L.L. Bean Ends Generous Return Policy

February 13, 2018

In 1912 Leon Leonwood Bean sold his first 100 pairs of boots to local hunters, promising that the footwear would “give perfect satisfaction in every way.” Soon enough, though, 90 customers brought their boots back after the bottoms became separated from the tops. While Bean nearly went bankrupt providing refunds, he knew that he had to stick to his word in order to regain his customers’ trust. As a result, people continued to support his business, which eventually grew from a small outdoors shop in Maine into a global apparel brand called L.L. Bean. Throughout this century of growth, the company remained committed to accepting returns on any item, no matter its condition or when it was purchased originally.

Unfortunately, this era of “no questions asked” returns appears to have finally come to an end. Last week L.L. Bean announced that customers can now only return defective products or those purchased within the previous 12 months. The company cited recent abuse of its long-standing return policy as the reason for the change. “What we have seen, and it has come to the point where we had to act upon it, is a small but growing group of customers who are interpreting the guarantee as a lifetime product replacement program, and that was never its intent,” said L.L. Bean CEO Stephen Smith. In one case, a customer said she was “displeased with the quality” of a pair of slippers that had obviously been in use for years. Another example centered around a child’s ski jacket that still had ski lift tags attached dating back three years. L.L. Bean gave store credit or replaced the items in both of these instances.

That’s no longer the case, though. L.L. Bean says that dubious returns like the ones above accounted for 15 percent of all recent returns, more than double the amount from a few years ago. The company blames both social media for spreading the word as well as a marketing promotion that focused on its “guaranteed” products. Along with encouraging more people to search their attics for old L.L. Bean items, some even began digging through Goodwills and yard sales for stuff to return. Actions like these ruined a good thing for the company’s honest customers, sending many to social media to voice their displeasure at the changes. Nevertheless, L.L. Bean has one of the most generous return policies in American business even with these recent alterations. And most importantly, the company’s commitment to quality remains. “The satisfaction guarantee and the intent of the guarantee is very much still intact. We make great stuff and we stand behind great stuff,” said Smith. “But we have had a huge growth in abuse, and fraud, and a misinterpretation of that guarantee.”

Questions:

  1. Do you think L.L. Bean should have changed their return policy? Why or why not?
  2. Why do you think more people began abusing L.L. Bean’s return policy in recent years?

Sources: J. Craig Anderson, “L.L. Bean Ends Unlimited Return Policy, Blaming Increasing Abuse,” Portland Press Herald, February 9, 2018; Molly Roberts, “An All-American Immorality Play,” The Washington Post, February 9, 2018. Photo by kmf164.

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