The Ethics of Purchase Returns: What’s Not Okay

I was doing a little internet skimming and found something on the Moneyologist on MarketWatch that has me completely flabbergasted.

Is it wrong to buy and wear clothes that you plan to return?

Someone actually needs to ask this question? 

Purchase returns happen, for good reasons and bad. There’s a line that you can cross, though, from wise to rude to completely unacceptable. Good shoppers understand the difference.

Is this Actually an Ethical Dilemma?

The question was posed as follows:

I don’t like to be photographed in the same outfit twice, or even three times. In the old days, I just had to worry about running into the same people wearing the same dress I wore to several other parties. Today, I have to suffer the indignity of being photographed in the same outfit at different social occasions. That happened to me three times last year, and one friend made a pointed comment along the lines of, “I always love you in that dress.”

There may be a solution to this problem. I have a friend who buys outfits from stores that she can’t afford, wears them, keeps the receipt, and returns them a day or two later claiming that they didn’t fit her properly or she didn’t like the color. One time, she had a stain removed through dry cleaning. I have been thinking of doing the same for our big office party, but my boyfriend doesn’t like the idea. For once, I’d like to wear something that would really make heads turn. What do you think?
Paula, London

Ok, Paula in London. Obviously we live in some very different worlds, because I really don’t care about being seen in the same outfit more than once. I might be concerned that Little Bit has decided to wipe yogurt on my clothes, or that I’ve spilled coffee on them, but as long as my clothes are clean and don’t have holes where holes aren’t supposed to be, I figure I’m good.

So I’m no clothes horse, but I do understand that a great selection of clothes may be as important to you as my hair care sessions are to me: a conscious choice to use money for a luxury item that many would do without.

But why would you think that it would be okay to buy an outfit from an unsuspecting retailer with the expectation that you will wear it and return it?

Evidently someone does, or more accurately, a lot of someones. According to the same article, a 2012 study found that 1 in 8 respondents said they had bought clothing they could not afford to return them after one wear. Many of those admitted they did it just for the fun of getting away with something.

So it’s common, but that doesn’t make it right.

Ethical Returns

I spent seventeen years in retail, and so I’m a little sensitive on the issue of purchase returns.

I hated returns as a retail employee. We had a strict policy where only defective items could be returned, so it was not unusual to feel like someone was lying to return a movie they had already watched or a game they had already beaten, or feel like the person had deliberately damaged the item in order to get money back. Plus, we got paid on a store-wide commission, so each sale was seen as getting us closer to a bigger paycheck, and with each return meant we were further away.

The longer I worked, the more I felt like a more liberal return policy would serve us better. No lies about “This didn’t work” meant no wasted time testing items, a quicker return to the sales floor and better customer relations. It didn’t take too long to recognize who the people returning items far too often were, and that didn’t include most of the customers.

I just never wanted to be one of “those problems”, and that legacy means I’m return averse. I don’t do them often. I probably don’t return things as often as I should:  I wouldn’t even let Little Bit return a doll that broke within a few hours because she lost some of the accessories in the same time frame. My personal hang ups don’t mean that that I don’t recognize legitimate reasons for returning items, though.

Returns should be limited to things you buy that don’t meet expectations. Things that don’t work, or don’t work right. Clothes that don’t fit or don’t fit right. Items with flaws that you didn’t or couldn’t notice at the store. Items that failed to meet your needs despite their description, appearance, or promised results.

Buying clothes wisely can be hard. I used to have a closet full of items that didn’t quite work and that should have been returned. Instead, they got shoved to the back of the closet and forgotten until it was time for a purge and a donation to Goodwill.

That doesn’t even take into account the difficulty of buying clothes online, where you might not get the proper fit without the opportunity to try the clothes on or where the online image might not quite match the reality. As someone who is not an ideal shape, I know that it can be difficult to buy clothes online that fit as expected.

So if you get something home, put it on and realize that hey, it doesn’t fit or match that skirt you thought it did or the quality isn’t up to snuff, then by all means pull it off and send it back. If an item doesn’t work or works poorly, you shouldn’t feel under any obligation to keep it.

But that’s a long way from the mindset of “I’m just going to pretend to buy this, and take it back after it has served its purpose.”  Because if you follow that line of thought, you are causing harm to the business and possibly to its employees.


  1. Someone spent time on that item. Someone stocked it, someone waited on you, someone will have to restock it. That all costs money. If the sales staff is on commission, it’s literally taking money from their pockets because they could have spent that time on real sales for which they would have been compensated.
  2. Someone who actually wanted the item may not be able to buy it. You took that item out of circulation, and maybe someone else didn’t find it. Maybe the window for actually selling it went away while you held the item.
  3. You may damage the item in use. Maybe it doesn’t smell so hot after you’ve been to a party. Maybe you stain or tear it. So maybe the store doesn’t get the chance to sell the item for anything, or maybe they have to deeply discount it.

