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Consumer behavior expert explains the psychology of the return policy

An employee at a Walmart in the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles on Black Friday.
An employee at a Walmart in the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles on Black Friday.

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With the holiday season well in our rear-view mirror, return season is upon us!

Time to bring back those jeans that are just a little too tight around the waist, or maybe that extra copy of NBA 2K16 your child got after grandpa forgot to communicate with mom and dad about gifts.

In an effort to figure out just how much of an impact return policies have on shopper behavior and whether longer return policies are better or worse for retailers, researchers at the University of Texas-Dallas conducted a meta-analysis of research papers that examined purchases, returns, or both. They looked at specific factors like the length of the policy, whether you get full reimbursement, and whether you’re required to show a receipt or other proof of purchase.

What they found was that on the whole, a longer return policy did mean more returns, but it was also correlated with an uptick in purchases. In addition, they found that being flexible about time limits for returns led to a decrease in returns. One researcher explained this as a result of customer having the product in his or her hands for longer, thereby feeling more attached to it.

So, is it possible to pinpoint the perfect return policy? Well, not exactly. Researchers say that’d be a tall order, though their work did suggest that flexibility with the time you have to return and the amount of money you get back are the best ways to boost sales.

What’s your policy when it comes to return policies? Are you more likely to return something if you know you have a lot of time to do it, or do you get more attached to the product as time goes on and you justify having it? What retailer/company has the best return policy, in your opinion?


Kit Yarrow, consumer research psychologist, professor at Golden Gate University in San Francisco, and author of “Decoding the New Consumer Mind