Worth it to take a big company to small claims?
June 17, 2014 2:06 AM   Subscribe

I would like to take Sephora.com to small claims court. Is this worth my time and do I even have a case?

They sent two orders back to me totally around 1k saying the products were empty and I would not be refunded. All the return policy says about the state of the items is:

"If you are not completely satisfied with a Sephora.com purchase or gift for any reason, please return it for a full refund."

Some of the items I returned were empty, some were used once. They are saying I will get zero money back. I've done this before and never encountered a problem. I dont think they should be able to pick and choose to which customers they honor their vague and lenient return policy for. It attracts buyers; some desirable, some not. Do I have a chance at getting my money back? I've never experienced small claims court but do value consumer advocacy and would like to do my part.
posted by JJkiss to Law & Government (28 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not sure I understand. You bought some stuff, used all the product, then returned the empty containers?
posted by ryanrs at 2:15 AM on June 17, 2014 [17 favorites]

I understand you are looking to use a loophole. But one could argue the following:
empty product = completely satisfied
lightly used product = not completely satisfied
unused product = not completely satisfied

I think the fact that you used some of the products up, muddies the water and could be interpreted as not acting in good faith. In fact, I interpret it that way. But this is only my private opinion. Ask a layer if you have a case.
posted by travelwithcats at 2:23 AM on June 17, 2014 [5 favorites]

This doesn't sound like anything close to good faith behavior on your part. You know full well that the return policy is meant as a guarantee against bad product, not a way to get thousands of dollars worth of product for free. Especially if you've done this before, you've shown them that you're after free stuff, not after a reasonably satisfactory shopping experience. I think your chances of having anybody side with you on this are minimal. Not only is this not a reasonable interpretation of the policy, but it's this sort of behavior that has made such guarantees harder to find, so--this is pretty much the opposite of "consumer advocacy".
posted by Sequence at 2:29 AM on June 17, 2014 [57 favorites]

Mod note: A couple of comments deleted. Folks, I understand that there are some details here that may be getting some hackles up, but we're still Ask Metafilter and you need to actually be addressing the question or problem, not just dropping in to scold the OP.
posted by taz (staff) at 2:55 AM on June 17, 2014

I hate to ask, but do you return very much merchandise? Not just to Sephora, but do you generally make a lot of returns? You might have reached some corporate limit.

And yeah, returning empty product containers *sounds* like you're willfully abusing a company's returns policy, even if that's not your intention.
posted by easily confused at 2:57 AM on June 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

This page says Some retailers issue warnings before issuing return denials. If you suspect you might be at risk for a return or exchange denial, you can request a copy of your Return Activity Report.

Also: Retailers still accept 99% of consumers’ returns... The other 1% are referred to as returnaholics—consumers whose chronic return behavior points to fraud or abuse of the system (like if someone buys a dress, wears it once, then tries to return it; retailers call this “wardrobing”). This is based on the frequency of returns, the dollar amount of returns, purchase history, and whether these customers have receipts or not.

I think most stores with liberal return policies have systems in place to flag unusual activity. From what little you've described here, it seems very...unusual. I don't think small claims would view empty containers as evidence that you were "not completely satisfied." I agree that what you are proposing to do here would be the opposite of consumer advocacy. Googling brings up nothing about the stores' ability to shut down return privileges for individual customers being against any sort of regulations, and it does bring up that a lot of stores have a policy along the lines of what Sephora apparently has.
posted by kmennie at 2:59 AM on June 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

It attracts buyers; some desirable, some not.

Are you admitting here you are an "undesirable" buyer and yet still asking if you have a case? I worked for Clinique and we had a similar refund policy (at least a number of years ago) and man, what you are doing is such a good way to breed ill-will. Although technically you could argue their returns policy is vague and lenient, it does stipulate "if you are not completely satisfied" - if you were arguing your case in a small claims court, how would you argue your dissatisfaction given that you used the entire product? I would check the fine print on their policy as there may well be some clause about their discretion in honouring the refund, especially if they feel it is being abused.
posted by billiebee at 3:00 AM on June 17, 2014 [4 favorites]

Sephora is known to have a very generous return policy, but after a cursory search it definitely seems that they don't accept empty or mostly used items because empty indicates that the buyer was satisfied with the product.