All of these factors are included in the cost of the item. But the more people “borrow” from their favorite stores, the more those stores have to charge for everything. That’s not good for anyone.

The article in question lists a more practical factors to think about as well: this is the age of big data. Stores know who return items, and how often they do it and what reasons they give. So if you borrow too often, you may find that the store refuses your returns. If it’s an item you can ill afford, then that can be a really nasty surprise.

Alternatives to Sketchy Purchase Returns

The Ethics of Purchase Returns: What's Not Okay

Image courtesy of radnatt at

So what’s our poor clothes horse, Paula from London, to do if she wants to avoid sketchy purchase returns?

Part of me wants to just say “Seriously? This is a problem? If you look great in a dress, you’re going to look great in it every time you wear it! Own that look!”

But I’m the person who finds a clothing item I like and immediately buys whatever in 3 or 4 colors so I don’t have to keep shopping. Paula and I have some different priorities, and she wants to look good and unique every time she is photographed.

Personal choices, right? Everyone’s different.

The article recommended using a clothing rental service. Men have been renting their formal wear for years, and there’s no reason women shouldn’t too. if you really want to have a new outfit for every event you attend, then renting makes a lot more sense than buying. There are no ethical qualms with renting, because everyone understands the transaction. You rent, you wear, you return. I looked at the website they mentioned, Rent the Runway, and most of the dresses were listed at 25%-10% of retail. Rentals were for 4 or 5 days. If you want designer duds for one night, it seems like a decent deal.

I imagine that in larger cities like London, you can probably go to a decently stocked women’s wear rental shop and have a selection that you can try on as well. That may be a better choice where possible. Fit makes a big difference, and if you want to look good, wearing clothes you’ve been able to try on is going to be a surer bet than getting items from online.

Consignment stores can also be a good option. Paula may not be the only person who wants to wear her outfits once, and she may be able to find some incredibly good deals by being willing to wear something someone else has worn before.

From what she said, there’s a good chance that she has been doing that at her favorite shops and paying full price for the privilege anyway. 

Under what circumstances do you return items? Am I being too judgmental? 

Top Image courtesy of stockimages at with changes

18 thoughts on “The Ethics of Purchase Returns: What’s Not Okay

  1. Yeah, soooo not okay to buy something planning to return it. Save up and buy a few more dresses if it’s that big a deal. (Clearly this woman is in a higher profile situation than you or I because she talks about being photographed a lot.)

    Or shop consignment stores. Or yes, Rent the Runway. (Arguably, if you know your favorite designers you can get a good sense of what will fit based on the brand.)

    • I wondered about the photographs, and wasn’t sure whether she was talking about a society page or something like Instagram. But yeah, Paula seems very image conscious. But if I was worried about my image, I’d also be worried about getting caught out in sketchy behavior.

  2. Having worked a long career in retail, you are not being too judgmental at all. You’ve offered some great alternatives for Paula in London, but returning clothes you’ve worn should not be part of the plan! I did my best to accommodate sincere customers, but there are always some people who take advantage of the system and now that big data is in our lives, I hope they are getting their just desserts.
    Gary @ Super Saving Tips recently posted…Financial Empowerment – My Road to Financial WellnessMy Profile

    • Yeah, I hope that tracking individuals returns will mean that those that abuse returns get caught. And big data means people also can’t game the system as much by returning items at different locations, etc.

  3. I went from working at a retail store in my company that actively tried to prevent or deny returns (sometimes against our corporate policy) to another store in the same company that openly allows almost all returns. It is a lot nicer to work in the current store, because it means we get to help the nice customers as well as the ones who would complain, lie etc. to get their way at the more restrictive store. Sometimes we joke we are running a tool rental, because people intentionally buy something, use it once for their purpose and return it.

    I don’t think you are being too judgmental at all. People try to cheat the system other ways as well, such as returning without a receipt to inflate the refund for something bought on clearance, and of course none of it is ethical. I think a lot of people think it is OK because we allow it, but that is kind of like a sociopath arguing they are entitled to steal something because it is unlocked.

    I think you’ve discovered yet another reason why everyone should have some experience working with the public in customer service. I only return things that are either in the condition I bought them (unused) in the appropriate time frame or things that are obviously defective as soon as I discover they are defective within the return policy. I would never lie to benefit financially from a transaction like that, because no amount of money is worth my integrity. It’s too bad this is not obvious to more people.
    Clearwing recently posted…Unwanted Time Capsule: old magazines and the Clutter GoblinMy Profile

    • I think sometimes it is obvious that taking advantage of the letter rather than the spirit of a return policy is wrong, even to the people doing it.
      Less restrictive return policies are so much easier to work with. I do think if you can track that someone has a return issue, maybe they should start getting charged restocking fees to cover the extra expense they are incurring for the business.

