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The Unethical but (Mostly) Legal Retail Shopping Tactics of Devil Consumers

The age-old saying that "the customer is always right" may soon be put out to pasture. Why? Increasing numbers of stores are cracking down on what they call "devil" shoppers -- customers whose buying and returning practices, some legit, may actually cause the store to lose money -- and the stores believe they're better off without them.


Not sure of your purchase? Too many returns may soon place you on some retail stores' "blacklist" of bad customers.

Best Buy stores have gotten so fed up with their "devil" shoppers -- a group they say makes up 20 percent of their customer base -- that they're actively trying to eliminate them from their stores. These shoppers (see below for a description of some of their tactics) account for as many as one-fifth of Best Buy's 500 million customer visits each year, and according to Best Buy CEO Brad Anderson, "They can wreak enormous economic havoc."

So now Best Buy is fighting back. They've started training their employees to identify "angel" shoppers -- the ones who buy highly priced items like HDTVs or just-released DVDs without waiting for a markdown -- and cater to them while "blacklisting" the devil shoppers. The staff uses a quick interview of sorts to identify the different types, which they internally call:

  • Barrys: High-income men who like action movies and cameras

  • Jills: Suburban moms who want to help their families

  • Buzzes: Male technology fans who want the latest high-tech gadgets

Other practices Best Buy has put into play include adding a 15 percent restocking fee and selling restocked items over the Internet as opposed to in stores.


Big name retailers like Best Buy are targeting "devil" customers and seeking to drive them out of their stores.

But Best Buy is not alone. Some stores will go so far as to remove "bad" customers from their promotions mailing list or put them on long holds if they call stores with too many questions and no intent to buy. And stores like Express, KB Toys, the Sports Authority, Staples and Guess have all adopted a new technology called the Return Exchange to monitor customers' buying habits.

When a purchase is made, the device records the consumer's name, address, age and transaction details and sends it to The Return Exchange's database. The company says the device is meant to stop shoplifters and other fraud-doers, but it doesn't stop there. Each store inputs certain criteria, such as a high number of returns or a dollar amount on returns, after which a customer's return can be denied.

Said retail consultant King Rogers, retail stores lose some $16 billion a year because of fraud. "Consumers are going to find more stores with tighter, more restrictive return policies than they found last year. When you look at the economics of it, $16 billion a year in losses, they have to tighten up," he said.

But others are worried that consumers will get the short end of the deal.

"I'm concerned about the 99 percent of consumers who are not abusing the system," said Edgar Dworsky, founder of, an Internet public service site. "It's the wrong size, the wrong color, the mother bought clothing for kids who didn't want it."

Already the Federal Trade Commission has been asked to investigate the legality of stores monitoring and denying customers' returns, and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) proposed legislation to require stores that do limit returns to warn shoppers of the practice.

Shopper Tactics That Might Send You to the "Blacklist"

The following practices are among the most common and most offensive in the eyes of retailers. If you commonly engage in any of these practices, you may soon find that your next return is denied or your name has been added to a store's "blacklist" of bad customers.

  • Buying a product, taking advantage of the product rebate, then returning the product for a refund.

  • Buying clothing or another item, wearing it (or using it) once, then returning it (the classic example is the evening gown that's worn with tags on for a night, then returned).

  • Buying an item and returning it with the intent of buying it at the reduced "open-box" price

  • Buying clothing or another item with the intent of returning it later and re-buying it at a markdown price.

  • Buying a product at a discount, such as from the store's selection of "loss leaders," (low-priced products stores lose money on that are designed to attract customers) then reselling it on eBay for a premium price.

  • Finding rock-bottom prices on Web sites, then challenging stores to pay up on their lowest price guarantees.

  • Taking up an employee's time to ask questions about a significant purchase with the intent to buy it elsewhere.

Most consumers do have good intentions at heart and make returns for legitimate reasons. Retailers are aware of this and wary of portraying a too-tough image to customers. Said Anderson, it's a fine balance to ward of bad customers without turning away the good ones.

"The most dangerous image I can think of is a retailer that wants to fire customers," he says.


The Wall Street Journal

The San Diego Union Tribune

MSN Money

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