Best Buy’s return policy: good for algorithms, bad for customers

Retailers and other businesses have gotten really good at tracking you and your activities and if in the process some legitimate customers get hurt, they’re mostly pretty OK with that.

Last November, for example, I bought a six-pack of tickets at the invitation of the Cleveland Indians for the coming season, knowing I wouldn’t be able to use them all. I bought six last year and didn’t get to any of the games so took advantage of the Indians ticket account website option to sell them on StubHub, the official reseller of Major League Baseball.

And that’s why two weeks ago, the Indians sent me my money back and revoked the tickets. To their algorithms, I’m not a dedicated fan 800 miles away hedging an unusual support for the team, I could be a ticket scalper from Parma, Ohio, and the team is still reeling from game seven of 2016 World Series in which season ticket holders sold their tickets to Cubs fans.

The next time I buy tickets and don’t use them, a team official said, the team will keep my money and cancel the tickets. I have a solution to that problem. I won’t buy any tickets. Remember that the next time you read a story about how Indians fans (ranked near the bottom in attendance) won’t support their team.

That’s the way tracking goes. Algorithms can drive customers away.

That reportedly is happening with some Best Buy customers, the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday.

Best Buy is one of several chains that lure customers in with a generous return policy. But it uses a company to track the return behavior of its customers, even if they have a legitimate receipt.

Like the baseball team, Best Buy is alienating legitimate customers to chase the 11 percent of store returns that are considered fraudulent.

The Journal says customers returning a digital camera, for example, could be denied a refund because it’s a high-theft item. So even if you didn’t steal a camera, you might be stuck with one you don’t like.

When a consumer makes a return, details about his or her identity and shopping visit are transmitted to Retail Equation, which then generates a “risk score.” If the score exceeds the threshold specific to the retailer, a salesperson informs the consumer that future returns will be denied and then directs them to Retail Equation to request a return activity report or file a dispute.

It isn’t easy for shoppers to learn their standing before receiving a warning. Retailers typically don’t publicize their relationship with Retail Equation. And even if a customer tracks down his or her return report, it doesn’t include purchase history or other information used to generate a score. The report also doesn’t disclose the actual score or the thresholds for getting barred.

Dave Payne, a 38-year-old public relations professional, said he learned of the system for the first time when he received a warning at a Best Buy in Orlando, Fla. He was returning a digital scale and a router extender, with a receipt for both items.

He said neither Best Buy nor Retail Equation provided a clear explanation for what he did wrong: “Best Buy advertises a 15-day return policy, but they are not advertising that at some point when you’ve crossed an arbitrary line, that policy no longer applies.”

In January, Robb Hinrichs of California got the warning.

Hinrichs said he was also intending to shop for home appliances, but decided to go elsewhere, adding, “no wonder I keep seeing stores closing.”

Of course, legitimate customers still have some protection against being stuck with an item they don’t want because Best Buy won’t take it back. Pay with a major credit card and dispute the charge.

Then take your business elsewhere.

Best Buy says less than one-tenth of 1 percent of returns are banned. It has established a hotline for customers (1-866-764-6979) who believe they were improperly identified as problems.

  • Mike Worcester

    //And that’s why two weeks ago, the Indians sent me my money back and revoked the tickets.

    A part of me wants to ask so long as there are kiesters in the seats, who cares? Understandable about the season ticket holders selling seats to Cubs fans but at the same time, the stands would have people in them, concessions would be sold, cheers would be heard, and a good time had by all.

    Is this typical of all major league teams?

  • Brian Simon

    It seems typical of any ticketing entertainment venue. Try reselling concert tickets, for example.

  • Gary F

    I haven’t followed them in the off season but what is the outlook for your boys?

  • Eric Hall

    Seems like a classic “penny wise, pound foolish” scenario

  • John O.

    On other days, the “brick and mortar” retailers cry huge crocodile tears lamenting the younger generations shopping online and using their storefront for just “kicking tires.”

    • Kassie

      I went into a Best Buy to buy an external hard drive. I had a project I wanted to do that day and didn’t want to wait for delivery. Big Mistake! I walked out with a Nintendo Switch and a few games. I still haven’t done that project. I don’t like stores because I buy crap I don’t need.

      p.s. The Nintendo Switch is the best purchase I’ve made in the last 12 months aside from travel reservations.

      • John O.

        Been there, done that.

    • QuietBlue

      There’s this idea out there that brick-and-mortar retail is dying off, but, as someone who works with retailers, I don’t think this is necessarily true. Rather, it’s the poorly run companies with lousy customer experiences that are shutting down. Good, well-run retailers are doing alright, if not thriving.

      • John O.

        Fair observation. It is painful to watch the slow death of Sears (for example) while their hedge-fund management tries to suck every last dime out of it before selling off the carcass.

        • QuietBlue

          Sears doesn’t need Amazon to kill it off; it has Eddie Lampert. That company would probably be failing even if the Internet had never been invented.

      • 212944

        It really can be that easy.

        Pay attention, business schools and MBA programs … you’ve screwed up a generation of managers but it is not too late to turn the ship.

  • Jeff

    I hate when they dump you to someone else, in this case The Retail Equation. I was flying last week and it’s always we can’t assign your seats because it’s on our partner airline so contact them. Same with any complaints. Delta sells me the ticket but passes on the customer service to someone else.

  • John

    Best Buy. . . I gave up on you 6-7 years ago when I had a nightmare of a time getting my clothes washer delivered (over promise and under deliver – pretty sure that was the slogan they were using).

    Looks like I can still stand by my decision.

    I am running out of brick and mortar stores that I can stand. Not a millenial (probably), but I sure do appreciate on-line shopping.