“A pinch and a punch for the first of the month!” chanted the boy in an annoying sing-song voice, as he ambushed his elder sister. “And no returns!”
She weathered his assault with a remarkable level of grace and decorum.
The boy visibly deflated at the lack of reaction from his sibling. Pushing her buttons was his superpower. Normally they fight like cats and dogs. Their long-suffering parents were considering offering them as the undercard bout on the next smackdown wrestling event on pay-per-view.
The moment he dropped his guard, the girl pivoted on her heel and kicked him square in the nuts. No hesitation. No holding back.
The boy doubled over. Dropped like a stone. Curled into the foetal position. Whimpered.
Victorious, the girl mimicked the same annoying sing-song voice: “A kick in the dick for being a prick! Many happy returns.”
She smugly sauntered away, grinning back over her shoulder. Her grand exit was somewhat spoiled as she collided with the door frame and landed with an “oof” on her backside.
I raised an eyebrow at their father. He offered a “meh” and his best Gallic shrug. Karma had been satisfied. Both kids had got what they deserved. We stepped over the bodies and went outside.
There is somewhat of a religious divide when it comes to attitudes towards returns.
Some people refuse to use them. Only returning an item if it is defective in some way. They freely enter into a transaction with a purveyor of goods or services, then feel obligated to honour their end of the deal. It is a matter of pride, principle, and contract certainty.
Others apply for returns grudgingly. On the rare occasion making a return is necessary they feel apologetic, even embarrassed, that they purchased an item without doing sufficient planning and research to ensure it would be fit for purpose. A half-assed job that wasted the time of the merchant. Squandered the resources of the logistical network. Generated spurious environmental impacts in terms of packaging and carbon emissions.
Finally, there are those who use returns as their default behaviour.
Buying whatever shiny object catches their eye. Purchasing so that they can try things on at their leisure, in the comfort of their own home.
Ordering multiple sizes and colours of the same item, in a quest to find the best fit. Non-standard sizing is a curse. Stores refusing to stock a full range of products and sizes is a contributing factor.
Then returning most, if not all of the purchases.
Part buyers remorse.
Part time-poor consumer.
Whatever the cause, the effect is the same. Money tied up in an endless cycle of purchase and refund. Time consumed dropping parcels off at delivery collection points. Hassle chasing up items lost in a maze of logistics. Stress incurred hounding recalcitrant merchants who are tardy in processing refund payments. Effort expended tracking of the status of a myriad of purchases and payments.
The option to return purchased goods is enshrined within consumer protection laws.
Cooling off periods were originally designed to guard against the persuasive charms of charismatic salespeople. They now providing punters with the ability to purchase in haste and repent at leisure.
Estate agents. Gym membership managers. Mobile phone and pay television salespeople. Recruiters. Wealth managers. All prime examples of professions who make a living out of making unwitting customers feel good about deals that often leave them financially worse off.
living with disappointment
I have a long and unhappy history of returns.
Once upon a time the loved up younger me gave his first-ever gift to his girlfriend at the time.
Thoughtful and carefully selected. Like a great many gifts, this one was designed to make the recipient happy. Demonstrate appreciation. Curry favour. Purchase affection.
She took it back to the shop and exchanged it for something else.
The same thing happened with the second gift.
And the third.
By this point, it would be reasonable to conclude that I have appalling taste in presents. That I didn’t understand her preferences and tastes. Perhaps I just didn’t listen or pay attention when I should.
All those things were true. Most of them probably remain so.
These bruising experiences yielded a dawning realisation that everyone is wired up differently.
Some people can make a decision and stick with it. Commit. See things through.
Rigid or reliable? Persistent or Stubborn? Two sides of the same coin.
Other people think nothing of dithering. Flip-flopping. Recanting. Or simply changing their minds.
Adaptable or indecisive? Flexible or selfish? Perspective is a wonderful thing.
