How Barnes and Noble Lost a Customer

Shirley Einhorn, my mother-in-law, died two weeks ago. She was generous and smart and talented, and her death has left all of us stunned and devastated. 

She was an avid reader who liked buying her favorite author’s hard-cover novels as soon as they came out. She’d also bought a Nook, and although she was comfortable with most technology, she found it clumsy and obnoxious and difficult to use; a poor imitation of the vastly superior Kindle. I tried it and agreed with her.

Going through her things, my wife found an unopened, unused Nook case and asked me to return it to Barnes & Noble.

There was no receipt in the bag, so I expected to be issued a gift card. It would probably be for their lowest sale price. Cases and accessories are usually outrageously overpriced. She probably paid forty bucks for it, and I figured I’d get a GC for half of that.

I waited in line and the first clerk I talked to said she couldn’t process returns, but the other clerk behind the counter could. I waited while that clerk’s slow-motion customer finished her purchase, then stepped up and told her why I was returning the cover.
She asked if I had the card that was used to purchase it. “No,” I said, “I have no way of knowing what card she used, or even if she used a card.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, “without a receipt or the card we can’t do anything for you.”
“Seriously? This was bought from here, and since the purchaser died, I have no way of verifying the purchase. I’d be happy with a gift card.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Are you willing to lose a customer, forever, over a purchase this small?”

“I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do.” Then she helpfully added, “Next time be sure to save the receipt.”

I left, angry and annoyed. I won’t be back. Ever.

I didn’t shop there often – maybe three or four times a year – but now I’ll be shopping there zero times a year. Free Clue, B&N: In today’s market no retailer can afford to piss off any customer, even one who only shops there occasionally. Shopping elsewhere is easy, cheaper, and fun. You’re barely staying alive, and this is one of the reasons. You just might want to review your return policy, while you still can.

13 Comment(s)

  1. It is fascinating that B&N has this in place. Nordstroms works in an entirely different way. They have had national news made about the way they work. The logic behind their policy is simple. Make the customer happy and put cash in their hand IN YOUR STORE.

    There is one thing they have to defend against. Fraud. If one person comes in with a $20 return, handing them a gift card (one of the most ingenious inventions ever) is a no brainer. Implementing the Nordstrom policy in a place like B&N requires managers to exercise judgement.

    Did you hear about the Tide Scam? People were/are stealing tide from Big Box stores and selling it to Ma and Pa shops at deep discounts. The margin on Tide is pretty small. So small the the Ma and Pop stores can barely keep it on the shelves.

    I mention this because what I hear behind what you describe is the following “scam”.

    1. Kiddies steal items like this from B&N 1
    2. Kiddies go into B&N 2 without receipt asking for “gift cards”
    3. Kiddies sell $20-$40 gift cards on street for $10 – $20.
    4. B&N is in a no win situation.

    The distribution abilities of smartphones makes this all the more feasible. Niven talked about Flash mobs in his books. His flash mobs were the result of teleportation technology. Text messaging brought flash mobs to life. Kids today don’t make flyers to hand out in school to advertise a party, they don’t even organize the party ahead of time. They organize them at the last minute based on unsupervised availability.

    I feel for the managers of these stores. To improve the chances of your success though the next time, I suggest a Scooby Doo Level disguise. Daphne. Scooby doo might work though.

    brad tittle | Feb 22, 2013 | Reply

  2. I brought back a video to the Edina, Minnesota Barnes and Noble to
    exchange for another video. Denied. It had its plastic jacket on it and
    they saw that it was bought at a Barnes and Noble and it was demagnetized. The clerk insinuated that I stole it. He called the
    manager. She said no. This to someone who shops a lot there and is
    a member. No more shopping at Barnes and Noble.

    marshall garneau | Jan 3, 2014 | Reply

  3. by the way, it was a christmas gift from my sister and couldn’t find a receipt. She has now found it, but bye bye with our buying at
    Barnes and Noble.

    marshall garneau | Jan 3, 2014 | Reply

  4. Tried to return an unopened leap pad charger my son received as a gift. (No receipt). They wouldn’t even give me a gift card for the lowest price it had sold for. It had Barnes and Noble price tag sticker on it, so it obviously was bought there. They for sure lost a customer today. Amazon will be getting all of my business from now on, and I will be telling this story every time Barnes and Noble comes up in conversation. They should really be trying to keep customers, not treat them like this.

    stacy | Mar 7, 2014 | Reply

  5. this is stupid. you need a receipt to prove you bought it. it’s not complicated.