If you have some things that you tried and didn't like then sure, I'd go to a Sephora store and return them.

As far as small claims court goes, of course you can try to take them to court. People get sued all the time over really stupid things. But as far as you winning? I mean, an empty product (and you're talking about $1,000) indicates that you DID like the products, so I don't see why you'd get a refund on something you liked and then tried to return.

Okay, I'm thinking that MAYBE if you purchased four high-end La Mer items that each cost $250 and you used all of them and then decided they didn't work for you, you could try to return them. But the operative word is TRY. You can't expect any store to take back over $1,000 of empty containers. That's silly.

I understand wanting to do your part for consumer advocacy, but if you buy things, use them, and then try to return empty containers, you're in no way operating in good faith.
posted by kinetic at 3:08 AM on June 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

I think it depends on the product that you are trying to return empty. If it's some product that claims to give a result with continued use, like an anti-aging product for example, and you used the whole thing and saw no result, then I think you have an argument. If it's make up, then no way.
posted by amro at 4:01 AM on June 17, 2014 [8 favorites]

I used to work for an ecommerce site. If you have done this before, you have been flagged in their system.

I've done this before and never encountered a problem.

Once you have been flagged, further suspicious behaviour will have been scrutinised before they decide they have enough Reasons to turn you down. So I believe that if you were to take them to court they would have evidence to show that you are not a customer acting on good faith. So yeah I don't think you have a great chance and if you did win, it's only going to make them reconsider their very generous policy.

Personally speaking, the way you have written your behaviour makes even me suspicious about your intentions and don't think you would be advocating on my behalf as a fellow consumer.
posted by like_neon at 4:10 AM on June 17, 2014 [19 favorites]

It's very common for cosmetics retailers to start denying returns to specific shoppers who appear to be abusing their return policies, and there's a small but significant number of shoppers who do things like order ten lipsticks, try them all once, and return them, or decant products into their own containers and return the empty packaging. They can't resell opened product, so chronic returners lose them money. If they couldn't shut down individual shoppers who take advantage of the return policy, they'd probably shut down the entire return policy.

Like others have said, you may have a case if you spent $1k on a handful of high-end items that had specific, advertised claims. Otherwise, I really don't think you have a leg to stand on here. Not to mention that Sephora's a huge company and probably has a legal team that deals with this type of claim regularly.

(Also, Sephora stores will get you a sample of nearly anything if you ask; if you live within driving distance of a store, this could have saved you money and I could see this being brought up in court against you.)
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:28 AM on June 17, 2014 [4 favorites]

I am not a lawyer, but tackling this from a slightly different direction, you probably agreed to some terms and conditions of sale as part of your sale that very likely set a legal venue that is convenient to Sephora.com.

For example, looking at NewEgg's terms and conditions, http://www.newegg.com/Info/AllTermsAndConditions.aspx (because I know where those are) the sale of items by NewEgg are to be "settled by binding arbitration in Los Angeles, California".

I don't know what Sephora.com's terms and conditions are.

However, if you wish to pursue this, a good starting point is


That information is factual in nature and not directly responsive to your question. The fundamental questions of "is it worth it" and "do you have a case"... well, I don't think it is worth it, because it costs more money to file a small claims case, and you will not recover that in small claims, and from your description of what has transpired, I tend to agree with the majority of the other posters in that you don't have a strong case.
posted by jgreco at 5:12 AM on June 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

Not an expert in small claims court, but they might well decide to take you on, even if it cost them more than $1,000, in the name of 'company advocacy,' that is, to shame you and others they perceive as abusers of the system. Nothing says they can't send legal professionals (and publicists) to the venue even if you're representing yourself. Your return history would be fair game, and all of this will be public record. Be sure you're comfortable with that.

