As many elements of the shopping experience have been turned on their sides amid concerns over the spread of coronavirus, major retailers are adjusting and extending return periods to give shoppers a break until they can reopen.
But be forewarned: At some retailers that have remained open during the coronavirus pandemic, making a return isn’t as simple as it used to be.
Some are suspending returns.
Target announced in a blog post Wednesday that “to be extra cautious,” it will temporarily “stop accepting in-store product returns and exchanges for the next three weeks.” The Minneapolis-based retailer says if you have a return expiring during that period, it’ll be honored “three weeks past the holding period.”
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Sucharita Kodali, a retail analyst at Forrester, said she thinks this is likely the first time in industry history when retailers, which tried to appeal to shoppers with easy return policies, are acting like airlines by making necessary changes that won’t be popular with shoppers.
“They want their return (processed) and they want their money back immediately,” Kodali said, adding she expects there will be angry customers and complaints. “I think that’s the part that’s going to be hard for a lot of consumers to stomach because this is so different from what we’ve been seeing in retail.”
COVID-19 store closings, reduced hours:Costco cutting hours, Nordstrom extends closures. See the list of other changes.
Too much toilet paper? You might be stuck
Several grocery store chains including Florida-based Publix, which has 1,200-plus stores in six states, is taking an even more drastic step, suspending refunds on products purchased during the declared emergency.
The decision is designed to encourage shoppers purchase what they need and not stockpile, Maria Brous, Publix director of media relations, said in a statement to USA TODAY.
In some stores, returns are not being allowed on critical supplies such as toilet paper and sanitizing wipes.
Some Costco stores are reportedly not allowing returns of toilet paper, Lysol, sanitizing wipes and rice, according to signs posted at locations that have been posted on social media. While Costco officials reached for comment would not say whether the policy changed nationwide, the retailer’s website does note toilet paper and select bags of rice, which were out of stock, are non-returnable.
Neil Saunders, managing director of retail consultancy Global Data, said retailers don’t want to encourage hoarding and don’t feel the need to reward people “who have behaved badly during the crisis.”
“I think retailers will be very strict about taking back items that consumers have hoarded. Retailers can’t cope with hoarded items being returned en masse,” he said.
Is that return contaminated with COVID-19?
Stores are refusing to accept returns for another reason: possible contamination.
Retailers can’t guarantee the safety and cleanliness of products that have been taken out of stores, said Sara Skirboll, RetailMeNot shopping and trends expert.
“Consumers will need to be mindful of what they’re putting in their carts knowing those items can’t go back,” Skirboll told USA TODAY.
Safety is a big concern for retailers, particularly when there are still so many unknowns about the virus, Kodali says.
“You don’t want to handle a package that may be contaminated,” she said. “We’re in unprecedented times and there’s going to be unprecedented activities that happen as a result of it.”
But these cautious approaches are likely to be temporary.
“I think once closed retailers open, they will extend return policies for the long-term,” said Tyler Higgins, retail practice lead at AArete, a global management consultancy. “There may be some mix of store credit versus return, but retailers will be forced to respond.”
Not all stores are making changes. Amazon is still processing returns, according to a COVID-19 frequently asked questions guide. Walmart did not immediately respond to USA TODAY’s request for comment, but the website does not list any changes.
Extending return periods
Retailers are bending return policies to help out shoppers, says Deborah Weinswig, CEO and founder of Coresight Research, global advisory and research firm. She said she’s already seen longer return windows and more generous policies.
“We have been somewhat surprised as returns have been such a pain point for retailers and significantly impact their gross margins,” Weinswig told USA TODAY. “However, in this fluid environment, retailers are adapting to the new normal and supporting customers however they can.”
Kohl’s, for instance, says it will accept returns outside of its lenient 180-day window for the first 30 days after stores reopen.
Higgins said he thinks many could follow Kohl’s lead to create customer loyalty.
“COVID-19 has not only put pressure on retailers’ top line, but it is also forcing retailers to figure out ways to ensure that their customer based doesn’t abandon them upon reopening,” he said.
Those retailers who don’t relax return policies may regret it, says Greg Portell, lead partner in the global consumer practice of Kearney, a strategy and management consulting firm.
“It would be irresponsible for a retailer to try to enforce calendar-based return policies at this time,” Portell said. “Enforcing impractical return rules will have a swift backlash for retailers.”
Follow USA TODAY reporter Kelly Tyko on Twitter: @KellyTyko