© Matthew Hillier

If you have an online store, it’s just a matter of time before you’ll get a return in the mail that is worn, used, damaged or in some kind of disarray. Hopefully you have a return policy in your online store… even if you do not accept returns, you should still publish your policy (if not for legal or ethical reasons, because it will help your conversion rate).

So assuming you have a returns policy posted on your website, how do you deal with returns that come back and do not meet your return criteria?

Even the most liberal of online retailers, Zappos, requires returns to be in the “original condition you received them and in the original box and/or packaging.” A few notable exceptions to this rule are Lands End and L.L. Bean, who allow returns in any condition, at any time. However, these two companies are both the manufacturer and the retailer. Owning the entire supply chain process affords them more leniency than most retailers.

What happens when a customer does not follow the returns policy and simply returns a product a) after the return window has expired, b) damaged or used when your policy stipulates new and unused condition, or c) returns without following instructions such as filling out appropriate forms?

We have this happen quite often in our online store. We stipulate that most merchandise can be returned within 90 days as long as it is in new, original condition (excluding closeouts that are clearly marked final sale). We get products returned without the original packaging, products returned worn, and products returned long after the return window has closed.

So how do you handle returns that are damaged, worn, or used?

Have a Clear Return Policy

The best advice I can give is to have a clear return policy posted on your website in a prominent location. Having a published policy won’t stop customers from sending back used merchandize, but it gives you the documentation to reference in your dealings with them. After all, if you don’t publish a clear policy and instructions, how are they supposed to know what is and is not acceptable?

Outline what Is and Is Not Acceptable

In your return policy, describe as simply and concisely as possible what is an acceptable return. The wording here is important. In our return policy we instructed customers to “re-pack the shoe boxes in a corrugated shipping box” and received several packages back where the actual shoes were placed in the corrugated (cardboard) box—without the shoebox.

Be as descriptive as possible. Include photos or diagrams if necessary. I’ve even seen some online retailers (Zappos) upload video walkthroughs explaining the return process.

Create Internal Return Processing Procedures

Create internal policies on how to handle returns that do not comply your policy. Do you charge a restocking fee? Will you return the product to the customer (and at who’s expense)? Will they be able to receive a refund, store credit, or nothing?

How Other Online Retailers Handle Used and Damaged Returns

I asked several online retailers how they dealt with customer returns that were damaged, worn or used. Here’s what they had to say:


There have been time where shoes have been returned that were clearly worn or at least look worn. In most cases, we give the customer the benefit of the doubt, and allow the return/exchange. If the shoes are not in 100% mint condition, we do not add them back into our inventory. Instead we sell them on ebay and list them as “like new” or “worn a couple of times”.

Joseph Parrinello, Owner – MAXbarbell.com

Tall Couture

There are always going to be some returns that are not acceptable. It is important to have a clear policy and to stick to it in order to be fair to all of our customers. We stand behind our products and will be happy to accept any item back – even final clearance sales. However, we do require that customers return the merchandise in new condition, unworn with all tags attached.

If a customer returns an item that is worn or missing the original hangtags, our first step is an email. We send a standardized email notifying the customer that item is did not meet our return criteria and offer to ship it back to them at our cost. If they don’t want the item back, we will generally donate it to a charity. If the customer does want the item back, we are willing to foot the bill for shipping the first time. If it becomes a habitual issue, we will not. However, most customers understand after the first time that we will not accept worn items and won’t try again. We have had customers who get creative in trying to slip one by us, but there are a few things we look for that generally give them away. And those customers are the exception rather than the rule. Most people are good customers who just didn’t read the return policy.

There are always exceptions of course. We have taken back jeans that have been worn if there is clearly a defect in the materials or workmanship. We work with reputable brands that make high quality clothing, so it is unusual, but if something is defective we are happy to offer a replacement or store credit. Often the manufacturer will take it back and provide us with credit, but we even if they do not, Tall Couture will stand behind it.

Jennifer Caputo, Co-Founder & CEO – TallCouture.com

A2 Armory