L.L. Bean gives the boot to its ‘no-questions-asked’ return policy

AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty/File

Deep in the recesses of the official NewsCut closet reside a handful of blue Oxford L.L. Bean shirts, their collars too frayed to have a useful life, located next to a stable of L.L. Bean slacks, shredded at the bottom because a 34 inseam means 35, maybe 36. Whatever.

It never occurred to me that the no-questions-asked return policy means I could’ve sent them all back at any time and gotten a lifetime supply of Bean clothing. I merely assumed it meant if I didn’t like something when it arrived, I could send it back.

Even if I had known, it seems wrong.

And it is, which is why Bean today announced it’s ending the practice that has separated it from other retailers not named Craftsman Tools.

“Increasingly, a small, but growing number of customers has been interpreting our guarantee well beyond its original intent,” a statement on L.L. Bean’s Facebook page reads. “Some view it as a lifetime product replacement program, expecting refunds for heavily worn products used over many years.”

A Letter to Our Customers,Since 1912, our mission has been to sell high-quality products that inspire and enable…

Posted by L.L.Bean on Friday, February 9, 2018

Let’s admit: those customers knew better and what they were doing was stealing, then rationalizing it by saying, “it doesn’t say I can’t.”

How else to explain this? A ski parka returned with the ski-lift tickets still on ?

Photo: L.L. Bean

That’s a kid who went north with his family for Christmas vacation, bought the gear needed for skiing, then his parents dumped the parka back at the store for a refund before heading back to warmer temps. Classic. Pay attention, kid, this is how it’s done.

Writing on The New Yorker today, Ian Crouch, who lives in Maine, says the policy reflected the values of the people of Maine, or — as the visitors like to refer to them — suckers.

Even if it seems to have failed as a business model, L. L. Bean’s return policy was treasured largely because it reflected the values and characteristics that we like to celebrate in ourselves and each other as Mainers, ones that we may not always live up to but to which we might aspire—traits like honesty, good nature, and a mind-your-own-business ethos in which asking someone to explain himself is tantamount to calling him a liar. The L. L. Bean policy was the ethics of being a good but appropriately distant neighbor: we don’t care how old your boots really are, or what actually happened to that backpack, or why you suddenly are dissatisfied with a decade-old fleece. You don’t have to grovel or lie or tell a pretty story—you probably have a good reason for what you’re doing, and, either way, we don’t need to hear it. It was an odd corporate experiment in believing the best in people; now that it’s over, it seems crazy that it lasted as long as it did.

Indeed, the reaction to Bean’s announcement is America 2018. Some customers are outraged that they will no longer be allowed to dishonestly abuse a “neighbor.”

In truth, they probably were never getting away with anything. Bean’s products, once USA-made and made to last, are outsourced overseas (the famous boot is still made in Lewiston) and have become as cheap as anything that can be found at cheap retailers that aren’t living off an old reputation. Prices do not reflect quality because somebody has to pay for the dishonest customers trying to game the system.

The Portland Press Herald has unmasked several of them.

Charlotte Berry of Topsham said she was disappointed by the policy change.

“They’ve always stood behind their guarantee,” Berry said. “But I’m probably the reason they’re discontinuing it.”

Berry said she returned a pair of camp mocs last week that were more than 20 years old, hoping to have them re-soled. When she learned L.L. Bean doesn’t make that shoe style anymore, Berry accepted a $70 store gift card. She used it to buy a pair of winter boots, which she hoped to exchange Friday for something else.

“They’re not what they looked like online,” Berry said. “I thought they laced up, but they don’t.”

Charlene Couture and Kaylynne Roy were more understanding. After reading a news story about the policy change, the mother and daughter had driven up from Sanford, hoping L.L. Bean would honor its open-ended satisfaction guarantee one more time. They were lucky.

“I returned some suede, fleece-line slippers I got four years ago,” Roy said. “I had poked holes in the toes. They took them back and I got the same kind. No problem.”

David Kuhns, of Cumberland, Maine, told the paper he’s seen the abuse first hand.

“A couple from ‘away,’ shall we say, was there to return a canoe, paddles, life jackets, tent, sleeping bags, etc., as they said with a straight face that ‘none of the items had met their expectations of quality,’ ” Kuhns said. “They went on to say that they had just purchased them two weeks earlier for their vacation in Maine and they had their receipt to prove it. The Bean’s representative, with the smile never leaving her face, took the receipt and gave them a full refund to their credit card.”

Any native New Englander knows what he means by “away”. New Yorkers. Why can’t we have nice things? New Yorkers (whom we referred to as “2-1-2’ers”).

That sort of thing will still be possible under Bean’s new one-year guarantee. People will show up to camp, buy what they need, then bring it back at the end of two weeks for a full refund.

Because unlike L.L. Bean, some things never change.