Although public health officials say it’s unlikely COVID-19 infections can be spread by surfaces or physical objects, retailers are being cautious about how they handle returned merchandise. They are instituting disinfection processes and quarantine periods that keep those items from returning to stock for a varying number of days.
Many retailers suspended returns in the early weeks of the pandemic, but most seem to have reinstated them in forms modified for associate and consumer safety. Walmart, however, is not taking in-store returns for apparel, cleaning supplies, health and beauty or pharmacy purchases, although customers can ship products back using the Walmart app or web site. This policy prompted customer complaints that a local ABC TV affiliate in Chicago reported on.
Noting that this was “not the first flap around return policies during the novel coronavirus pandemic,” RetailWire asked its panel of experts to weigh in on whether Walmart should change its policy. The consensus was that Walmart should be a leader in this area, but panelists were divided on exactly how Walmart should lead. Those in favor of Walmart keeping its policies as is believe that Walmart can exert leadership by communicating why public health and safety measures have been put in place and by exerting patience in an unprecedented situation.
Those supporting Walmart reinstating in-store returns called on the retail giant to use its supply chain expertise to develop processes that are safe for associates and customers. They also noted that returns policies are important to consumers, especially those struggling financially due to the pandemic, so Walmart could innovate by making the returns process more hygienic, as well as quick and easy for customers.
Following are excerpts from the discussion:
Andrew Blatherwick, Chairman Emeritus, Relex Solutions
With the pandemic certainly not going away and good evidence that it is back on the rise, it is very sensible for Walmart to continue with its returns policy. It is very easy to bow to customer reaction, especially when it is picked up by TV, but the health of staff and other customers remain paramount. There would be no medals or support if Walmart or any other retailer was found to be spreading the virus by restocking contaminated items.
Paula Rosenblum, Managing Partner, RSR Research
What do the epidemiologists say? That’s what Walmart should do.
How can we be voting on what the right health decision is? The question should be, “Retailers must assure public health and safety measures are being observed. Can they also help the public understand how important this is?”
Mark Ryski, Founder and CEO, HeadCount Corporation
This is a tricky issue that retailers are going to be grappling with for the foreseeable future. No doubt consumers have become accustomed to 100% returns, no questions asked, for a long time. However, the pandemic has rightly changed that. Retailers have no way of knowing if returned merchandise has been contaminated, and so limiting returns is reasonable.
Jeff Sward, Founding Partner, Merchandising Metrics
It’s great that shoppers are being asked to think a little deeper before making final decisions. The whole returns thing seems to have gotten a little out of control as retailers work to keep customers happy. That said, there will be no easy cookie-cutter solution here. Unfortunately, retailers are going to have to continue to default to the best interests of employee and customer health.
Perry Kramer, Managing Partner, Retail Consulting Partners
Yes, Walmart should strive to modify the in-store return policy and processes to improve the customer experience and remain competitive. For one of the world’s leading supply-chain- and process-driven organizations to not be able to figure it out, it appears to be more of an effort to protect the bottom line than support the communities it serves.
Walmart’s policy of directing consumers to ship back their returns is a significant burden to a large subset of its core customers and is clearly designed to discourage returns of in-store purchases. It is time for Walmart to take the next step in returning to partnering with its communities in this area. Its competition clearly is.
Richard J. George, Ph.D., Professor of Food Marketing, Haub School of Business, Saint Joseph’s University
It appears that the quarantine policies of Target and Kohl’s address the issues of customer convenience as well as health and safety. Walmart should easily be able to adopt similar in-store returns. Refusal to accept returns or directing customers to mail back returns is not customer friendly.
Cynthia Holcomb, Founder and CEO, Female Brain Ai and Preference Science Technologies Inc.
Customers have a point: Walmart needs to handle the return issue. Using the app is a hassle, time-consuming and essentially puts the Walmart customer to work to earn their money back. Take the returns, store them away. It’s part of the cost of doing business. With high unemployment, a few dollars are a big deal for families. You promised your customers exceptional service. Hassling customers is not a good look. Figure it out. I know Walmart — you can do it!