Returns of Service?
Dealing with returned merchandise and warranties can be a sticky thing for retailers.
By Mitch Rustad
Like most product on your retailer’s shelves, tennis racquets, shoes, and apparel weren’t meant to last forever. Even the most high-tech racquet cracks on occasion, and hours of chasing tennis balls will inevitably wear the rubber off any shoe. And what if buyer’s remorse leads you to realize that you just don’t look good in that peach warm-up jacket?
Returns and warranty claims are a fact of life for tennis retailers large and small. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a tricky business, or worse, a total headache. There’s a fine line between keeping your customers happy and handing out freebies.
“Dealing with returns and warranties is part of what we do here, it’s just part of the service, we’re the middleman,” says Chris Gaudreau, owner of The Racquet Koop in New Haven, Conn., who’s quick to add what’s likely a common sentiment among many retailers: “Sometimes it’s a royal pain.”
Until tennis products are made indestructible, returns will continue to be a fact of life for the industry. Here’s a closer look at the ups and downs of warranties and returns, and how best to handle them.
Keep ‘em Smiling
In the best-case scenarios, returns are a merely a blip on the radar for the tennis retailer, at least if they’re dealing with a tennis-savvy customer.
“Each case is different, but we only have about three returns [with racquets] per month,” says Peg Rogers, co-owner of Advantage Yours, a specialty shop in Clearwater, Fla. “The customer understands that the manufacturer actually replaces the product, but we will replace it ourselves right away if they’ve just bought it, and then we go back to the manufacturer. So returns aren’t stressful for us at all, because we have great manufacturers in the tennis industry.”
Rogers says they won’t charge a fee for processing returns, either. “I don’t think we’ve ever had an unhappy customer,” she says.
In another “glass is half full” slant on the issue, a return may even pose an opportunity to build relationships with current customers — or even attract new ones. Ken DeHart of San Jose Racquet and Swim in San Jose, Calif., says that by helping a club member return a cracked racquet that the customer had bought online — not at the club’s retail shop — and get a replacement, he earned not only their respect, but their business as well. “Since then, they’ve brought all their stringing and racquet business to us,” says DeHart.
And when it comes to the manufacturers, returns and warranty policies may vary slightly, but the old adage “the customer is always right” seems to rule the day.
“The No. 1 thing is making our consumers happy with our product, so we’re going to err on the side of our consumers,” says Jeffery Adams, national sales manager of racquet sports for Wilson. “It’s a very simple marketing rule: If you have a positive experience with a company, you’ll tell two people, and if you have a negative one, you’ll tell 10.”
Potential for Abuse?
Taking care of customers is always going to be a priority for both retailers and manufacturers, but what happens when a less-than-honest customer is just fishing for a freebie? Gaudreau says that the potential for abuse is cause for alarm, because it can hit retailers where it hurts them the most — at the cash register.
“Every product a dealer replaces that is not a viable product defect is hurting the small retailer,” says Gaudreau. “If someone cracks a racquet on the ground, and it’s clearly not a product defect, but the manufacturer replaces it anyway, the retailers lose a new sale. Even if it amounts to just 3 to 5 percent of sales in one year, its still a big piece of the puzzle, and this has been going on for years.”
Adams, however, says the onus to sniff out abuse logically falls on the retailer, rather than the manufacturer, because retailers act so often as the liaison. “We know that less than 1 percent of returns are coming directly from consumers and the majority come from the middleman, so we feel the retailers should let us know if there are abuses,” says Adams. “They have the obligation to themselves and everyone involved.”
Shades of Gray
Clearly, there’s a gray area for everyone to navigate when it comes to returns; the judgment call on whether a customer is stepping over the line is rarely an obvious one. When, for one example, does normal wear and tear come into play? Each retailer has to decide for himself or herself how to handle a customer looking for a freebie, but Rogers says she’s unlikely to challenge a customer.
“Some people will wear a shoe for a few weeks and then say they got a blister and want to return them,” says Rogers, “but we’ll always take them back and send them back to the manufacturer.”
Adds Gaudreau: “The whole thing is a sticky subject for retailers. Stuff wears out, that happens in every facet of the sports world, but people still expect their stuff to last forever, and so if something happens to their equipment, they feel entitled to a new one.”
Manufacturers are often inclined to simply replace the product rather than alienate their customers, says one manufacturer. “We in general tend to be very lenient on our warranties only because you can’t legitimately prove how a racquet gets cracked, and we always want to err on the side of the customer,” says Ryan Walsh, warranty manager for Head.
However, Gaudreau says too many manufacturers take an “ask no questions” approach when it comes to replacing product. “There are isolated companies out there that do look for the receipt and do not ship product back unless it’s a legitimate defect, but most just automatically replace what comes in.”
Instead, manufacturers should be much more aware of what is actually defective and what is not defective, says Gaudreau. “They tend to be very liberal and just ship new product back without really looking to see if there’s a defect or a receipt. It’s almost too easy.”
Adams disagrees: “Normal usage does not mean you break your racquet on a net post. We’re actually pretty strict when evaluating returns. We have a protocol in place and trained technicians who can tell the difference between cracking a racquet on the ground and a racquet with legitimate defects.”
Unhappy retailers can alert manufacturers to potential abuse as well. “We encourage our dealers to act as middlemen, and if there’s any additional insight to the warranty claim, we take that into consideration,” says Adams. “If the shop owner feels it’s not a legitimate claim, they should let dealers know.”
Wilson’s goods and services are warranted from any manufacturer defects from one year after proof of purchase — which is a common industry standard — but warranty claims make up a small percentage (only 3 percent) of their annual sales, according to Adams.
Walsh says he’s not that concerned about consumer abuse, because he sees it as minimal: “About 98 percent of the product we get back is a legitimate return, so the decision to replace it isn’t too involved. Most cases are pretty clear cut.”w
While this brand of debate is sure to continue, Head’s Ryan Walsh offers this advice for retailers looking to make their life a little easier when they do return product under warranty.
“Send your packages in a trackable manner,” he says. Take the time to organize your returns, including receipts, properly labeling everything. Using UPS or Fed-Ex, so the package can be tracked, is essential.
“People are more inclined to go to the post office than UPS, so they just throw it in a box and slap some postage on it and hope for the best,” says Walsh. “That’s definitely not advisable.”
Check with the manufacturer, too, to see what procedures they would like you to follow, and to see whether they may cover the cost of shipping product back.
See all articles by Mitch Rustad
About the Author
Mitch Rustad has been a long-time freelance writer based in New York City.