When readers complain to me about stores’ return policies becoming too strict, I don't always lend a sympathetic ear. In my opinion, we consumers have accepted "the customer is always right" as our divine right. In that sense, Nordstrom has made some of us into unreasonable tyrants. 

 But before you think I've lost my consumer edge, here's an example of where a retailer got it wrong. Chris and Judy Graham of Eden Prairie experienced the hard line at Williams-Sonoma. Graham bought a blue ceramic bread basket for his wife for Valentine’s Day. He was given one in a box from the back room. Later that month, he tried to exchange it (still in the box) without a receipt for a white one. In the store, Graham was told there are no exchanges or refunds without a receipt. He then sent an e-mail to customer service complaining that the strict policy was not explained to him at the time of purchase.

A customer service rep responded that returns without a receipt can be exchanged or refunded with merchandise credit. “This doesn’t make any sense,” Graham said. “I can return it for merchandise credit and then buy the color I want with the credit, but I can’t exchange it?”

Exactly. I contacted Williams-Sonoma and was informed by Suki Mulberg, associate public relations manager, that the Grahams could do the exchange. When a district manager called the Grahams to tell them the good news, he explained that it was a one-time favor. Receipts are required for all returns and exchanges.

I’m not saying that requiring a receipt for all returns and exchanges is unfair. But when the policy is that onerous, make sure that customers are aware of it. Put it in big letters at the register, not in faint print on the back of a receipt. Otherwise, they’ll complain. And never come back.

That’s why Grahames are switching to Sur La Table. They can return items without a receipt for store credit there.
I’m sympathetic to the their situation, but I also understand why clerks at Williams-Sonoma and other retailers are turning into drill sergeants. Like spoiled children who think they should always get their way, Americans demand refunds on well-worn clothing that “doesn’t fit,” big screen TVs after the Super Bowl, and snowblowers returned on the 89th day of a 90-day no-questions-asked return policy.

As we demand lower prices on many goods and services — air travel, for example — we are shocked to see other fees go up. Businesses are under heavy pressure to keep prices low, but do we really expect their cost-cutting measures to remain invisible to us?

Exchanges and returns are never as simple as they appear. Ask any Target employee who has worked the returns counter, and you’ll hear plenty of stories of people returning a game after they removed a piece, a CD after they burned a copy at home (retailers got wise to that one), or a piece of electronics without the owner’s manual (because they bought a cheap one online without the manual).

I patronize stores with liberal return policies such as Bed, Bath & Beyond, Costco, Kohl’s, L.L. Bean, Nordstrom and Sam’s Club. Thanks to the Grahames I will think twice about buying at Williams-Sonoma. WS should adopt a receipt lookup policy similar to Target's and be able to find proof of payment with credit or debit card number. Their request for an exchange was not out of line, but greedy consumers have tarnished the adage that the customer is always right. 

We've all got stories of how unreasonable retailers can be. Who's worked in retail and wants to share a story of how unreasonable consumers can be?  Anyone who's ever worked for Target, Wal-Mart, Kohl's, or a mom and pop, tell us a returns story to make us get a clue.