    Glenn | Dec 26, 2014 | Reply

  6. no Glenn, it’s not stupid at all. I can go into almost any store, even many mom and pop stores, and get a gift card for something without a receipt if they sell it and it’s in good condition. B&N actually used to do this as well.

    I was given 2 copies of a book for the holidays. One from Amazon, one from B&N. B&N refused to take it back without the receipt(and sending the other back to Amazon was a no-go for the bother alone). Another local bookstore offered to take it without the receipt when I mentioned it and despite the fact that they don’t have the selection, they now have my business.

    FYI, this is just good customer service. Treating customers in a bad situation like they’re criminals is the best way to lose them for good.

    Eric | Dec 31, 2014 | Reply

  7. Today’s consumers are very spoiled and feeling entitled. Big retailers usually have generous return policies because they gain more customers and make more sales with such policies. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s a moral norm for them to provide such generous policies to customers. Today’s consumers who are used to generous return policies get outraged when they encounter less generous one while retailers get advantaged by frauds, scammers, and stealers, etc.

    Katie Yu | Sep 17, 2015 | Reply

  8. I went into a Asian Market the other day to get lumpia wrappers. I picked up a couple of other items and went to pay. When I pulled out my credit card, the shop keeper said “$10 minimum”.

    Had I not had cash on me I would without a second thought have reached over and grabbed enough ramen packages to fill out the $10.

    The Ma and Pop shops have an advantage over Big Box in this area. The discretion chain might be 1 or 2 layers. How many levels between a clerk at B&N and the person writing the policy? More importantly, how many clerks in a B&N can you develop a relationship with?

    Policy and Procedure are wonderful tools for making organization run. The problem comes when they get implemented in the absence of judgement. You can never remove judgement from the equation. In big organizations that is often what happens though. Judgement is removed from the equation and we get kids being arrested for building a clock.

    brad tittle | Sep 20, 2015 | Reply

  9. Last March I bought three pregnancy related books because I was pregnant. I miscarried so I have zero use for the books. I was told they will not return them or let me exchange for something else. I was told to sell them to a used bookstore for $2 each by B&N Management. Are you kidding me? I won’t ever buy another thing from such a rude company!

    Michelle | Nov 14, 2015 | Reply

  10. My sister in law buys me books, and cds from Barnes and Noble every birthday, and christmas. The problem is she doesn’t give me gift receipts for some odd reason. I’am afraid to ask her for gift receipts because it is rude. That is basically saying to her I don’t like your gifts. So now I have items I can’t use, and money she has wasted. I will never go shopping at this store because of this reason because if I lose a receipt I will be pissed at myself. This policy will only cause customers to do the exchanges themselves which they will.

    Alicia | Nov 14, 2015 | Reply

  11. Lets use common sense if anyone who works at this store has it. If a customer comes in there with brand new unopened cds from your store, and large brand new looking books. Chances are they were gifts. There is no way someone can take a cd out of your store with the security measures you have for cds, and a overly large book is not going to get stolen easily. I’am just tired of this bad apple spoils they bunch type of thinking. If things get stolen out of your store than take better security measures do not punish customers.

    Alicia | Nov 14, 2015 | Reply

  12. You should also be happy your company even exist since we no longer need cds or books. We can just get these things digital. This is not a smart move for keeping customers.

    Alicia | Nov 14, 2015 | Reply

  13. The clerk was the wrong person to complain to. Look at it this way, why should she risk losing her job for your $20 return? She can’t help the fact that management has decided not to empower her with any kind of human discretion.

    Brian | Nov 17, 2015 | Reply

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