Also, don't complain when you have to have all original packaging down to the twist ties, receipts in triplicate, and a note from your mother when you have to return a clearly defective product in the future. That's the direction things are heading, and speaking as a e-commerce guy who sees all the shit my staff takes off of buyers who want us to pick up international shipping to return a book they studied out of, to pick an example at random, I can see why.
posted by randomkeystrike at 5:40 AM on June 17, 2014 [7 favorites]

To directly address your post:
Yes, you can file in small claims court; just about anybody can file against just about anybody else, for any reason, up to the small claims court's dollar limit.
Is it worth your time/do you have a case you could win: probably not. You're ordering products which you have then completely used up, and after that you're going to try to claim you are "unsatisfied"? Not gonna fly. Not only are you extremely unlikely to win any such case, you might even be held liable for your own court costs and maybe even theirs, depending on the judge.
Is this consumer advocacy? Hell no. Consumer advocacy does not mean someone gets free products which have to be paid for by someone else: companies cover their losses by raising prices, which means cheating the system by buying items with the intention of returning the emptied containers for a refund (or buying clothes to be worn once & returned) means higher prices for consumers who are not scamming the system. Consumer advocacy would be ensuring that there is a fair and reasonable returns policy: consumer advocacy is not taking unreasonable advantage of an existing returns policy, and thereby forcing a company to reduce/limit/forbid refunds even for customers with valid reasons to request one.
posted by easily confused at 5:43 AM on June 17, 2014 [9 favorites]

You're ordering products which you have then completely used up, and after that you're going to try to claim you are "unsatisfied"? Not gonna fly

It says "completely satisfied" in the policy though. It's very easy to use up an entire product, and not be completely satisfied.
posted by smackfu at 5:56 AM on June 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

Maybe if we're talking acne medication or carburetor cleaner... But cosmetics?
posted by randomkeystrike at 6:00 AM on June 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have been to small claims court a couple of times (in Los Angeles, FWIW) and the thing that I noticed is that without lawyers the whole thing kind of turns on common sense and the basic facts. The judge, in my experience, isn't interested in hearing convoluted arguments. The judge asks some basic questions, there's relatively little speaking -- lots of yes/no answers and that's all the judge wants to hear. From what I've seen, you're not going to get time to deliver your monologue on the validity of Sephora's corporate policy.
posted by BlahLaLa at 6:16 AM on June 17, 2014 [4 favorites]

@randomkeystrike - it could very well be a skin treatment. I'm about to return about half of a bottle of skin treatment which promised it would help after a couple weeks. It didn't.
posted by getawaysticks at 6:22 AM on June 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm about to return about half of a bottle of skin treatment which promised it would help after a couple weeks. It didn't.

That's half a bottle, which would likely be an acceptable return. The OP is talking about returning an empty bottle and demanding a refund. That like completely eating a full dinner in a restaurant and then refusing to pay because the steak was undercooked.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:26 AM on June 17, 2014 [4 favorites]

I've never experienced small claims court but do value consumer advocacy and would like to do my part.

I've done small claims before, it's a lot more cut and dried than you may think it is and, like BlahLaLa says you get to basically speak to the specific issue and nothing more. So while you are more than welcome to pursue this matter because you are nitpicking their return policy, you should probably expect the small claims case to speak to the spirit and not just the letter of the law.

In this case, returning an empty product and asking for a refund is, as you can see by the responses here, not in what most people feel is the spirit of the return policy which is all about keeping ongoing customers feeling like they have a way to redress grievances or issues with the company products. Put another way, while you have every right to be try to return things within the letter of the actual policy as you understand it, the move you are making is more likely to result in

1. You not getting the result (i.e. the money) that you want
2. Actually working to harm Sephora consumers by wasting their time and making Sephora less likely to actually continue with such a lenient policy

This is not about consumer advocacy so much as it's about YOU advocacy which is, again, something you are more than welcome to do for your own reasons but advocating for consumers is much more about making sure the system is fair and equitable given the imbalance of power between retailers and consumers. It is unclear from your post why exactly you are returning empty items for a refund (as it may be to Sephora) but getting rules lawyery about a return policy that is, as you say, lenient so that you can take advantage of it seems like not a very good use of your time.