  4. I remember the Gap used to have a policy (about 10-15 years ago) where you could buy an item, take it home, cut the tags off, wash it, and bring it back in 2 weeks if you decided you didn’t like it after all for a full refund, no questions asked. They don’t have that policy anymore, not surprisingly; I’m sure it was abused thousands of times every week.

    Wow, is someone saying “I always love you in that dress” an insult? I agree that Paula should check out some consignment stores. 🙂
    Sarah Noelle @ The Yachtless recently posted…ObliviousMy Profile

    • Maybe “I always love you in that dress” is the London society equivalent of the southern “Bless your heart.” I can see it being delivered sincerely, but I can also see it delivered as politely worded social warfare. However it was intended, it was taken as the latter.

    • Every career has its war stories, and returns tend to be common sources of tension for store employees and customers. Common sense and courtesy on both sides of the transaction would help a lot to minimize the inherent stresses.

  5. Paula would be appalled at my wardrobe. Admittedly, I don’t get photographed often but, if I did, I’d be caught wearing the same exact clothes over and over and over again.

    Yes, obviously priorities are different, but I’m with you, Emily. I don’t think it’s right to buy, wear and return clothing. Consignment stores would be a great way to do something similar – buy what you like, wear it, and then take it back to the store to sell. Yes, you will lose a little money, but it is honest.
    Amanda @ centsiblyrich recently posted…How the idea of early financial independence inspired us to get out of debtMy Profile

    • Yeah, consignment or rental are the ways to go if you want a constantly changing wardrobe without a 5 figure or more annual clothing budget.

  6. *shaking my head*

    I am a frequent returner, which I don’t love, but I primarily buy online and don’t have any other way to try things on. In many cases, my sizes are not carried in store so I really don’t have a choice, it’s only online. And I always try to return anything that doesn’t work for me, but I certainly don’t ever buy with the intent of wearing it and THEN returning it.

    If I like it well enough to wear it to anything, then I darn well better like it well enough to keep it.

    I think that Paula needs to learn to accessorize and have a bit more confidence because who cares that much about what anyone sees you wearing? What on earth does that matter?

    Then again, I’m the one who’s gone out in public forgetting that JuggerBaby left my shoulder smeared with snot and not realizing that until it was way too late to do anything about it and then just shrugged because, whatever. That’s what happens when you have a toddler and I’m not taking three changes of clothing to run errands!
    Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life recently posted…We refinanced our mortgage!My Profile

    • I know that buying online can be a lot tougher with clothes, since you can’t try them on and sizing is so inconsistent and can be even within the same brand. And internet images don’t always reflect the quality or even the color of an item well, and so returning after you’ve tried something on meets my “did not meet expectations” criteria.
      And I don’t know how many times I’ve gone somewhere and realized Little Bit used my shirt as a napkin or kleenex that morning. Or I’ve spilled coffee on myself, or that the hem or knee of my jeans is torn because those jeans are 10 years old.

  7. This is insane! First of all, Paula’s friend’s comment “I always love you in that dress” didn’t seem incendiary but instead simply complimentary!

    I, like Revanche, am a frequent returner. I’ll buy something, suffer from buyer’s remorse (even on small things! and not even wants but needs!), and return it to the store. However, I never considered returning an item I actually wore. I sometimes can’t believe just how unethical people can be. (Plus, how often have I bought an item that was full-on worn by a customer who returned it? Kinda gross. Good thing I always wash before I wear!)

    I’ve never worked retail and it never occurred to me that returns could be so annoying. I guess a consolation is that I don’t really shop at stores with a commission structure so an employee isn’t really getting screwed out of money they earned on a sale if I return an item.
    Miss Thrifty recently posted…Hashtag Your Money RealityMy Profile

    • Ha, we always wash first too, unless it’s for my kid and she pulls it on as soon as she gets home. The thing is, I bet that a lot of the worst risks for having been worn for a day by a previous customer are going to be dry clean only items, or at least very high maintenance, rather than wash and wear.

      Have you tried a cooling off period before purchases? I rarely regret buying things in part because I have generally thought about purchases a while before buying. It may mean more trips before an initial purchase, but it does make it less likely that I’ll buy something I regret spending the money on.

  8. While I was reading, I was thinking the whole time, why doesn’t she just rent an outfit? I was so glad to see that you pointed it out that men have been doing it for years and that the services are available, that we just need to seek them. If all else fails, you could always sell it on Ebay for a fraction of the cost. After all, it is used…
    Latoya @ Femme Frugality recently posted…Father’s Day Gift Guide Under $20My Profile

    • If nothing else, her letter should point out to her that she may have been wearing pre-worn clothing at times without knowing it. Hopefully that would get her comfortable with the idea of consignment or rentals.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


CommentLuv badge