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SHOP TALK

Making Of A Return Artist

Sweat stains, cigarette smoke, a tag tucked in the pocket. Salespeople can spot the signs. It behooves buyers to know them too.

December 23, 2007|Emili Vesilind | Times Staff Writer

This time of year, there is plenty of merchandise begging to be returned: that Santa applique sweater your aunt gave you for Christmas, the fab frock that fell apart at the seams, the menswear-inspired trousers you bought for the office holiday party that you realized (once you got in front of your own full-length) made you look more Dudley Moore than Demi Moore.

And then there's the stuff that isn't begging, but gets returned anyway. It's not just clothes that come back looking suspiciously used; it's beauty products that have been dipped into and jewelry that's had a night on the town.

We all know one -- that shopper who buys a wallet-busting dress to swan around in for the weekend, only to angle for a full refund on Monday. She might tape the price tag down so it's hidden from sight, or tuck paper under her arms to protect against sweat. In the retail industry, the return artist is a mere rung above shoplifter. Yet more often than not, sales clerks say they accept the returns anyway, afraid of losing a customer. They shake clothes off, air them out, steam them flat and put them back on the rack.

The practice of wearing-and-returning -- chiefly the purview of young, fashion-obsessed females -- is widespread, especially during the holidays. The clerks know the signs, and for the shopper who prefers her new purchases to actually be new, it's smart to be clued in.

"You can tell by the feel of the price tag that it's been worn," says Jacquie Aiche, owner of Dimani boutique in West Hollywood. "It's soft from being against the body."

Floriana Annibali, a former manager at designer boutiques Traffic and Madison, picks up on deodorant marks on tops and dresses, creases behind the knees of pants, traces of cigarette smoke and perfume. Most telling is when "the price tag that usually goes through the side of jeans is tucked into the back pocket," she said.

Almost as trying as the return artist is the chronic returner -- the commitment-phobe who doesn't wear her spoils (or cut the tags off) but returns or exchanges again and again. Sure, everyone has a change of mind, but the mark of a chronic returner is exchanging one item multiple times -- a shirt for pants, the pants for sunglasses -- as though Banana Republic were a trading post.

Many chain stores, including Target, Kmart and Wal-Mart, keep tabs on compulsive indecisiveness. Target recently changed its policy to allow just two receipt-less returns a year on items priced less than $20 -- down from a $100 bar.

Abusers may be flourishing, but as a country we're returning less than we used to, according to a recent report by the National Retail Federation. The organization cited a 2% decline in the percentage of people who returned a gift from the 2005 holiday season versus 2006, fueled by the rise of the crowd-pleasing gift card. Still, about 35% of us are expected to return at least one item this season, and some outfits are bound to come back bearing witness to an eggnog encounter.

In L.A., return policies run the gamut when it comes to merchandise that's clearly been taken for a spin. On the whole, major department stores are more forgiving than independent shops. Nordstrom, which doesn't have a written return policy, is famous for its leniency. A quick visit to the store at the Grove underscored this. A saleswoman at one of the makeup counters rolled her eyes when she said she routinely takes back half-used jars of creams accompanied by half-baked excuses. Another staffer in the shoe department informed me that if my mom were to go clogging in the shoes I buy her, she might still be able to return them. "It depends on the reason they were worn, and it depends on the manager," the salesperson said. The condition of those clogs, like all returned merchandise, determines whether they are put back on the shelf or sent to one of the chain's off-price outlets.

Though returns and exchanges are cushioned by big finance at department stores, boutiques take a hit when customers try to unload last night's ensemble. Oftentimes, it's about weighing the pros and cons. It may not be worth refusing the jacket with the cigarette reek if it means you'll never see an otherwise-loyal customer again. But eating the price of designer garb that's been rendered unwearable is also financially damaging.

"You can't look at them and tell them they're lying," explained a Ron Herman salesperson who was recently yelled at by a woman trying to exchange a sweat suit marred by dog hair and a huge greasy stain.

"We err on the generous side," said Jaye Hersh, owner of Intuition boutique on Pico Boulevard, which accepts exchanges only within 10 days. Hersh has encountered many outlandish scenarios -- from women who come in with sugar daddy types on a shopping spree, then try to bring back the worn duds once the relationship is over, to a recent customer who wanted to return a candle because there was "too much smoke" when she blew it out. Perhaps the most egregious story involved a magazine editor who received a pair of sunglasses from the brand that makes them. After learning Intuition stocks the brand, she called and asked for a refund. "I said to her, 'So let's walk through this together -- you got a free gift, and you want to return this even though it was never in my store?' " said Hersh. "And she did."

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emili.vesilind@latimes.com

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