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Are you on a store-returns blacklist? How to see the data retailers are quietly using to monitor you
In-store return policy drama? Retailers from Sephora to Best Buy may be tracking for signs of abuse. Here’s how the Retail Equation may be involved, and how to check your own “return activity report.” Nicoleta Ionescu/Shutterstock

Who should feel more shame: a customer accused of abusing their favorite retailer’s return policy, or a store accused of banning a loyal customer from making returns — after they brought back less than $100 in merchandise?

Lest you think it’s a hypothetical question, that’s allegedly what happened to California-based real estate agent Jake Zakhar, who told the Wall Street Journal that, after trying to return three cell phone chargers to Best Buy, he was barred from making any exchanges or returns for a full year. This was despite the fact that he had spent thousands of dollars at the retailer in the past, Zakhar said in a post about the problem on Twitter.

Following his tweet, Zakhar was referred to a company called “the Retail Equation,” which quietly tracks customer return activity for 34,000 stores, the Journal reported. The company monitors for and flags “the approximately 1% of consumers whose behaviors mimic return fraud or abuse,” according to the firm website, specifically looking at your purchase history, the frequency and dollar amounts of returns, and whether returns are receipted or not.

If you want to see whether your information is in the Retail Equation’s database, there’s guidance on pulling your report at the bottom of this post. But before you get too outraged, it’s worth understanding the factors at play.

On one hand, Zakhar’s story raises an important question: Is it good business to risk losing a customer who typically spends thousands of dollars on big-ticket purchases over a few lousy phone chargers? Maybe not, as some research actually suggests liberal return policies reduce the volume of products taken back, according to Marketplace.

On the other hand, stores need to protect against “return fraud” — customers returning stolen products or similarly deceiving stores — levels of which are growing relative to retail revenue, according to a recent study from LexisNexis Risk Solutions, CNBC reported. Plus, there are signs mere “return abuse” — buying something with the intention of using it then returning it — is a significant problem for retailers, too.

Indeed, in 2017, the U.S. retail industry lost about $17.6 billion from “merchandise return fraud” and about $22.8 billion from “fraud and abuse combined,” according to a report from the National Retail Federation. That’s enough to account for about 6.5% of the industry’s total returns — and it’s not exactly the victimless practice it’s sometimes made out to be.

In fact, even veteran retail workers have reported seeing more fluctuations in their paychecks as their employers shift to more return-friendly policies, according to one New York Times report: After Macy’s made their return policy more generous, workers took to calling the baggage department the “rental luggage department.”

It’s no surprise then, that companies like L.L. Bean, known for having generous return policies, have looked at scaling them back. While some stores might simply impose limits on how long you can possess an item before returning it, others might also keep tabs on frequent returners through a service like the Retail Equation — which argues that by punishing abusers, it actually helps encourage stores to maintain generous policies.

A tough climate for retailers has led many prominent stores, such as L.L. Bean, to revisit generous return policies.
A tough climate for retailers has led many prominent stores, such as L.L. Bean, to revisit generous return policies. Robert F. Bukaty/AP

How to pull your “return activity report” from the Retail Equation

So how can you see your return data? Whether you have been blacklisted or denied a return — or are just curious — you can email the Retail Equation at ReturnActivityReport@TheRetailEquation.com for a copy of your “return activity report” or “RAR.”

“Requests should include the consumer’s name and a phone number where he/she can be contacted,” according to the company’s site. “When TRE calls, the company will ask for the consumer’s driver’s license number and state, to enable a database search. TRE representatives prefer to call consumers to avoid sending personal information via e-mail or mail.”

The company didn’t immediately respond Mic’s request for further comment.

Because firms like the Retail Equation can track your return activity through your driver’s license or other ID numbers, it’s safe to assume your return activity is always being monitored somewhere, as Racked reports. And some retailers like Nordstrom or Saks reportedly have their own internal efforts to track return activity.

That said, you can still get a good deal — as an honest shopper seeking honest returns — with those retailers that are especially generous in their returns policies: Anthropologie, Land’s End and Bath and Body Works, for example, all allow unlimited returns, though you should hang onto receipts.

And don’t be shy about playing by the rules to your advantage. If you buy at full price an item that is subsequently marked down, bring your receipt and ask a store employee if you can get a price adjustment.

But rather than abusing store policies — by buying, wearing once, and returning items you knew all along you couldn’t afford — consider a more above board approach that’s less likely to get you in trouble: like shopping used luxury threads or simply renting your glamorous outfit. You might also consider using online retailers like Zappos or Net-A-Porter that have embraced try-before-you-commit policies with free two-way shipping.

In other words, looking your best for date night doesn’t require duplicity.

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