I'm as "fuck the man" as the next anarchist but even I don't go buying LL Bean sweaters at thrift stores and returning them for repair or new sweaters because I generally like LL Bean and I know the policy is not meant for that sort of behavior. I'm not sure what you think Sephora's policy is for but it seems like you are clear that it's not actually designed for what you are trying to use it for.
posted by jessamyn at 6:42 AM on June 17, 2014 [20 favorites]

You have been flagged in the Sephora system as a "serial returner". And it's not just the Sephora system - there is a database called The Retail Equation that is shared between retailers nationwide. So it's quite likely that, based on your returns, other retailers will recognize you as a serial returner/wardrober as soon as you present your ID or credit card.

Incidentally, you can thank this database technology for the overall relaxation of return policies which are much more generous today than they used to be. Sephora's "vague and lenient" policy and their refusal to honor it in your specific case are two sides of the same coin.
posted by rada at 6:58 AM on June 17, 2014 [28 favorites]

Another vote for "too many returns."

I just returned something to Sephora this weekend, a partially-used moisturizer (it was making me break out). It was my first return there and they took down a *lot* of information, the cashier was very apologetic and explained that they occasionally get folks that abuse their lax return policy, so they keep track in order to flag possible offenders. It seems you've been flagged.
posted by troika at 7:39 AM on June 17, 2014 [8 favorites]

What do ALL of the terms and conditions on their website say? Is there anything in there that gives them flexibility?

Is there a dispute resolution or arbitration provision?

What is the filing fee for small claims court? How much is your time worth to you?

If you can't convince AskMe you're operating in good faith, how do you intend to persuade the court?
posted by J. Wilson at 7:59 AM on June 17, 2014

Agree with the overwhelming majority above.

Also, IANAL, but I do write contracts. I recognize language like this:

If you are not completely satisfied with a Sephora.com purchase or gift for any reason, please return it for a full refund.

It does not say "we will refund your money." It essentially says you can try to get a refund. It's vague for a reason: so they can mitigate potential abuse.

No, it is not worth it to try to take it to small claims court. You will have the opposite outcome from the one you desire.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 11:50 AM on June 17, 2014

I have been to small claims court a couple of times (in Los Angeles, FWIW) and the thing that I noticed is that without lawyers the whole thing kind of turns on common sense and the basic facts. The judge, in my experience, isn't interested in hearing convoluted arguments. The judge asks some basic questions, there's relatively little speaking -- lots of yes/no answers and that's all the judge wants to hear

Judges in Small Claims, in my jurisdiction at least, can really vary in how they handle things in the court room. There are some who are going to see an unrepresented litigant going against Big McCompany and their highly-paid lawyers, and do a lot to help out the underdog. Others may see this claim as bullshit and then you're stuck having paid filing fees on top of not getting jack squat, or you even might get stuck with having to pay some of the defendant's costs. It's also not going to be an insignificant investment of time on your part, seeing this through.

I have heard that "you didn't read the small print" is not always a good defense, and that if the return policy is misleading or not clearly articulated then a sympathetic judge in Small Claims might decide you have a good claim. But the impression I got from your write-up is that it could also look like a customer trying to pull a fast one, and then you might be the one the judge tries to make an example of.
posted by Hoopo at 11:53 AM on June 17, 2014

How have you tried to resolve this with Sephora? I would call them and ask for an explanation.
posted by theora55 at 1:25 PM on June 17, 2014

You're not returning the product; you're returning the empty bottle that once contained the product. The product has been absorbed into your pores or washed down the sink, I guess.

At least that's what I would say if I were Sephora.
posted by pines at 3:14 PM on June 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

you can't return an empty bottle and ask for your money back. if you used the whole thing, they're not obligated to refund you anything. you USED EVERYTHING.

also, there's a 75$/year limit on receiptless refunds, which i'm not sure is the case here, but fyi.

also, there are a few types of products you CAN'T return, but i'm blanking on that right now. i believe perfumes is one of the categories, but i might be thinking of ulta on that one.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 3:27 PM on June 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

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