Return Offenders
April 14, 2009 - 12:00pm

Merchandise returns are especially problematic for the independent lighting showroom. The nature of the business revolves around electrical products that often must be specially ordered and installed (i.e. cut wires), which has led to restrictive policies designed to protect against financial losses. At the same time, these same policies can result in unhappy customers stuck with an unwanted purchase.

    It’s the classic sticky wicket, says Darla Pritchard, co-owner of Charleston Lighting and Interiors. “And the home stores make it tough on us because they’ll take anything back, including the tires on your car, no questions asked,” she explains.


Have customers sign forms to signify that they’ve read and understand the showroom’s return policy. This simple step can go a long way toward reducing returns.

Most showrooms will issue full refunds only for in-stock merchandise that has not been installed, is in the original carton and is accompanied by the original receipt. Generally speaking,the return period ranges from three to 30 days.

    In the case of special-order items, terms are even more restrictive. Some return policies state that they are non-cancelable and non-returnable. Others welcome back merchandise, less a 25 percent restocking fee, provided it has not been installed, is still in its original box and is accompanied by the original purchase receipt.

    But the reality is not so cut and dried. Extenuating circumstances typically place the dealer between a rock and a hard place.

    “Enforcing standard or very definite return policies is a real challenge because there’s so much product, it’s impossible for us to show every option,” says David May, General Manager of Hacienda Lighting in Scottsdale, AZ. “Unfortunately, product inconsistencies are a big problem, and color chips and catalog pages don’t have any correlation to the actual fixtures that arrive.”

    Adding insult to injury, “Manufacturers have given big box stores and national chains a ‘get out of jail free’ card,” May observes. “They have incredibly forgiving return policies, while we're forced to try to refurbish and resell fixtures that aren’t what they were represented to be. The playing field is not level. We’re already at a disadvantage [since] we’re not getting the special pricing that the big boxes enjoy, and we’re trying to convince customers that it’s worth it to wait four to six weeks for a special product rather than taking what’s on the shelf.”

    Of course, there are many other reasons for merchandise returns, including customers who simply change their minds or carelessly order the wrong size. Many of them disregard return policies as a matter of convenience.

    “The demands of the consuming public are hard to understand,” May says. “There’s no personal accountability.”

    So, what’s a dealer to do? While there isn’t a single magic bullet, you can take steps to protect yourself. First, the old saw about measuring twice and cutting once certainly applies.

    “The last thing you want is customers ordering something if they aren’t sure,” says Eric

Lebersfeld, Vice President of Capitol Lighting. “So, encourage them to take an extra day.”

    Second, state your return policy upfront and make it clear before you place special orders. Print the policy on the sales receipt and special order forms. And third, have customers sign

or initial the form to signify that they’ve read and understand the policy. “That has reduced returns greatly,” Lebersfeld says.

    Still, Lebersfeld adds that the last thing any retailer wants is an angry customer. Capitol Lighting will “meet the customer much more than half-way” when he or she is dissatisfied. “Let's just say that I will be much more than fair, but I will not be taken advantage of,” he explains.

    Pritchard underscores that stance: “You really want to take care of your customers, but not at the expense of your business.”

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