“A small, but growing number of customers has been interpreting our guarantee well beyond its original intent,” he wrote. Some people had sought “refunds for heavily worn products used over many years,” he added. “Others seek refunds for products that have been purchased through third parties, such as at yard sales.”
Customers reacted with both support and surprise.
“As a lifetime loyal customer I’m surprised you didn’t do this sooner,” a Facebook user, Joe Gagne, wrote in a post on the company’s page. “I’ve been embarrassed for your associates when I’ve been in line seeing customers take advantage of the guarantee. Anyone who says they won’t shop at Beans anymore because of this change isn’t the kind of customer you want anyway.”
But Jen Tedesco, a homemaker in upstate New York, said she was “really disappointed” with L. L. Bean and what she said was a “one size fits all, super-stringent policy that is going to alienate customers.”
She said her family, which includes three children, was willing to spend more at L. L. Bean than at Walmart or Target because of the expectation that the products would last longer.
“We make good money, but we’re not rich and have to make very financially responsible decisions about where we spend our money,” she said. “When I’m spending $70 for kids’ snow pants, I need to know that the company is putting enough care, quality and effort into them that they’re not going to break 14 months down the road.”
As shoppers began to drift toward e-commerce, many retailers tried to retain them by offering extended return policies with extremely forgiving terms.
But companies often found that accepting returns came at a high cost.
The retail industry had $3.5 trillion in sales last year, with 10 percent of that, or $351 billion, lost to returns, according to a report from the research firm Appriss Retail. Of those returns, an estimated 6.5 percent, or $22.8 billion worth of merchandise, were thought to include shoplifted goods, items bought with stolen money, products backed by counterfeit receipts, and other forms of fraud or abuse.
A former L. L. Bean employee, Jessica Pikowski, confirmed Mr. Gorman’s view that many customers had abused the returns policy. Ms. Pikowski said she had worked at an L.L. Bean store in Danbury, Conn., during breaks from college, as recently as 2015. She said that up to 70 percent of the returns she and her colleagues processed seemed questionable.
She said one man had brought a garbage bag full of clothes that looked and smelled as if they had barely survived a fire. He left with a gift card worth hundreds of dollars.
“Most of the people who used the policy abused it,” Ms. Pikowski said. “And we weren’t allowed to confront them about it.”
Improper returns cost states up to $1.4 billion in lost sales tax revenue and hurt retail employees, according to Appriss.
L. L. Bean’s turnaround is similar to a change in policy at the outdoor retailer REI. In 2013, after people bragged of taking used REI products bought at swap meets to the store for cash refunds, the company began requiring customers to make their returns within a year of purchase (with some exceptions: outdoor electronic items have a 90-day return window, but products with manufacturing defects can be returned anytime).
Michelle Zaleski of Marlborough, Mass., said she worried that the new L.L. Bean policy could mean the company was reducing the quality of its products. She said she had recently bought a pair of $200 L. L. Bean boots, which she said were already falling apart.
Ms. Zaleski said she and her family went out of their way to visit L. L. Bean stores and had spent $3,000 on the company’s products over the holidays. In 15 years of regular buying from the company, she said, she had returned fewer than a dozen items, including one vest, one jacket and several backpacks with broken handles.
“L. L. Bean to us is a quality name, and that means they should stand by their word,” Ms. Zaleski said. “I liked the idea that they would withstand my kids tearing them apart.”