, but if customers are flagged for behavior that they don’t feel is abnormal, they should be able to contest these bans. In its simplest form, it’s possible that the people who actually do engage in retail and return fraud are ruining it for the rest of us.
And unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be an easy answer to any of it. According to TODAY, retail experts suggest customers “shop smarter by reading product descriptions closely, looking at customer photos of the product, [comparing] prices, and taking negative reviews into account” as a way of avoiding being banned; the idea is that by doing so, they’ll lessen the amount of purchases they make that require returns in the first place.
And to be fair, all that makes sense — but the trouble is, it isn't always the full picture. Even the most carefully researched online purchase can still turn out to be not quite right, particularly for items like clothing and beauty or personal care items; moreover, depending on a wide variety of factors, some customers may not have many other accessible options besides online shopping — which makes customer-friendly return policies vital.
Yes, businesses like Amazon are obviously both entitled and smart to crack down on fraudulent returns — but it's not going to happen without some customer pushback. Until a happy medium can be found, though, shop wisely; sometimes it doesn’t become obvious how much you rely on a source of convenience until it’s no longer available to you.