L.L. Bean, Citing Abuse, Tightens Its Generous Policy on Returns

L.L. Bean is no longer interested in replacing the ratty sweatshirts or worn-down boots you bought from the company decades ago.

The purveyor of outdoor products, famous for its 100 percent satisfaction guarantee, said that a growing number of customers had abused the policy by treating it as a “lifetime product-replacement program.” The retailer will immediately begin enforcing stricter rules for shoppers seeking to exchange items or obtain or get refunds.

Under the new policy, consumers will have a year to make returns, and will be required to provide proof of purchase, L.L. Bean, which is based in Freeport, Me., said in a Facebook post on Friday. The company said it would work with customers to provide a “fair solution” if products show defects after the return window has closed.

Shawn O. Gorman, L.L. Bean’s executive chairman and the great-grandson of Leon Leonwood Bean, the company’s founder, wrote in the post that the changes would affect a small percentage of returns and would have “no impact for the vast majority” of customers.

L.L. Bean’s decades-old refund-and-replacement policy, one of the most generous in the retail industry, had increasingly been abused, Mr. Gorman wrote.

“A small, but growing number of customers has been interpreting our guarantee well beyond its original intent,” he wrote, adding that some people had sought “refunds for heavily worn products used over many years. Others seek refunds for products that have been purchased through third parties, such as at yard sales.”

Customers reacted with both support and surprise.

“As a lifetime loyal customer I’m surprised you didn’t do this sooner,” wrote Facebook user Joe Gagne in a post on the company’s page. “I’ve been embarrassed for your associates when I’ve been in line seeing customers take advantage of the guarantee. Anyone who says they won’t shop at Beans anymore because of this change isn’t the kind of customer you want anyway.”

But Jen Tedesco, a homemaker in upstate New York, said she was “really disappointed” with L.L. Bean and what she said was a “one size fits all, super-stringent policy that is going to alienate customers.”

She said her family, which includes three children, is willing to spend more at L.L. Bean than at Walmart or Target because of the expectation that the products will last longer.

“We make good money, but we’re not rich and have to make very financially responsible decisions about where we spend our money,” she said. “When I’m spending $70 for kids’ snow pants, I need to know that the company is putting enough care, quality and effort into them that they’re not going to break 14 months down the road.”

As shoppers began to drift toward e-commerce, many retailers tried to retain customers by offering extended return policies with extremely forgiving terms.

But companies often found that accepting returns came at a high cost.

The retail industry had $3.5 trillion in sales last year, with 10 percent of that, or $351 billion, lost to returns, according to a report from the research firm Appriss Retail. Of those returns, an estimated 6.5 percent, or $22.8 billion worth of merchandise, were thought to include shoplifted goods, items bought made with stolen money, products backed by counterfeit receipts and other forms of fraud or abuse.

Improperly made returns cost states up to $1.4 billion in lost sales tax revenues and also hurt retail employees, according to Appriss.

“Retailers must offset the negative business impact of return fraud and abuse by increasing prices to consumers and by reducing costs — which too often means a loss of jobs,” researchers wrote in the report.

L.L. Bean’s turnaround is similar to a change in policy at the outdoor retailer REI. In 2013, after people bragged of taking used REI products bought at swap meets to the store for cash refunds, the company began requiring customers to make their returns within a year of purchase (with some exceptions: outdoor electronic items have a 90-day return window, but products with manufacturing defects can be returned anytime).

Michelle Zaleski of Marlborough, Mass., said she worried that the new L.L. Bean policy could mean the company was reducing the quality of its products. She said she had recently bought a pair of $200 L.L. Bean boots, which she said were already falling apart.

Ms. Zaleski said she and her family go out of their way to visit L.L. Bean stores and had spent $3,000 on the company’s products over the holidays. In 15 years of regular buying from the company, she said, she had returned fewer than a dozen items, including one vest, one jacket and several backpacks with broken handles.

“L.L. Bean to us is a quality name, and that means they should stand by their word,” Ms. Zaleski said. “I liked the idea that they would withstand my kids tearing them apart.”