L.L. Bean’s New Customer Service Policy: Overdue Change, or Major Mistake?

L.L. Bean sent many of its customers into a frenzy last week, when the company announced that it was changing its lifelong guarantee policy, which allowed customers to bring back items whenever they wanted, with no expiration date on returns. Under the new policy, the company will honor returns only within a year of purchase. Some customers are not pleased.

No doubt, a solid return policy is important. Not only does it make customers feel safer about making purchases without trying things on or seeing them in person, but it’s also a key element of customer service and relationship building. “Such a policy means something more emotionally resonant, something beyond alleviating the fear of ending up stuck with a pair of ill-fitting boots,” Micah Solomon, author, consultant and customer service expert, wrote in a blog post for Forbes. “It’s the backbone of a potential relationship, a 'til-death-do-us-part relationship within which, if all goes well, no competitor can pull customer and company asunder.”

It’s no surprise, then, that one customer is now going so far as to sue L.L. Bean for essentially breaking a promise to consumers. In the lawsuit, the customer argues that the lifetime guarantee was a significant selling point for L.L. Bean’s relatively expensive products, and that ending the policy harms customers, Bloomberg reports.

The flipside, however, is that having the return policy hurt L.L. Bean in a major way. The company says that roughly 15 percent of all of its recent returns were illegitimate and cost it $250 million. While customers were only supposed to return products that were defective, many ended up bringing back items that were heavily worn, outgrown, or simply broken over time. Some would even purchase items cheaply from second-hand stores, only to return them to L.L. Bean for cash or gift cards.

Overall, it’s hard to fault the company for its decision. With the growth of e-commerce, customers are increasingly making purchases blindly, without trying items on, which spurs returns in its own right. Plus, returning items via an online process is less embarrassing—if a customer wants to return a clearly worn, aged item just for the sake of getting back some cash, it’s much easier to do so without having to face a cashier, or other customers, for that matter.

“In recent years, the internet has amplified the problem due to the sheer scale of cast-aside items that can be found for pennies on eBay and returned for full price. This phenomenon has been compounded by the new reality—which has done great damage to the essential psychological principle of reciprocity—that you never have to look a company representative in the eye when you’re making a return via an automated process online,” Solomon wrote.

As the company tackles the press coverage that has emerged from this arguably necessary move, it’s worth noting that even some of the most respected brands in the customer service space have stricter policies than L.L. Bean’s new approach. Amazon, Solomon pointed out, allows only 30 days for a return.


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