Neither approach is always right or absolutely wrong. A spectrum of behaviours that we all inhabit.
I swiftly learned that gift receipts were a must. Returns a necessary evil.
Restocking fees are an unfortunate reality. An inconvenient cost of doing business.
Learning not to take it personally was a hard-won life lesson.
A thousand years ago the Vikings regularly raided England. In their wake, they left behind a trail of death, destruction, pregnant locals, and a smattering of Old Norse words.
One of those words was boon. A noun meaning “something that is very helpful and improves the quality of life”. Doing someone a big favour could be considered a boon. So too giving them a gift.
A thousand years later a depression-era American government training initiative sought to teach unemployed workers the skills necessary to repurpose and recycle waste items into useful and saleable products. At the time this practice was known as boondoggling.
Predictably, partisan politicians targeted a useful programme that was doing good deeds as being wasteful and misguided. The term boondoggle was hijacked and forever redefined as “work or activity that is wasteful or pointless but gives the appearance of having value”.
That definition of boondoggle aptly describes the seemingly endless cycle of purchase and return.
This Christmas past my kids and I bought my lady wife a shiny new iPhone. Something that had been hinted at and desired since the new models were released in the Autumn.
Preferences checked, then verified multiple times. The right capacity, colour, model and size.
The purchase was made in the Cyber Monday sales. The £50 discount at a leading department store offering a mild salve to the four-figure hole in my wallet.
Wrapped up in hand-decorated paper my younger son had made at school. Transformers and superheroes doing battle against evil cartoon bad guys. Colourful and exciting.
Topped off with a handmade origami dragon that my elder son had somehow created. Is there nothing that the YouTube gods cannot teach us?
Given pride of place underneath the Christmas tree.
A couple of days before Christmas, my lady wife stumbled across an article talking about a rare and exotic version of this model iPhone. One that supported dual physical SIM cards, allowing two separate phone numbers to concurrently reside within one handset. Available only in Hong Kong.
Instantly the iPhone models available in the United Kingdom were inferior. Not fit for purpose.
My elder son raised an eyebrow.
They could only support one physical SIM card. One phone number at a time. How quaint. Positively old fashioned! What about all those very busy people doing very busy work, who have both a work mobile number and a personal mobile number? A single device certainly beats carrying around two.
My younger son rolled his eyes.
Ten seconds later she was on the phone to a friend in Hong Kong, arranging for the purchase of a shiny new iPhone from the Apple store in Tsim Sha Tsui.
Both boys looked at me with horrified matching “oh no, it’s happened again” expressions. I signed. Shrugged. Happened again indeed.
Christmas morning proved underwhelming in some quarters. Opening the parcel, which contain a much requested state of the art piece of telecommunications wizardry, yielded the same level of enthusiasm we would have received had we wrapped up a pair of brown socks.
Game over player one. Better luck next time.
Christmas Day in my house follows a familiar pattern. The morning spent on the phone catching up with far-flung friends and family scattered across the globe. Enjoying the boys enjoying their presents. Once I could help assemble then. Now I’m merely a convenient source of batteries.
Feasting on a lovely Christmas dinner surrounded by good company. Life is pretty good.
Boxing Day also follows a familiar pattern. Navigating around all manner of internet shopping sites to organise the exchange or return of gifts that for whatever reason were found to be wanting.
I fall firmly into the reluctant returner category. Unwilling to brave the teeming hordes of shoppers exchanging items and purchasing for themselves the things that they really wanted for Christmas.
I prefer the comforting anonymity of printing off the returns paperwork. Packaging up the items in vast quantities of packing tape. Then posting them back from whence they came, once the post office reopens after the holiday season.
For reasons that defy explanation, it became a matter of life or death that the iPhone be returned immediately.
A challenging task when the department store and the post office are both closed.
The department store did offer the option of dropping returns off at the dodgy little corner store nearby. The place that rips off the mobility challenged local elderly residents. Where the neighbourhood homeless purchase their Special Brew.
