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Retailers  urged to call 'time' on the returnaholics.

Retailers urged to call 'time' on the returnaholics

‘Many happy returns’ is not only a birthday wish, but also a shopping principle used by more than 50% of women, according to research by King et al. (Journal of Marketing Management, Vol 24 Nos 1-2). They report that more than half of customers questioned in two shopping centres admitted to having bought a product with no intention of keeping it.

‘Deshopping’, as this practice is called, can be for several reasons. Some people buy a new item of clothing to wear at an important function, then return the garment once the event is over. Others, for whom shopping is an addiction, systematically return products once they have served their purpose of giving a post-purchase ‘high’. A third group engage in deshopping simply because their friends do it.

King et al. argue that retailers are failing to address deshopping, even though it is rising. The authors argue that retailers should train their employees to ask pertinent questions about returns and impose strict return procedures.

Such behaviour would, of course, fly in the face of the idea that ‘the customer is always right’, a slogan coined by retailer H. Gordon Selfridge more than 100 years ago. Faullant et al. (Managing Service Quality, Vol 18 No 2, 2008) highlight the various ways in which customers can be wrong to the extent of being unfair, why this is important and what companies can do about it.

‘Deshopping’ is one example of customer unfairness. Other problem shoppers include verbal abusers, blamers, rule-breakers and opportunists.

The authors describe three tests retailers can use to decide whether a customer’s bad judgement or manners have crossed the line to unfairness – the severity of the harm the customer causes, the frequency of his or her problematic behaviour, and whether or not it was intentional.

According to Faullant et al., managers can deal with unfair customers by training employees to identify unfair behaviour and ensuring that unfair customers are not rewarded, while making certain above all that fair customers are not penalized for the misbehaviour of others.

Michael O’Leary, chief executive of the Irish low-cost airline Ryanair, is certainly not among those who believe that the customer is always right. Indeed, he is frequently quoted defending his airline by inviting disgruntled customers to take their business elsewhere – at several multiples of the price they paid for their Ryanair ticket.

Allen and O’Leary (Supply Management, 31 January 2008) describe the practices that the Ryanair chief executive used when he was a customer himself – for 100 Boeing 737-800s that he bought at the rock-bottom price of $28 million each.

O’Leary apparently put tremendous pressure on Boeing by announcing his intention to seek aircraft on the second-hand market and considering offers from Boeing’s rival Airbus – even though he always wanted new aircraft that would be more fuel-efficient and cheaper to run than older planes.

He employs equally fierce and effective tactics when negotiating with the airports at which his planes will land. In some cases, this translates into airports paying his company to use their services.

Next time you bag a cheap flight to Ireland, the Mediterranean or eastern Europe, think of the ‘deals of steel’ behind the bargain – and perhaps offer silent thanks that you did not have to negotiate them yourself.