Last week I wrote about a time I went shopping for a dress and didn’t find what I wanted. I did find some acceptable alternatives but instead of deciding right then and there I bought three dresses and took them all home. Not because I suddenly decided I needed three new outfits, but because I knew I could always return the extra dresses after figuring out which one went best with my shoes. There wasn’t much risk in purchasing more than I needed other than the possibility of forgetting to do the return.
This all sounds sort of obvious, right? I bought clothes, I planned to return what I didn’t want, blah blah blah. So what? Being able to return merchandise is a matter of fact for us. We expect stores to allow us to return, and get annoyed when stores offer short windows for returns or only offer store credit instead of your money back (talking to YOU, Forever 21). But returning merchandise is actually a relatively new customer privilege. Well, a couple of centuries new, but within the scope of modern civilization that’s really not too long of a span! I wrote my college thesis on the development of modern French department stores, and a big part of my research had to do with how department stores changed consumers’ behavioral patterns. One of the practices popularized by modern department stores was the introduction of a concrete return policy. My research showed that the existence of a return policy makes shoppers more comfortable buying, because the perceived level of risk is much lower. Much as I did with my dresses, shoppers assume there is little to lose because they can always return things they decide they don’t want. The pioneers of modern mass retail realized that offering consumers a way out of their decisions made them more comfortable buying things in the first place.
Of course, retailers don’t want us to buy tons of stuff and then return it ALL. That is obviously not the best for their bottom line. And, naturally, retailers benefit when you forget to do a return or simply don’t bother. But giving us the freedom to return things makes us feel less roped in and also makes us feel like we are getting better customer service. Think about a company like Nordstrom, renowned for taking things back regardless of the item, circumstances, etc. Or an e-commerce site like Zappos, known for making it easy on customers to send shoes back. Back when department stores became popular (19th century here, folks), the average shopper was just starting to get hooked on conspicuous consumption. For the middle class, shopping was transforming from an act of actual need (e.g. when shoes wore out, you bought more) to an act of want (e.g. you found a pretty hat and some cool new gloves). So a return policy provided just the right push to get shoppers spending more, often beyond their means.
Other fun tactics the department store founders used include turning window displays into works of art, giving balloons to kids and staging themed sales. If you’re interested in learning more about the birth of this modern retail format and how it affected consumer patterns, check out Michael Miller’s The Bon Marché: Bourgeois Culture and the Department Store, 1869-1920. Or you could ask to read my thesis but, well, it’s in French. Sort of inconvenient, non?