You’ve probably known someone like this – – returning a new dress the day after the big event (“wardrobing“); using influence to get a fake handicap parking tag, etc.  Those who think the rules don’t apply to them; who make George Costanza seem almost normal.

Recently 2 equally intriguing and infuriating news stories raised a special challenge to marketers:
Should the customer always be right?   Isn’t that one of the Marketing Ten Commandments?

What if the customer is a big jerk?

REI Guarantee

Case 1) REI reduced its famous unlimited return policy to one year (still quite liberal).
– this was in response to increasing numbers of customers gaming the system, and in some cases bragging about it
– According to the Wall Street Journal, one customer “returned a backpack he bought in 2004, which he had hauled up the tallest mountain in Yosemite National Park and hundreds of miles. But it “was getting old and dirty, and I didn’t like it anymore,” he says.  He returned the backpack; REI gave him a brand-new one which he later returned when he realized there was a newer model.  His justification: Since he bought hundreds of REI products over the years, he says, the retailer still has made a healthy overall profit on his purchases.
– This is just one of many similar stories, here are some reactions to the new policy, along with some amusing pretzel logic.

Screen Shot 2013-09-27 at 3.56.24 PM

Case 2) Disney discontinued its policy that let physically handicapped guests and their parties avoid long waits in line.
– This was in response to abuse of the system – – according to some delicious reporting in the New York Post, some wealthy parents were paying physically disabled ‘tour guides’ up to $1000 to accompany their parties, thereby allowing their kids faster access to rides.  This remarkably selfish act of course mostly punishes the truly disabled kids; indirectly the PR hurts Disney as well.

Many companies have built loyal followings with liberal return policies.  Business Insider lists their top 10 here.

But why is there a seemingly growing numbers of abusers, and what should marketers do about it?

FIRST, THE WHY:  MY THEORY –> Abusing rules is a way of ‘Sticking it to the Man’:  for someone who feels insufficient influence on their world, any way to exert some control on a more powerful entity is satisfying.   This can apply to someone who feels economically disadvantaged; for the privileged it could simply mean an organization whose rules cramp their style.  Anything goes.
An excellent scholarly description of ‘The Man’ is in this brief clip:

School of Rock:  'The Man'

Definitive explanation of ‘The Man’

Except that now, due to politics and the state of the economy, the definition of ‘the Man’ is expanding; pretty much anything now qualifies as ‘The Man’.  This, naturally, leads to greater return policy abuse.

Evolution of (the) Man:  1960s – The Government;  1970s – Your Boss;  1980s – The USSR; 1990s – Big Business; 2000s – The Other Political Party;  2010s – Any Company OR the Other Party OR anything else

– the options are pretty clear:   A) attract and presumably keep customers by keeping and advertising a liberal policy, OR B) manage profitability and integrity by installing guardrails to limit abuse
The Case for A:   Supports the original brand promise (‘satisfaction guaranteed’); doesn’t give a reason to defect; lifetime value of loyal customers may be profit-positive
The Case for B:  Limits financial liability from abuse; signals to honest customers that they’re not subsidizing dishonest customers; arguably can still have a liberal policy.

Personally, I’m supportive of adjusting the rules to match the times.
In the case of REI, a one-year policy still supports the company’s core value of backing up its products.  Thus, those customers for whom REI’s products and prices are appealing should remain customers.  The minority of customers who abuse the system might claim to be loyal, but they’re loyal mostly to their dollars – they’ll shop online and either adjust to the policy or take their ‘business’ elsewhere.

In the case of Disney, it will almost certainly lead to a policy that may involve some additional steps for guests, but which will help to assure that Disney is doing what it can to continue to ensure a great experience – – which is absolutely core to the Disney brand promise.  In the end, it shouldn’t affect attendance.

What do you think?


3 responses »

  1. Great post. I think people are pretty smart. If you have a liberal return policy, people will take advantage of it. If you sell products at a deep discount, people will stock up. And if you adopt new policies that make more sense, people will understand and respect you. I think REI made a very smart move.


  2. Couldn’t believe the REI story when I read it a couple weeks ago. One person said the REI policy funded his hike of Kilamanjaro! Jerks.


  3. Pingback: The Secret to Great Customer Service | The Armchair MBA

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