The Ethics of Electronics Returns
November 27, 2017 10:21 AM   Subscribe

I've always been burdened by the question: is it ethical to buy electronic devices with the expectation that you'll return (some) of them once you've tried them out? Or are returns meant to be for exceptional cases where the product just doesn't fit your needs?

With clothes, we accept that trying on stuff at home is perfectly fine. Admittedly, this isn't an issue with most electronics, but I'm trying to buy a nice set of headphones right now and the situation is similar. There are a bunch of $200-$400 devices that I can't choose between based on stats alone, and I'd like to try them all on in the comfort of my home and keep the one I like the most. (Unfortunately, it's near-impossible to get the proper sense of a headphone's sound in the middle of a busy store, if the one you want is even on display.) Most stores have a liberal 30-day return policy, and I've never once had a problem returning electronics to Amazon or BestBuy. Unlike clothes, though, electronics can't be sold as new once they've been opened, and I've always felt weird returning electronics without a particularly good reason.

Do you think it's ethical to "try on" headphones/mice/whatever at home in the same way we do clothes? Do stores end up losing money on open-box sales? It's a silly question, but please: help me calibrate my consumer conscience!
posted by archagon to Shopping (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
If you are complying with the return policy of the vendor, then my opinion is you’re fine. If you want to be extra ethical be careful and repack nicely so they can easily resell it.

Side note: you can test many in person at the Apple store.
posted by jeffamaphone at 10:30 AM on November 27, 2017

I don't think it's even remotely unethical to do so, and can't imagine what the ethical quandary would be. If it's permitted by their return policy, it's their problem to decide whether it has an overall negative effect on their balance sheet or not. The folks that work there are going to get paid the same whether they're restocking your returns or getting stuff ready to ship. You have no obligation to worry about a private corporation's profit margins.
posted by dis_integration at 10:45 AM on November 27, 2017 [5 favorites]

You are helping amazon to refine their business model by exploiting inefficiencies in their current return system. Just like they help so many other businesses.
posted by skewed at 10:53 AM on November 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

A properly handled return transaction, if the store allows returns, carries with it zero element of "right" or "wrong." Any purchase made can be assumed to be permanent until... it's not.

Even if your intention is to buy something solely as a trial (with every intention of returning), who's to say you don't fall in love with the product after all, and keep it? How is this any different (or less "right") than someone who buys something with every intention of keeping it, and through whatever combination of circumstances, decides the product just does not meet their needs? Both are equally valid, and equally ethical.

As others have noted, adhering as strictly as possible to the vendor's return policy is critical. That way, you remove as much of the value-judgement "gray area" as possible. If you like to make "trial" purchases, stick to stores that give good return guidelines and never be sloppy or devious. The thing that makes it ethical is that you follow the rules.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 10:55 AM on November 27, 2017

You can always ask. But i think most retailers would say it's okay. Do be super-careful to unbox so you can re-box.
posted by theora55 at 11:02 AM on November 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

I guess I disagree with some of the other answers - I believe it is possible to exploit generous return policies in ways that are "allowed" but still unethical. The potential cost of such an exploit would be that businesses decide that longer-window or open-box or whatever return policies are too expensive and they tighten them up in such a way that people using the return policy as intended can no longer return things. For example, right now I'm trying to do a second exchange of the same kindle with amazon because of various manufacturing defects and the second return is WAY harder and leaves me without a kindle/money/knowledge for significantly longer - probably because they've decided I'm a bigger risk for fraud now, and I get that, but also it's frustrating since I know everything I'm doing is honest and legitimate. If fraudsters didn't take advantage of those return policies, the second exchange would be as easy as the first one, right?

I'm curious to hear more from people with additional experience with electronics retail, but in my mind, a "try before you buy" should be limited only to those that you genuinely can't try well elsewhere. And you should try to purchase as few as possible to make your decision. But within that, it seems pretty reasonable to try before you buy.
posted by mosst at 11:05 AM on November 27, 2017 [7 favorites]

One thing to be aware of, outside of ethical concerns, is that some retailers will "fire you" as a customer if they find that you are being unprofitable due to an unusually high number of returns. I suspect you have to be pretty extreme to get this treatment, but it's something I do think about when I'm considering whether to order something I think I have a high likelihood of returning. I'd guess that the threshold is higher for things like shoes and clothing that are "expected" to be returned, vs. electronics that are not.
posted by primethyme at 11:06 AM on November 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

I think it depends somewhat on volume. Ordering two or three pairs of headphones to try them out at home and then returning one or two seems acceptable to me. Ordering, say, 15 headphones all at once, opening all the boxes, and then returning the 14 you didn't like quite as well feels more unethical to me (and the company may very well stop wanting to sell to you, as primethyme notes). Alternately, you could order one at a time until you find one you like, just returning it if the sound quality isn't what you like.
posted by rainbowbrite at 11:39 AM on November 27, 2017

I think the only unequivocally unethical purchase/return scenario in electronics (or anything else) is "buy and return rather than rent." To buy a projector or TV just because you're having a meeting and need a display for a few hours or days, then to return it, for example. I consider this super-shady.

If trying among different models of something like headphones, I feel like I should try to do as much research as possible and buy the thing that's most likely to work first, because modern electronics packaging isn't *ever* the same after it's taken apart, and the merchant is going to generally have to sell it as open box. Having said that, they are not losing much or any money in open box deals.

However, a counterpoint to this is: eComm operations are saving a ton of money by not maintaining stores where you can go touch and feel stuff. Generous return policies are a cost of doing business, and are there to get people off of the fence, the item in the cart, and the credit card out of the wallet.

