Buy, Wear Once, & Return: We Talk To One Guilty Shopper

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02_MG_8024-finalPhotographed by Heather Talbert.
We've all been tempted. You've found the perfect thing to wear to tonight's big shindig — it's just too bad that it's way out of your budget, and you can't figure out where you could wear it again. But, if you tuck the tag underneath the zipper and make sure you're extra careful about that Merlot, you think you could get away with bringing it back the day after...

That's when the crippling anxiety sets in, and a slew of scenarios — What if they find you out? What if the sales associate notices the bent tags? What if she can smell my perfume? — prevents you from going any further. However, there are communities of women who've managed to beat the system by treating shopping like a rental service. We spoke to one of these buyers-and-returners about her secrets, her motivations, her guilt, and how she's going to return the $600 dress she wore to her prom seven years ago.

So, when did this all start? Have you always been a buyer-and-returner, or is this a recent development?
“I would say it started in college. When you don’t have a lot of money, you’re kind of like, 'I’ll wear this once, but I don’t really want to wear this again.' For me, clothes lose its novelty after you wear it once, so afterward, you’re kind of like, 'What do I do with it?' So, you just find things you can do with what you have.”

Walk me through a typical cycle of buying and returning.
“For example, each time somebody has a birthday or — man, I sound like such a jerk — special occasion, I’ll buy an outfit from Club Monaco that I really love. I’ll always leave the tags on, wear it to the event, and I’ll see if I really liked it or not. Nine times out of 10, I’ll return it afterward. I will dry-clean it if necessary. I've never returned damaged stuff. With shoes, it’s a little bit tougher, but if you know the return policies for stores, it shouldn't be a problem. Bloomingdale's is really great. Nordstrom and Macy’s are surprisingly good, too. I guess they try to compete with other department stores now if you have proof of purchase. I will say that I never buy and return at smaller boutiques. It doesn't feel right."

What's your most extreme instance of doing this?
"I had a pair of Coach boots, and there was really nothing wrong with them, but they had been underneath my bed for two years, and I didn't want them anymore. It’s kind of hard to go back to the store and say you changed your mind, so I was going to say there was something defective with the merchandise. I've worked in retail before, and if something is wrong with the merchandise, they will just take it back. So, I was planning and — this is so embarrassing — thought the best thing to do was to say that, after two years, I noticed there was something in the sole. Like a nail, for instance.”

So, you hammered a nail into a pair of worn, two-year-old shoes and were able to get your money back?
“Yeah... They were definitely worn, but the sales person was like, ‘Okay, I’m sorry.’ As long as you have a proof of purchase, they'll take it back. For example, I have a prom dress from 2006, and I had it dry-cleaned, but I was going to re-attach the tags and return it.”

And, you get full price for it?
“I would assume so. It’s seven years later, but it was $620. I have the proof of purchase, so if they wanted to see how much I paid, I could show them. Nordstrom themselves can look up information from 10 years.”

Would you consider yourself a persuasive person?
“Not really, but I am confident when I return products because I know certain stores will try to do anything to accommodate the customer. I’ve never really had an issue.”
01_TJ_MAXX_R29_171_highres_CROPPhotographed by Michelle Drewes.
Do you think your having worked in retail has made returning things easier for you?
“Yes, because I know I'm not the most extreme case. I’ve worked in a shoe department at a large department store, and there were people who have come to us to try and return UGG boots that have been attacked by dogs, and we've had to accept them. People have returned shoes that were totally burnt through and smelled like smoke, and we’ve taken them back. Large department stores don't often have a solid return policy, so individual stores try to protect themselves against complaints in case a customer goes to corporate, which is why they'll most likely accept returns."

So, employees can get fired for not accepting returns?
"Yep. My friend used to work for this other department store, and one of her coworkers sold an acquaintance a dress that was a couple thousand dollars, [and she] returned it shortly after she bought it. But, she saw her on Facebook wearing the dress, and she called the person out on it, and then she got fired. You can’t really make the customer feel uncomfortable, because at the end of the day, you’re just there to sell. You’re not there to stand up for the company."

So, you never get anxiety when you're returning things? Are you the type to send back food at restaurants?
“No, I’m not really that person that sends food back. I’m not pushy that way across the board. But, if there is a problem with a product, I don't mind making the effort to get my money's worth. For instance, one of my friends bought the same hair dryer that I did, and within a year, hers broke. It was a $200 hair dryer, and she threw it out and ordered a new one, which is crazy to me. I told her to give the defective one to me, and I'll get her a new one with the warranty. I spend more money on something if there’s a warranty in the case I do want to return something, but it's definitely not every single thing that I buy.”

Do you do anything to protect your clothes? Are there certain things you won’t buy because they're difficult to keep pristine?
“I’ve put plastic bags on the tag before, in case I sweat and it'll make the ink on the tag bleed. You can keep the plastic thing on the garment, and just pull off the paper tag to reattach it. I’ve done that before.”

Do you ever feel like you’re cheating the system?
“I feel more like I'm just taking advantage of a loophole. The majority of the time, I don’t feel like the store is losing out on anything because I’m returning current-season stuff in wearable condition. If I don’t like something, I feel like I'm owed the right to change my mind, especially if something is expensive. I guess there's a part of the whole thing that has to do with me not dealing well with buyer's remorse. It's something we all do — you buy something, and then you wear it and feel guilty about having spent all that money, but if you know you have that option to return it and get it out of your house, you can focus on just enjoying the clothes. It’s definitely a bit about getting emotional fulfillment.”