I reluctantly exchanged the £1000+ parcel for a proof of postage receipt and a tracking number.
Wilting slightly under the withering gaze of the smelly little man behind the counter, surrounded by precariously balanced towers of parcels and packages. I was guilted into purchasing an overpriced treat for my younger son.
As we left the store the boy tore open the wrapper to discover some fossilised chocolate that crumbled to grey coloured dust as soon as he touched it with his finger. I glanced at the expiry date on the wrapper. The chocolate was positively prehistoric, older than the boy.
A couple of days later I checked the returns tracking website. The parcel had apparently been collected from the dodgy corner store, but never arrived at the department store depot. Curious.
A few days after that nothing had changed. Troubling.
I called the courier company who were handling the logistics on behalf of the department store. Thus began an epic battle of wills and sheer bloody-minded persistence.
A textbook boondoggle.
The department store denied ever receiving the handset. As far as they were concerned the item had never been returned. No return equals no refund. Have a nice day.
The delivery driver who transported the parcel was adamant the item had been delivered. He had a tracking number that supposedly proved it. An inconvenient fact. Off script. Undermining the narrative.
The courier company pled technology problems with their tracker system. They claimed the parcel had never been collected from the dodgy corner store. Not our problem.
Apathy and finger-pointing all around. The only person who cared was me, the person who possessed neither the £1,000+ purchase price nor the phone handset. I was beginning to understand what the rope in a tug-o-war must feel like.
Curiously, I was not considered the customer when it comes to returns. The department store had paid for the logistics, therefore the department store was the customer.
Only the customer could initiate a lost parcel investigation.
It also turns out that parcels returned via this channel are only insured for a value of up to £50.
Hopefully, whoever stole the package gets more joy from the iPhone than I did.
As time progressed, the allocation of guilt and blame at home escalated.
My lady wife had nothing to show for Christmas day. She had missed out. Felt hardly done by.
Factually true. Contextually inaccurate.
“Oh no, it’s happened again”.
Beauty advent calendars don’t count. They are a trap. Opened and forgotten by Christmas day.
I’ve been married long enough to know not to spoil a good argument with logic.
The Hong Kong friend needed repaying. My misadventures were not their problem. They had done my lady wife a favour in good faith. I was soon another £1,000+ poorer, with still no phone to show for it.
A couple of weeks later a courier delivered the Hong Kong handset to my lady wife. Correct capacity, colour, model, and size. It also featured the much-vaunted dual SIM. Smiles all around.
History credits a genuinely generous friend from Hong Kong. A need to source her own Christmas present. The memory of feeling let down on Christmas morning.
Factually true. Though alternative facts.
Does any of the rest of it matter? My lady wife has the shiny phone she wanted. It all worked out in the end.
Without the returns culture, none of the angst and drama in this tale would have occurred. My wallet would be just as empty. My lady wife would have had the gift she wanted up until two days before Christmas.
Would that have been a win or a loss? I honestly don’t know.
It is troubling how quickly society has embraced such behaviours as the new normal. No accountability. Few consequences. Never mind the blast radius. Who cares about the collateral damage?
Children learn how to conduct themselves by watching the examples set by their parents, politicians, and teachers. That is a concern when so many are so willing to choose their own narrative and dismiss anything that conflicts with their own world view. Protecting their bubble. Defending their tribe.
Of equal concern is my choosing the path of least resistance. Determining the consequences outweighed the cost. It keeps the peace, but encourages the behaviours. History will repeat, as is its wont.
Sometimes there are only bad choices.
Next year I’ll gift brown socks. Actually, I probably won’t.
But it feels like I should, after this boondoggle.
UPDATE: Eventually, I did receive a refund for the return. The package itself never turned up, but the department store grudgingly conceded that the tracking code given to the delivery driver meant it had successfully made it as far as the depot.