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L.L. Bean reverses a 106-year-old policy

BY Marianne Wilson

A small but growing number of customers are responsible for a big change in one of L.L. Bean’s signature policies.

The outdoor goods and apparel retailer has scrapped its legendary unlimited returns policy whereby customers were allowed to return merchandise years after the purchase if they were not satisfied with the goods — with no questions asked and no proof of purchase.

Under the new policy, merchandise may be returned within one year of purchase for a refund or exchange. After a year, the retailer said it will “consider any items for return that are defective due to materials or craftsmanship.” Proof purchase is required for refunds and exchanges.

L.L. Bean shared the news about the updated policy in a letter posted on its Facebook page. The retailer cited growing misuse of unlimited returns by some customers as the reason for the shift.

“Increasingly, a small but growing number of customers has been interpreting our guarantee well beyond its original intent,” executive chairman Shawn O. Gorman wrote in the letter. “Some view it as a lifetime product replacement program, expecting refunds for heavily worn products used over many years. Others seek refunds for products that have been purchased through third parties, such as at yard sales. Based on these experiences, we have updated our policy. Customers will have one year after purchasing an item to return it, accompanied by proof of purchase. After one year, we will work with our customers to reach a fair solution if a product is defective in any way.”

In a meeting with the Portland Press Herald, L.L. Bean executives showed photos of items that had recently been brought in for return, One was a pair of old shoes that were falling apart from what appeared years of regular use. The customer’s reason for returning the shoes was “displeased with quality.” They also showed a photo of a ski jacket with no visible damage apart from a large stain. The jacket had youth-price ski lift tickets with purchase dates spanning three years attached to it. Although the customer stated that the jacket’s quality was “unsatisfactory,” the L.L. Bean executives figure the child likely outgrew the garment.

According to the report, L.L. Bean’s computer systems contain transaction records going back four years, so a receipt isn’t always necessary for a return.

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Commentary: Amazon wants to control the shopping process end-to-end

In a move that will send shivers down the spines of the traditional delivery companies, Amazon has finally decided to try its hand at fulfillment.

The “Shipping With Amazon” service, which is slated to launch in Los Angeles over the next few weeks, will initially focus on the delivery of orders from Amazon and third-party suppliers which sell via its website. However, there is nothing to preclude the service being extended, and Amazon has said it is open to eventually making deliveries for other businesses.

Although Los Angeles is something of a trial, Amazon is likely to roll out the service to other U.S. cities later this year. In our view, this makes sense as there are many urban locations where Amazon’s order volume is so great it justifies taking fulfillment in-house.

In such areas, cutting out the middle-man is likely to save money and give Amazon more flexibility over schedules and delivery options. However, we believe this benefit will only accrue over time and as part of a broader strategy to integrate the delivery of food and non-food.

As much as it makes sense to do this in urban areas, it is unlikely that Amazon will make a move on trying to service the American hinterland. Order densities and volumes, along with long travel times between deliveries, in many parts of the country do not justify such an investment. Amazon may find technical solutions to this — such as self-driving vehicles — but this remains some way off.

The danger for the traditional delivery firms is twofold. Firstly, they are likely to lose business from Amazon; this will be slow at first but will accelerate as Amazon rolls out more of its own delivery services.

Secondly, if Amazon starts offering delivery to businesses, it will likely do this at a reduced rate. This leaves delivery firms with the unattractive prospect of losing share in their most lucrative and profitable markets, while at the same time having to offer a national service with all the expense of delivering to rural locations.

Amazon has already made moves into fulfillment, but to date, its efforts have mostly focused on bulk shipping. The current plans to deliver to consumers represent an intention to control the process of shopping end-to-end. Ultimately, this will give Amazon more power, control, flexibility, and profit.

Neil Saunders is managing director of GlobalData Retail.

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Retail jobs up by 11,000 in January

BY Marianne Wilson

Apparel and accessories stores led the industry in hiring in January.

That’s according to the National Retail Federation, which reported a net increase of 11,100 jobs in January over December. The number excludes automobile dealers, gasoline stations and restaurants.

“These numbers reflect the strong holiday season and how retailers matched consumer demand for consumption by hiring additional staff,” NRF chief economist Jack Kleinhenz said. “There’s always a loss of jobs after the holidays, but this year at least some of the extra staffing has carried over. We expect spending to continue to be strong this year, and that’s good for retail jobs.”

The largest contribution to retail employment in January came in clothing and clothing accessories stores, which added 15,100 jobs. Non-store retail, which includes online, added 3,500, while building supplies and materials grew by 3,400.

Losses of 6,300 were seen in sporting goods stores, 6,200 in general merchandise and 2,900 in health and personal products stores.

Kleinhenz noted that retail job numbers reported by the Labor Department do not provide an accurate picture of the industry because they count only employees who work in stores while excluding retail workers in other parts of the business such as corporate headquarters, distribution centers, call centers and innovation labs. Warehouse jobs, for example, increased by 3,500 in January but are not counted as retail.

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