Is it time for Walmart to drop its COVID-19 return policy?

Discussion
Photo: Walmart
Aug 06, 2020
Matthew Stern

Because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, some retailers with liberal return policies were forced to make all or most sales final, in part due to concerns over accepting, processing and restocking potentially contaminated merchandise. At Walmart, in-store returns remain unavailable. And some customers have gotten irate about it.

Ten customers so far have contacted local Chicago ABC affiliate ABC 7’s investigative I-Team about the policy, an article from the news station reports. The customers were upset about not being able to return items that would normally be taken back at a Walmart store without issue, such as apparel with the tags still on and accompanied with a receipt.

In response to the investigation, Walmart clarified that it is not accepting returns or exchanges in-store for common categories like apparel, cleaning supplies, health and beauty and pharmacy. Customers can, however, ship items back via a process utilizing the website or Walmart app. When Walmart changes its return policy back, the retailer says deadlines on returns of formerly restricted products will be extended an additional six weeks.

The fact that customers can still arrange product returns online would indicate that the chain is concerned — in addition to any requirements for enhanced sterilization — with the social distancing difficulties created by long in-store return lines.

Other large retailers have taken different approaches to pandemic-era returns. Target was the other national mass retailer to temporarily suspend returns in all or most stores, but ended that policy on April 26, according to USA Today.  Since it has resumed taking returns, Target has been quarantining specific types of items, like apparel, and sanitizing others before restocking. Other retailers, like Kohl’s, have adopted similar quarantine periods in an attempt to ensure product safety. Kohl’s and others have also extended the period of time after purchase in which a customer can return product.

The recent blowback on Walmart returns is not the first flap around return policies during the novel coronavirus pandemic. In mid-March, when the first wave of the pandemic led to rampant hoarding of staple goods, Costco specifically banned the return of the six most frequently hoarded items.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Given the complaints, should Walmart consider liberalizing or changing its in-store return policy for the duration of the pandemic? How can retailers ameliorate customer irritation while still assuring public health and safety measures are being observed?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"At some point Walmart will need to figure this out since so many other retailers are now accepting returns."
"Customers have a point: Walmart needs to handle the return issue."
"For the meantime, I think it is not unreasonable to still limit returns until we see some light at the end of the tunnel with this pandemic."

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21 Comments on "Is it time for Walmart to drop its COVID-19 return policy?"


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Mark Ryski
BrainTrust

This is a tricky issue that retailers are going to be grappling with for the foreseeable future. I suspect that Walmart will modify its return policy as complaints grow and other competitors, like Target, allow returns. No doubt consumers have become accustomed to 100 percent returns, no questions asked, for a long time. It’s become a minimum expectation for many shoppers today. However the pandemic has rightly changed that. Retailers have no way of knowing if returned merchandise has been contaminated and so limiting returns is reasonable.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

The answer is in your last sentence…”Retailers have no way of knowing if returned merchandise has been contaminated and so limiting returns is reasonable.”

David Naumann
BrainTrust

Since Target and Kohl’s are allowing customers to return apparel items, I think Walmart should too. Consumers are accustomed to friendly return policies and often choose to shop at stores that have convenient returns. Walmart has done a good job of managing masks and social distancing for purchases and they can develop a safe way to handle in-store returns.

Perry Kramer
BrainTrust

Yes, Walmart should strive to modify the in-store return policy and processes to improve the customer experience and remain competitive. Other retailers are building processes to ensure health and safety are included in the returns process. The processes include allocating additional storage space to store the items for a period before returning them to the sales floor and basic sanitization processes.

For one of the world’s leading supply chain and process driven organizations to not be able to figure it out, it appears to be more of an effort to protect the bottom line than support the communities it serves. Walmart’s policy of directing consumers to ship back their returns is a significant burden to a large subset of its core customers and is clearly designed to discourage returns of in-store purchases. It is time for Walmart to take the next step in returning to partnering with its communities in this area… Its competition clearly is.

Richard Hernandez
BrainTrust

There are people still holding on to the lifetime supply of toilet paper, antibacterial wipes, paper towels, etc. in their homes. For the meantime. I think it is not unreasonable to still limit returns until we see some light at the end of the tunnel with this pandemic.

Paula Rosenblum
BrainTrust

What do the epidemiologists say? That’s what Walmart should do.

This is insane. How can we be voting on what the right health decision is? Flip the question. It should be. “Retailers must assure public health and safety measures are being observed. Can they also help the public understand how important this is?”

I’m sorry — we have gone so far over the line. It’s not the industry’s fault. Leadership is missing and, so far, generally, Walmart has provided it. That’s also a little nuts.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

This is a five thumbs up comment: “Retailers must assure public health and safety measures are being observed. Can they also help the public understand how important this is?”

