Are You Going to Take That Back?

Posted on June 6, 2010


Still another fuzzy corner of life: What can you return? We have certain conventions in our society, and while we may not have them written down and it’s possible we’ve never even thought about them, we know what they are. For the most part. If you buy twelve cans of cat food, open one, and your cat runs away from home, you can return the other eleven cans — but not the one you opened. If you buy a plane ticket to Bangladesh and after arriving in July, suddenly remember you don’t like humidity, you’re not going to get your money back. If you go to the movies and don’t like the film, you probably wouldn’t ask for a refund, and besides, it’s more fun to go home and tell everyone you know that it’s the worst movie you’ve ever seen. (I personally have more than a hundred films I characterize this way.)

Our younger daughter has worked as a waitress on and off over the past five years and she occasionally tells the story of customers who order dinner, eat the entire meal, then say it was terrible and demand to have it taken off the bill. The unspoken rule, I believe, is that if there’s a problem with your food in a restaurant, you speak up after the first or second bite; in other words, if you eat it, you own it.

We bought a bag of chocolate chip cookies the other day. The cookies had the word decadent in the name, a word that is related to decay and so does not lure me the way it does others. But my wife and son assumed the cookies would be delicious. And, as if they’d just moved here from some remote mountain village that hadn’t been in touch with the outside world for centuries, they also expected the cookies to look like the picture on the package. At home, they each ate one cookie and were disappointed. My wife said, “We’re taking them back.” That’s what got me thinking. Can you return something to the store just because you don’t like it? If the expiration date is March 2002 and you noticed it after you opened the package, that’s one thing. But just because you don’t like it? I imagine myself standing on line at the customer service counter with an armload of groceries I’m unhappy with. “This soup doesn’t taste at all like the one my mother used to make. This super-moist cake has the texture of petrified wood. I drank an entire six-pack of this soft drink, and my life is still boring. Here’s my receipt.”

I suspect that my views on this matter are out of date. People return just about everything now, and why not? Television commercials announce that you can buy the car, the mattress, the refrigerator, take them home and use them for thirty days — and if you’re not completely satisfied, simply return them. No questions asked! Maybe this is the new idea, one I haven’t latched onto yet, that we’re entitled to be completely satisfied. It even extends to photo processing. You pay only for the pictures you like. Wow! If I could return all of the pictures I’ve ever taken that I was unhappy with, I could retire and buy the car, the mattress, and the refrigerator. I wish we’d had such guarantees when I was a kid, especially on the day my brand new pair of x-ray glasses arrived in the mail.

Clearly, there are things we should be able to return: a toaster that doesn’t toast, a fish tank that leaks, a table that’s missing a leg. There are also things we shouldn’t be able to return; Tylenol comes to mind. And then, there are services that really can’t be returned. (“I’m not completely satisfied with my gall bladder surgery. Please put it back.”)

But what about that big fuzzy area in between? Should you be able to return a book two weeks after you bought it? (“I never even opened it. Really.”) Toothpaste? (“It was supposed to make my teeth noticeably whiter in seven days, and I don’t notice any difference.”) Pets? (“I bought this puppy six months ago, and now look at the size of him! I didn’t pay for a dog, I paid for a puppy.”)

As with the endless number of product choices we’ve come to expect, I think this willingness to give refunds almost unconditionally is something we’re all paying for in the end. Still, given the frenzied pursuit to win over customers and make the sale, it doesn’t appear this practice is going to change anytime soon. So I wonder, what kinds of things do people feel comfortable about returning? And where do they draw the line, if there is one?

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