So if you honestly can't decide between a couple of items and you're willing to deal with the mechanics of doing a return, I'd buy the 2-3 things, return the ones you don't like, and don't look back.
posted by randomkeystrike at 11:39 AM on November 27, 2017 [4 favorites]

I don't think its unethical to do what you're planning on. When I hear the word unethical with respect to electronics returns I think along the lines of buying a big TV to watch the Superbowl on and returning it or buying a camera before a trip and returning it at the end. If you're making a good-faith effort to evaluate the product in the context that it will be used then you are doing returns right as far as I'm concerned. That being said, I know that many electronics stores in Toronto used to charge a 10-15% re-stocking fee on returns although I'm not sure if they still do.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 11:40 AM on November 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

This might be a weird and ethically-slippery way of looking at it, but I would have no qualms about doing this at a large publicly-owned retailer (Amazon, Best Buy) where volume means that margins are wide and any loss gets absorbed by a million shareholders. Small family-owned retailer where margins are probably tight to compete with the giants (though this applies much less to consumer electronics these days) and I'd think twice. I guess I'm just a consequentialist when it comes to retail ethics; I don't see the downside of doing it at Best Buy, especially since the open-box sale after I return it could put that thing in reach of someone with fewer resources.
posted by supercres at 11:54 AM on November 27, 2017 [4 favorites]

Clothing retailers are actually similarly poorly situated for e-commerce returns. While they don't openly market returned clothing as 'refurbished', it is treated as a separate inventory stream than inventory from the merchandiser. Some retailers don't even process their returns, they get sent to a third party that sorts and resells the product depending on its condition.

This is a legitimate cost of e-commerce. A generous return policy is currently cheaper than figuring out how to showroom everything that exists. If a company isn't making a profit due to their return policy, they need to figure out a better distribution network. It's not on you that you don't have enough information to commit to the product.

If there is a question of ethics, it's related more to consumerism and the environmental impact associated with overproduction and duplicative delivery services. But again, that's more true of clothing than electronics by a long shot.
posted by politikitty at 2:08 PM on November 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

Retailers do, in fact, track "serial returners". In addition to internal databases, they share this information with each other (via this service for example).

They are forced to keep tabs on individual shoppers because some of them are not so individual - with electronics especially, there is organized crime that robs retailers via various return scams. Example: buyer purchases two laptops that look identical; one has cheaper RAM/storage/processor and costs $500 while the other has more expensive parts and costs $1k; the buyer then switches the tags to return the cheaper laptop for $1k so they make $500 on that one, and then they return the more expensive laptop for another $1k, or resell it.

(Since you mentioned Best Buy, some years ago Best Buy was sued for doing this on the basis of consumer privacy, privacy claim and the lawsuit were tossed out.)

So yeah, ethics aside, I would worry that I could be banned - from more than just one retailer - for returning so many items at once.
posted by rada at 3:53 PM on November 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

I don't feel super-strongly, but I am with mosst. From an environmental/waste perspective, your open box electronics are more likely to become junk. (There was just a super-interesting FPP about this). So if you buy three things knowing that you'll return two of them regardless of their quality or function, you have some responsibility for the afterlife of those products. You bought them with the intention to convert them from new-in-box to secondhand.

And from an "accepted practice" standard, putting aside what's technically *allowed* I think there's a big spectrum of what is appropriate returns behavior. On the easy side there's returning stuff that is defective or breaks prematurely. A little closer to the middle but still good there's returning stuff that works fine but just isn't as nice/useful/cool as it was advertised, so you feel like you didn't actually get what you thought you were buying. But buying multiple things and knowing you'll keep only one just so that you can do a free, extended trial is taking advantage of a system that is built for other purposes. It's taking what is a sort of privilege and making it into an entitlement. Maybe it's not a good analogy, but it's kind of like going to the "free breakfast" at the hotel and loading your plate with more food than you can eat because you want to take a bite of everything and then just eat your favorite item. Nothing is stopping you, but you are wasting a resource.

And though I don't know the name of the fallacy (there must be one), It shouldn't matter whether you do it to MegaCorp or to the mom-and-pop down the street. It's either okay, or it's not.

But what do I know. Maybe it's just fine.
posted by AgentRocket at 7:12 PM on November 27, 2017 [4 favorites]

I think there's a big difference between returning clothes which don't come in sealed packages and can go right back on the shelf and opened electronics which at best end up resold as a discounted open box and more likely are returned to manufacturer for refurbishment, etc. Doing so raises costs and prices for the rest of us and contributes to general waste and environmental unfriendliness.

Clearly if the item is not as described, doesn't work correctly, doesn't meet your needs etc then returning it makes sense. However I think that ordering packaged items with the intent of opening the boxes and returning some of them isn't acting responsibly. I don't think that the argument of just following the rules holds water -- to me it's similar to going to a restaurant and ordering extra food with the intent of sending the dish you like less back.
posted by bsdfish at 11:31 PM on November 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

knowing you'll keep only one just so that you can do a free, extended trial is taking advantage of a system that is built for other purposes

Is it, though? If the retailer wanted to accept returns only for defective/not-as-described items, it certainly could have such a policy. I've seen a few places that do just this. More generous terms are designed to entice the consumer to buy by giving them the confidence that if they don't care for the item, they don't have to keep it, as long as they return it within the defined period and in the defined condition. This is especially necessary when the company doesn't maintain physical showrooms where the customer can try the product. So I'd say the system is built precisely for this.

Buying an item with the intent of returning it just so you can get free temporary use of the item is another story.
posted by praemunire at 8:53 AM on November 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

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