Last week, I returned our ill-functioning blender we had bought over two years ago. Tall Mountain put it on my “to do list” and I shuddered thinking of the battle that lie before me to get it exchanged. Kicking and screaming, I unwillingly took one for the family. Apologetically, I explained that this blender had been bought ehem, ehem, several years ago and ‘was there anything they could do to help us out?’.
“Sure, would you like in-store credit or your money back on your card?” replied the red head twenty-something-year-old before me in a chipper voice as she continued to converse lightly with her colleague about a prank she had played on a room-mate.
“Um, oh! Well.. um… sure! I’d love the cash back on our credit card if that is possible!?? I don’t know if that will work because I used a -20% coupon to purchase the item.” I felt a rush of blood reach my face, giving away my sense of guilt and shame.
“Oh, yeah, sure, we can print you out another coupon to use on your next purchase if you’d like! Is there anything else we can do for you?” she responded as she proceeded to refund $80 back to our card.
“Um, no no, that’ll be it. Thanks so much!” I quickly responded out of fear she might change her mind. Ayo in arm, we darted out of there feeling like we had just robbed a Swiss bank or something: grateful for the money but guilty for having committed a crime.
If you are from the United States, this return scenario probably won’t strike you as out of the ordinary. If you purchase something you don’t like, you can take it back, right? No questions asked except perhaps a polite: “was there anything wrong/you didn’t like about the product?”. Oftentimes you can even return an item without a receipt (at stores like Target). Sometimes even years later as my brother-in-law recounted upon experiencing customers returning shoes with holes in them or weathered camping gear ten years later to his outdoor gear store REI. This, my friends, is how we got a brand-new cooking pan replacement three years later because the Teflon coating was wearing thin. A new sports bra when the Velcro strap felt weak. Or, how I was able to replace a coffee thermos for my parents a year later to a different superstore branch, without even having the receipt. Truly, the basic knowledge that you won’t have to fight to return an item, makes you buy more. It’s pretty awesome.
In contrast, I remember my poor British mum facing a small interrogation when trying to return a recently purchased French kettle in the box, with her receipt in hand, because the product had designed the power cable to be positioned in the front of the kettle. She was sent home, tail between her legs, chastised for having chosen it in the first place and refused help because she returned it after 15 days and not the 14 legal days (ironically 15 days means 14. Don’t ask.). I’ve endured this trauma many times myself, facing the mean lady at the desk drilling an imaginary hole into my head, accusingly asking mais pourquoi vous ne le voulez plus? (but why don’t you want it any longer?).
If you are from Europe (minus perhaps the more Anglo-saxon UK), you’ll not see this as strange. My mother incorrectly returned the item after the 14 legal days. And besides, she should have looked at the product carefully to see that the cord was going to get wet every time she made herself a cuppa. Sure, there are of course exceptions to this rule (say at places like IKEA), but in general, returning a product is incontestably a much bigger deal in Europe.
Now, before you get all enthralled about the customer being king in the US and angry about France’s meager attempt at customer service, I have to point out something TM and I have noticed as a result. Maybe you have noticed this too. Purchases are taken so much more lightly in the States. You buy a ton because, heck, it is cheap, replaceable, returnable, refundable. This leads to fast-consumerism and the never-ending hunger for more: materialism. It strangely leaves me quite unsatisfied…
In contrast, you can bet that almost every item you’ll purchase in Europe will be well-researched and purchased with forethought and intention, because it ain’t gonna be cheap and probably won’t be brought back to the store. At least not without surviving a small battle of Verdun.
It is interesting to watch this play out so vividly in our current world of “baby”. An average US mother-to-be has no qualms about registering for or purchasing scores of inexpensive clothes, toys, baby gear in case she might need it for baby. In contrast, quite a few of my friends in Europe dress their kids in just a few but outrageously expensive, beautiful, quality clothes with just a few select, but ridiculously expensive toys, needing only one but one grossly overpriced stroller. Neither of these observations are meant as unfair criticism and there are plenty of people on either side of the Atlantic who stray from these stereotypes. I just thought it is fascinating how much a retail model (yes, and price, promotion, availability, choice..) can dictate our purchasing behavior. And, for me, having experienced both of these models, I feel challenged to purchase with intention and not just buy more because I can.
Shopping spree image courtesy of intenseindividuals.com