L.L. Bean Dropping Its Unlimited Returns Policy

Feb 16, 2018

Did that dog bed you got at L.L. Bean 5 years ago get chewed by its occupant?  Until last week, you could just take it back and get a replacement for no charge.  The company has announced that it's changing its famous unconditional return policy that has been a part of the brand since it started more than a century ago.  The change comes as a response to the growing number of customers who have been taking advantage of the policy.

In the five years that Jewels Gordon has worked in the customer service department at LL Bean in Freeport, she's seen thousands of returns. But there's one that stands out above the rest.

"I've seen the leg of a chair,” said Gordon. “Just a leg.”

Her colleague Dawn Segars, who has nearly 17 years under her belt in customer service, had a similarly perplexing return.

“Someone returned the case of the sunglasses, and the sunglasses were in the lake,” she said.

Both customers got what they wanted: a brand new chair and a pair of sunglasses. But it's returns like those that have brought an end to a part of LL Bean's brand that's almost as legendary as its Bean boot: its unlimited return policy. In a letter sent to customers Friday, executive chairman Shawn Gorman announced that returns must now be made within a year and have proof of purchase. The reason? A growing number of customers have misinterpreted LL Bean's lifetime guarantee to mean a product should last the customer's lifetime, not the product's.

“I've seen too many people that are not being nice,” said Gordon French a frequent customer.

Dressed in LL Bean from flannel to foot, Gordon French makes a monthly trip to LL Bean with his wife from their hometown of Meredith, NH. He's all for the stricter return policy because of what he's seen in the returns line over the years. Like one man who was holding a box of socks.

“I was behind him and he says, 'Oh, I buy my socks here every year for Christmas time. And when I get hole in them, I save them and I bring 'em back the next year,'” French recalled. “And while he was standing he says, 'Oh! My shoes aren't right either, and he took his shoes off and ran and got a new pair of shoes.”

“Just coming here to return things I see people with trash bags full of stuff that they've probably bought at garage sales and from their grandparents or what not, so you know they didn't just buy it and it's defective,” said customer Molly Grenier of Lewiston. “You get a gift card and you can purchase anything you want.”

These kinds of abuses have doubled in the past couple of years, according to LL Bean, accounting for 15 percent of all returns.

Nearly all of the customers Maine Public Radio spoke to said they supported LL Bean's stricter return policy. But Richard Lindell of Limerick was miffed about a shoe return his wife made Friday that resulted in only a partial refund. He wonders if it would have been a full refund under the old policy.

“Satisfaction guaranteed,” said Lindell. “If they rip on you and they're no good, that's not satisfied.”

There are exceptions to the new, one-year return policy if a product is truly defective. And customer service manager Jewels Gordon promises customers will still get great service.

“The training is, you're in this green shirt, you're 100 percent customer-focused, you do what's right for the customer in front of you, and you do it with a smile,” said Gordon.

This report comes from the New England News Collaborative, eight public media companies including Rhode Island Public Radio, joining together to tell stories of a changing region, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting