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Abuse of Return Policy

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Most stores allow customers to return items they have purchased for a refund within a set amount of time— as long as the item is (or appears to be) in its original, unused condition. This provides customers a form of recourse in the event they realize they don't need or want the item they bought after all.

Clever characters will realize they can take advantage of this policy to borrow things from the store for free by returning the item once they are finished using it. This is frequently done with clothes— usually a very expensive outfit that the character only needs to wear for a single special occasion.

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In the clothing scenario, the character is usually a teenager, as they tend to be more likely to have difficulty affording expensive clothing. They are also more likely to feel the need to show off with an extravagant outfit at a birthday party, graduation, or similar event. If an adult does it, expect them to be The Scrooge or a Mock Millionaire.

This requires the item to be maintained in its original unused appearance and condition with the tags attached, which should be no sweat. After all, it can't be that hard to go one night without ruining your clothes. What kind of calamities could possibly happen at a party that would damage an outfit beyond repair?

Thanks to Rule of Funny, the item will be destroyed and rendered completely unreturnable, leaving the character on the hook for the extravagant cost. Or they might lose the receipt. The character might try to invoke Loophole Abuse in an attempt to convince the store to take the item back anyway with various degrees of success.

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Often a stunt pulled by the Unsatisfiable Customer, sometimes in an effort to resolve a Credit Card Plot. If the character never intended to return the clothes, but they get destroyed anyway, see Doomed New Clothes.

This type of Real Life misbehaviour has resulted in many retailers charging a restocking fee on returned items, especially retailers of high-value goods which tend to be a target for this trope.


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Examples

Comic Books

  • Maus: During the present, Vladek attempts to return a half-eaten, nearly empty, box of cereal to the grocery store. He succeeds after using his backstory as a Holocaust survivor to elicit pity from the store manager (and actually manages to get more than the value of the cereal back), but his son realizes they can never return to that store ever again in shame.

Comic Strips

  • In one Dilbert comic Dilbert's mother tries returning a scarf for an arbitrary reason, only to find out she's been flagged in the store's database as a bad customer for too many returns, including that same scarf seven times. As such, the cashier was allowed to harvest her organs.

Game Shows

  • Jeopardy!: In the 2016 College Championship, contestant Sam Deutsch tells Alex during the interview that he kept the tags on his school sweater, so he can return it in the event he doesn't win the tournament.

Literature

  • The Fifth Horseman A Sleepy Hollow Legend (by Gregg Gonzalez): Patrick Higgins is a dedicated user of this as a way of living beyond his means, which he calls the "thirty-day plan" — buy something with at least a thirty-day, money-back guarantee, use it and return it. During the events of the book, he uses it to get a metal detector, but the narration notes that he's previously used this method to furnish his room with a different stereo every month, and to get a radar detector.

Live-Action TV

  • In an Angel episode, Cordelia talks about dressing impressively as a struggling actress by buying dresses from expensive stores and then returning them after wearing them once.
  • In an episode of Derry Girls, the group try to use this method to get dresses for the school dance; however, when Mae tries to subject Jenny to a Carrie-style drenching (albeit in tomato juice instead of pig's blood), the girls try to push her out of the way and get themselves also covered in tomato juice.
  • Friends: Ross tries to move his new couch in with only Chandler and Rachel for help. In an attempt to make it more manageable for the three of them he cuts it in half, effectively destroying it. He still tries to return it for a refund.
    Ross: Look, I am a reasonable man. I will accept store credit.
    Saleswoman: I'll give you store credit in the amount of four dollars.
    Ross: (beat) I take it.
  • In an episode of The Golden Girls, Blanche carefully removes the tags from a dress so she can wear it and return it later. Her plan backfires when Dorothy accidentally spills something on the dress. Blanche has it dry-cleaned and tries to return it, but the store employees aren't fooled because Blanche forgot to remove the dry-cleaning tag.
  • In the B-Plot of one Grounded for Life episode, Lily goes on a large shopping spree and tries to return the clothes she purchased (essentially treating it as a kind of rental), only to find out that the refund would be provided in the form of store credit. This, and her going on an angry tirade that pissed off the store manager, led to her being forced to Work Off the Debt she accrued on her parents' credit card to avoid being arrested.
  • In the B-plot of the Good Luck Charlie episode, "Baby's New Shoes", Amy buys a $400.00 pair of high-heel shoes for a fancy party, but plans to return them to the store after the party. Unfortunately for Amy, Charlie finds the shoes and runs around the yard wearing them, getting them dirty and leaving Amy unable to return them. And when she actually does and tries to weasel out of it, they apparently laugh to her face and demand that she pay for them.
  • Kim's Convenience
    • Appa attempts to return to a store with the wedding dress his wife purchased for a friend's since cancelled wedding, but the representative immediately detects that the garment has already been worn. He tries to cover by claiming he is really searching for a purse to accompany the dress, and that he's not trying to return it.
    • Umma buys a new dishwasher from a retail store, but Appa finds the same model online for a slightly lower price. Since the dishwasher Umma purchased is already installed and the two units are identical, he decides to return the dishwasher ordered online to the retail store for a refund and keep the difference in price. However, the staff member discovers the ruse upon scanning the dishwasher's serial number, which is embedded in the door. At his friend's urging, he decides to try to swap the doors of the dishwashers, but is unable to reconnect the complicated wiring, leaving Umma once again with an inoperable dishwasher.
  • In an episode of The King of Queens, Carrie takes advantage of several upscale clothing stores' return policies to essentially "rent" clothes by buying them and then refunding them. The scheme collapses after her husband Doug spills food over a $1000 dress and she loses track of all the "rented" clothes and their corresponding receipts, leaving her with a closet full of expensive clothes and a maxed-out credit card.
  • Murdoch Mysteries: In one episode, Murdoch spends some scenes working undercover in a store. He spots foul play when someone comes to return a camera, correctly deducing the customer used it for a wedding, but is told the bad publicity from rejecting return policy abusers would hurt the store more than the abuse itself.
  • Parks and Recreation: Tom Haverford reveals this is how maintains his extravagant lifestyle despite working a low level government job and being in massive debt. He buys expensive and luxurious goods, uses them and then on the last day of the policy, returns them to store pretending he never used them (he is not above using tears and other self-humiliations to shame store personnel into accepting the returns), then uses the money to buy more goods. Several times it backfires on him, with the items either getting broken or lost, and him struggling to come up with the money.
  • That's So Raven: The premise of "Point of No Return" is Raven needs a scientific calculator for her classes, so Victor gives her a $100 for it. However, Raven instead spends the money on an expensive dress, planning to wear it to big party that night and then take it back the next day, then use the refund to buy the calculator. However, before she can get to the party Raven drops her lipstick on the dress, forcing her, Chelsea and Eddie to stay up all night trying to get the stain out. Following several other disasters, she almost gets away with it, but the store finds out and refuses to take the dress back, leaving her father forced to pay $200, and him making her work to pay it off.
  • After Christine buys a new television set for her bedroom in the Yes, Dear episode, "Who's On First?", Jimmy follows suit by charging other expensive luxury items to her credit card. When Christine is outraged, Jimmy tells her that they don't have to pay the credit card company for 30 days, and can return their stuff in 29 days as long as they keep their boxes and receipts. In The Stinger, the store only provides him with store credit (in the amount of $15,487.00), so he has to trade his store credit for cash from customers who are about to make their purchases.

Radio

  • My Favorite Husband (a radio program prototype for I Love Lucy): Liz Cugat, played by Lucille Ball, accidentally returns a dress she bought, on-sale at a low-end store, to a more-high-end store, and starts to abuse the system to make a little bit of cash. (The beleaguered refunds-department manager gets his payback on Liz when he realizes that she's been scamming him, and Liz later has to find a way to pawn them off on other people, including her own husband.)

Web Original

  • In the Strong Bad Email "what i want", Strong Bad encourages his audience to take advantage of local retailers where the seasonal workers will be too apathetic to enforce the return policy. He claims to have returned an unreturnable food item, to a store that couldn't possibly have sold it, for far more money than it was worth.
    Strong Bad: But if it doesn't work, don't forget to take advantage of all the temporary help that retailers hire this time of year. Those people will refund anything! Last year, I returned an omelette to a hardware store for nigh on fifty bucks.
  • One segment on What the Fuck Is Wrong with You? featured a suspicious customer returning used enemas. In turn, Tara has mentioned incidents at Spencers Gifts in which customers returned products in extremely dubious condition — including sex toys.
  • In an episode of Game Grumps, Arin relates how when he lived in Florida and worked at a Disney giftshop, he would do this to get a little extra cash when he was short. A local Walmart had a very generous no receipt, no questions asked, cash return policy, and the giftshop would have a lot of the same items as the Walmart, so Arin would use his employee discount to buy something and then return it at the Walmart for slightly more.

Western Animation

  • The Simpsons:
    • In "Bart's Dog Gets an F" after Santa's Little Helper chews up Homer's expansive and newly bought sneakers, Homer attempts to return it, claiming they just fell apart in the dog's mouth. The sales clerk simply refuses.
      Sales Clerk: I'm sorry, sir, our warranty doesn't cover fire, theft, or acts of dog.
    • In "Mom and Pop Art", Homer tries to build a barbecue pit with a kit from a home improvement store. After a hilariously bad attempt at putting it together, Homer tries to return it as a mess of parts stuck in dry cement.
      Pop: All return items must be in a box and accompanied by a receipt.
      Homer: Well, if you follow the flashlight, you'll see the receipt embedded here and here, and elements of the box here, here and possibly here.
      Pop: Sorry, I didn't get this hammer-hat by handing out refunds.
    • After Marge buys a $500 purse and is able to return it after enjoying it for one day in "Loan-A-Lisa", Homer becomes addicted to buying and returning stuff for bogus reasons.
  • In the Spongebob Squarepants episode 'Pickles', the antagonist Bubble Bass demands a refund from Mr. Krabs due to SpongeBob's improperly making a Krabby Patty by forgetting the pickles.note To drive the point home, BB points out a money-back guarantee on the Krusty Krab menu (which is written very tiny). Krabs, being the cheapskate he is, desperately tries to make Bubble Bass reconsider, to no avail.

Real Life

  • American wholesale club retailer Costco is known for their generous return policy. In 2018, a woman drew the ire of fellow customers by trying to return a dead Christmas tree after Christmas Day. According to witnesses, staff were reluctant to accept the return, but ultimately did so to avoid further confrontation.
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