Monday, December 18, 2006

And on the 13th day of Christmas, returning those golden rings and partridges ....

Tis the season for rampant consumerism -- and with it, the joys of battling the Retail Industrial Complex. You may have noticed a spate of stories in the newspapers lately about "return fraud," the "growing" problem of retailers suffering losses through returns of stolen or used merchandise. While I don't have the expertise to opine about the magnitude of the problem, it's clear that increasingly sophisticated software options for tracking retail logistics means merchants with modernized systems are keeping better track of who is bringing items back, and how often.

The retail industry trade/lobbying group, the National Retail Federation, kicked off the season with a press release saying retailers will take a $3.5 billion hit during the holidays from return fraud (or, as the release calls it "this immoral, and often illegal, practice." But tell us how you really feel, NRF! Don't hold back!) . Like all loss estimates bandied about by organizations with a vested interest, that one should be taken with a grain of salt. The release also pulls out the eye-popping figure that 8.8 percent of holiday gifts are expected to be returned -- but then, it notes that typical return rates are 7.3 percent. A 1.5 percent jump post-holidays is lower than I'd anticipated, actually.

The NRF is also offering up a list of tips for "stress-free returns," with suggestions like "ask for a gift receipt" and "investigate return policies before you buy." Or you can save the retail hassle and go the regifting (or ebay -- I'll bet *their* sales have a big post-holiday spike) route.

The return-fraud flap may simply be the industry's way of grabbing cover for tightened return restrictions, but I do have sympathy for those dealing with impressively organized shoplifting rings. Speaking of eBay, CSO magazine (published by my former employer) had a fascinating article last year about how eBay is becoming the best stolen-goods fence ever created. For a more penetrating look at the return-fraud issue, go there.