Cathy Hotka
BrainTrust

What Paula said. The pandemic is NOT over.

Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

I think it’s time Walmart lifted these restrictions. Certainly much more care is needed to ensure returned items remain safe for both staff to handle and for other shoppers to buy, but a lot of other retailers seem to be managing this OK. There is scientific advice out there about how to handle the virus on different surfaces and materials and as long as Walmart follows that advice there should not be a problem.

Cynthia Holcomb
BrainTrust

Customers have a point: Walmart needs to handle the return issue. Using the app is a hassle, time-consuming and essentially puts the Walmart customer to work to earn their money back. Walmart has invested a great deal in the past five-plus years in its rise to retail glory. Take the returns, store them away. It’s part of the cost of doing business. With high unemployment, a few dollars are a big deal for families. Customer service is especially important in COVID-19 times. You promised your customers exceptional service. Hassling customers is not a good look. Figure it out. I know Walmart — you can do it!

Ananda Chakravarty
BrainTrust

Customers demand liberal return policies – although this phenomenon is only a few years old. Returns were more infrequent before e-commerce. In this case employee and customer safety still comes first, but finding an alternative way to manage returns will be important for Walmart. For the time being customers will understand that the pandemic places limitations on retailers – even Walmart. Proposed options can include designated areas for returns at stores with traffic limits, curbside BORIS, or returns to a distribution or supply centers instead of stores. The costs to sanitize and restock products have gone up – even if they are in the original packaging. Return policy helps define the store and retailers who get it right with the right tools and right experience will have an advantage.

Michael Terpkosh
BrainTrust

I think Walmart should reconsider, but it really depends on their ability to clean or quarantine items for a period of time in the back room. At REI when you return a piece of clothing, the store has a quarantine area where they hang clothing returns for a few days before returning the item to the sales floor. At some point Walmart will need to figure this out since so many other retailers are now accepting returns.

Jeff Sward
BrainTrust

In a way I think it’s great that shoppers are being asked to think a little deeper before making final decisions. The whole return thing seems to have gotten a little out of control as retailers work to keep customers happy. That said, there will be no easy cookie-cutter solution here. Regional health statistics might suggest it’s OK to take returns in the northeast but not in southern hot spots. Unfortunately I think retailers are going to have to continue to default to the best interests of employee and customer health.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

It isn’t like Walmart is not accepting returns. They are providing a way to return product, just not the way we are used to. In my opinion the complaints are those of spoiled shoppers who put their own ease over the safety of everyone who might come into contact with just one contaminated item.

Maybe the ultimate solution, pandemic or not, is that no retailers accept returns in-store but all returns are sent to a central location to be reprocessed.

Jeff Weidauer
BrainTrust

Walmart’s no-return policy serves no useful purpose. The risk of catching the virus from an object is extremely low; holding returned items for a couple of days before restocking is ample time to eliminate concerns. It’s time to change.

Ken Lonyai
BrainTrust

Returns have always been an important part of the purchase cycle and a potential differentiation point for retailers. Walmart has differentiated itself here.

There has to be a policy that they can invoke that finds a happy medium, else they will ultimately hand over customers to competitors.

Andrew Blatherwick
BrainTrust

With the pandemic certainly not going away and good evidence that it is back on the rise, it is very sensible for Walmart to continue with their returns policy. It is very easy to bow to customer reaction, especially when it is picked up by TV, but the health of their staff and other customers remain paramount. There would be no medals or support if Walmart or any other retailer was found to be spreading the virus by restocking contaminated items. The pandemic has been around a long time now and people are getting tired of the restriction but the majority understand why these policies are in place and probably welcome the care they are taking.

Richard J. George, Ph.D.
BrainTrust

It appears that the quarantine policies of Target and Kohl’s address the issues of customer convenience as well as health and safety. Walmart should easily be able to adopt similar in-store returns. Refusal to accept returns or directing customers to mail back returns is not customer friendly.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

“Given the complaints…” TEN people? That’s an even lower threshold than Trader Joe’s (non) issue. That having been said, I’m not sure what the justification for continuing policies like this is. I suspect the pandemic is just being used as an excuse by companies to try to discourage something they just don’t like doing.

Kai Clarke
BrainTrust

This is an issue that Walmart needs to address, not because of the few complaints from the article, but because it so broadly violates Walmart standards and the expectations for the company.

connie4vikings
Guest
1 month 11 hours ago

Why shop somewhere that does not allow returns when I can shop at Target and Kohl’s and make returns? Foolish for Walmart to listen to the media instead of doing its own research about what is really happening.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"At some point Walmart will need to figure this out since so many other retailers are now accepting returns."
"Customers have a point: Walmart needs to handle the return issue."
"For the meantime, I think it is not unreasonable to still limit returns until we see some light at the end of the tunnel with this pandemic."

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