Sometimes, it really can pay you to complain

The Baltimore Sun

Ask, and you shall receive.

As consumers, we know that statement is far from true. How many times have you brought a dispute to a business only to be blown off? Or how many times have you filed a complaint, never to get a response?

Amy Lynn Thomas felt like she was banging her head against the wall when she tried to return to Target almost $100 worth of gifts she received from friends and family for a baby shower in April.

"First of all, let me say that I love Target," said Thomas, a 33-year-old manager of operations who lives in Essex. "I go there at least twice a week. Back in April, my friends and family had a baby shower for me resulting in over 100 people in attendance and us receiving 98 percent of our Target registry, in addition to $750 in gift cards for Target. I was giving a lot of business to Target.

"All I wanted to do was return 12 items that I had duplicates for," Thomas said. "We didn't have receipts for them, unfortunately, so I reached out to Target. I pushed and pushed so that I could explain that I just wanted to use my registry to return these duplicate items. The gifts were still in their packaging. You could see they came from Target. But they refused to let me talk to anyone. I just wanted store credit."

It seems like a pretty logical and simple request, right?

The items are all listed on Target's gift registry, which Thomas' guests used to buy her presents. Shouldn't that registry be enough proof to exchange the items for store credit, she asked?

The answer Thomas repeatedly received - a very firm (she described it as "rude") No - was also pretty logical and simple, according to Target.

Faced with the loss of billions of dollars to fraud every year, many companies are very strict about merchandise returns by demanding photo identification, refusing returns without receipts or forcing customers to contact headquarters for approval.

Minneapolis-based Target has adopted a fairly strict policy: It will issue a refund or exchange on almost any item returned in good condition within 90 days of the purchase date, or shipment date if you bought it online. But all return items must have a receipt or gift receipt.

Spokesman Dave Fransen said Target does follow an unwritten rule that allows you to return two items a year without a receipt for $20 or less if you present a photo ID. Also, as a service to customers without a receipt, if you purchased the item with your credit card, the company will help you track down a receipt in its computer system.

Neither was of much help to Thomas. She was able to return only two items.

"I understand the return policy, and although I do not agree with this return policy, I feel that if someone invests their time and energy to register with a company and bring them more business, they should be able to return items using their registry as a receipt for an exchange or store credit," Thomas said. "In a perfect world, people will provide receipts or gift slips, but we all know that this is not a perfect world."

Amen, sister. If this were a perfect world, there'd be no column for me to write.

Thomas makes some good points, but the crux of the problem is that if Target bends the rules for Thomas, it would have to bend the rules for others, too. The only fair and equitable way for a business to deal with fraud and returns is to create a sensible policy, educate your customers on what the policy is, and then stick to it firmly.

I am guilty, too, so I shouldn't scold, but we all need to be more mindful of hanging on to our receipts. We also need to be far more thoughtful about including gift slips when we give presents to others. Forgetting that extra step could create a burden for the recipient later.

In situations like these, I'd normally have to inform Thomas that there is not much I can do for her. Rules are rules, right?

In this situation, however, we're now going to learn why it pays to complain.

A couple days after I spoke to Target's Fransen, he called me back with good news. They were absolutely not going to bend the rules for Thomas, but in an effort to accommodate customers who might find themselves in similar situations, Target has changed its return policy.

Yes. You heard me right. A Big Corporation listened to its customers and changed it policy.

The 90-day rule will stay in place, Fransen says, but when it comes to general returns, Target will now allow you to return two items under $35 per year without a receipt, using your driver's license.

Target implemented its receipt-only policy for registry items last year, but before that, Fransen said the company used to allow guests to make registry returns using their gift purchase logs, which show all the gifts that have been purchased for you on your list.

"We have now reinstituted that Gift Purchase Log, which guests can use to return up to $150 worth of items," Fransen said. "When purchasing gifts, people must bring your registry to a checkout at the time of purchase and then our cashiers can scan the registry so that there is a record of that purchase. Should you want to return the item, you can use the Gift Log to return the item within 90 days of the date of your event.

"Customers just really need to remember to have the registry scanned," Fransen said. "We're always listening to guest feedback and evaluating our policies on an ongoing basis, and this is one area where we felt we could better serve our guests' needs by offering accommodations that would make it easier for them to return registry gifts."

To make it easier, if you lose your Gift Registry Log, you can go to a kiosk in the Target store to print one out.

Wow! A company that listens!

I delivered the news to Thomas, who was almost as thrilled about it as she was about the delivery of her baby girl last week. OK, not quite, but she was happy to hear it. This goes to show you that there's a statement that's truer than the one I used to start this column.

You'll never know if you don't ask.

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