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Do you love shopping at Sephora because of the company’s generous and convenient return policy? Well, those returns might not have been as carefree as you thought.
Today, The Wall Street Journal wrote about a service called The Retail Equation, or TRE, which tracks customer returns and gives stores the ability to ban shoppers from returning future items if their return patterns are deemed problematic. According to TRE’s website, over 34,000 stores, including department stores and footwear, jewelry, and fashion brands, use the service. And while it doesn’t list the full roster of clients, the Journal confirmed some of the stores that use the service include Best Buy, the Home Depot, Victoria’s Secret, J.C. Penney... and Sephora.
For years, there have been suspicions and rumors on beauty message boards that Sephora bans shoppers who return things too frequently. Officially, Sephora allows returns, both opened and unopened, within 60 days of purchase, and items without a receipt are accepted in exchange for store credit. But shoppers have recently been sharing on Reddit that they were banned from returning products at Sephora, with or without receipts, and the Journal’s report about Sephora’s official partnership with TRE confirms every shoppers’ worst fears. Sephora confirmed shoppers with egregious return habits could see consequences, issuing the following statement to Racked:
Sephora is dedicated to providing all of our customers with an excellent shopping experience. We make every effort to accommodate returns, but a small fraction of customers take advantage of our policy, in many cases returning more than twice as much merchandise as they purchase. This limits product selection and unfairly impacts other clients. When we identify excessive return patterns, we notify those customers that we may limit future returns or exchanges if no proof of purchase is provided.
According to Yahoo, TRE tracks shopping return behavior via driver’s license, so it’s fair to assume that any time you make a return and provide your driver’s license, that return is being monitored. (Recent stores where this has happened to me include Urban Outfitters, Buy Buy Baby, and Gap. Gulp.) Stores working with TRE’s Return Authorization system then monitor a shopper’s purchase history, frequency of returns, and the cost of the merchandise a shopper is returning. All of this adds up to a score for each store, and once a shopper scores above a given store’s threshold, they can be banned from making returns.
Americans return over $260 billion worth of products every single year. Some retailers — like L.L.Bean, once notorious for its generous return policy — are pulling back on decades-old policies. Even Nordstrom, many shoppers’ favorite destination because of its return policy, has been cracking down on return behaviors. Last year, the company told Yahoo that it has an “internal auditing” log that keeps track of returns, and when Nordstrom finds serial returners, it “may ultimately make the decision to stop serving them in our stores and online.” (Nordstrom told Racked it does not work with TRE.)
On its site, TRE says the system is “designed to identify the 1 percent of consumers whose behaviors mimic return fraud or abuse” — a market that it says racks up as much as $17.6 billion a year. But the service is also flagging serial shoppers (who could also be serial returners), which is understandably making some extremely upset. (“The retailers need to be sued!” one Journal commenter wrote on the story. “They can not post one return policy and then defer to something else.”)
One Sephora customer, who recently received an email from Sephora stating that due to her high return activity, it might “decline any future return with or without a receipt,” wrote on Reddit that she feels she’s being “punished when I’m following Sephora’s own return policy” and that the banning feels “extreme, harsh, untrue, and unfair.” Another customer wrote on Reddit that “this is annoying because when I go there they always encourage me to buy things because I can just return it if you don’t like it. Also, especially with how expensive most products are, and considering things like skincare have to be tested over time, it’s not unusual for me to want to return something.”
The good news is that TRE says it doesn’t share shopping behavior from one brand to the other, so if you’re banned from making returns at one store, it doesn’t mean you’re banned at others.
Update: March 13, 2018, 8:00 p.m.
This article has been updated to include a statement from Sephora.