cover story

I hate it. I'll never wear it. But I won't return it.

Whether it's dealing with the long lines or fearing the embarrassment, many have a return policy of just putting it off till it's too late

By Beth Teitell
Globe Staff / January 1, 2011

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Heather Kelley, a stay-at-home mother in Wakefield, certainly wasn’t raised to waste money. “My mother never even carried a balance on her credit cards,’’ she said. But when Kelley accidentally ordered two identical fleece robes with stars and strawberries for her daughter, and two copies of the same book, on composting with worms, for her husband, she just couldn’t muster the energy to return the duplicate Christmas gifts.

“I think about what that $30 could buy,’’ she said, wistfully. Her daughter could have had fun at the local paint-your-own pottery place. The family could have enjoyed a pizza dinner — delivered. And yet the prospect of printing a label, locating a box, finding parking near the post office, and then standing in line with her young children, was simply too much.

“I’m trying to cut the fat out of my life,’’ she said.

In 2010, 10.9 percent of retailers tightened their return policies (while 5.5 percent loosened them), according to the National Retail Federation, giving shoppers less time to bring back items, in some cases, or requiring receipts in others. But perhaps there’s no need to crack down. A certain percentage of Americans — statistics don’t exist —simply never find the exact right moment to make that return no matter how forgiving the retailer.

Zappos allows customers a full year to send back shoes and other items. But even so, Rob Siefker, director of the customer loyalty team, reports that some people call after the 365-day mark. “Please, please, please, help me out,’’ they plead, explaining that the box got stuffed in a closet and forgotten, or that they meant to return the item a while ago (“I even printed a label’’) but somehow life intervened.

Sometimes the company grants clemency, which sounds nice, but maybe it’s all part of Zappos’ plan.

Chrisoula Andreou, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Utah, and co-editor of “The Thief of Time: Philosophical Essays on Procrastination,’’ says that returns may be harder to make when there’s no immediate deadline: “You think, I am going to return it, for sure, but you keep putting it off. Sometimes if your goal is vague enough it never gets realized. You think, I’m going to get to it, and at some point, you misplace it, and then it starts fading into the background.

She adds: “The real question is, Is the delay rational or irrational? On the one hand, you might delay because you value your time and think, I’ll find a time when I’m already passing by that store. You might think that’s very rational, but you always forget — you find yourself at the store without the item.’’

Cleopatra Garrett, 33, of Needham says it’s the receipts that always get in the way of her returns — or should-be returns. “Who can find the right one?’’ she asked, opening her handbag to reveal a sea of crumpled TJ Maxx and other receipts. Without one, she said, stores sometimes won’t even give store credit, and, if they do, it may be for less than she originally paid. “So what’s the sense of going in and looking foolish?’’

Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist at Golden Gate University in San Francisco, calls returns “an unsatisfying chore.’’ “When you order something it’s exciting, but with returning, there is no anticipation of anything good happening.’’ That even includes the refund. “A lot of times people are less connected to the money coming back,’’ she said, particularly if they’ve paid with a credit card. “It’s less tangible. It’s like settling up a balance sheet.’’

Nils Helander, owner of the UPS Store in Framingham, sees first hand what the strain does to people. “It’s surprising how much of a relief it seems to be when they finally do mail it back,’’ he said. “It’s kind of weird for me, but they dread doing it.’’

Helander says the issue arises on a daily basis. “They say, ‘It’s a weight off my back, I couldn’t wait to get this out of my trunk.’ ’’

But the ones who get to the UPS Store — even if it takes months — are actually doing well, at least compared with Kristyne Bowman, 46, of Jamaica Plain. She generally hides her mistakes in the closet so they don’t torture her. She’s often embarrassed to make returns in person, fearful the clerk will ask for a reason, which is: “I probably shouldn’t have bought it to begin with.’’

Whatever the reason for the non-return — the dread of standing in a long line, a broken home printer, amnesia — one person’s procrastination is another’s business opportunity. Or, in the case of Netflix cofounder Reed Hastings, his own procrastination was his own business opportunity. He famously started the company after being hit with a $40 late fee on an “Apollo 13’’ rental.

This past November, American Express offered cardholders an enhanced return plan, offering, among other benefits, an extended return time of 180 days, and free return shipping to American Express. Spokeswoman Leah Gerstner said the response was good. Some AmEx cards already come with a feature that allows 90 days to make returns, she said, “but we noticed that when they were going to make returns [sometimes] they were out of that 90-day period.’’

How can three entire months be insufficient? “Ninety days seems like a lot of time,’’ she said, “but think back to October, the holidays felt so far off, and bam, 90 days later they are here already.’’

As for Kelley, the mother from Wakefield, she gave the second fleece bathrobe to one of her daughter’s friends. But even that didn’t stop the guilt. “I felt like I was regifting,’’ she said. Alas, she’s been unable to find a good home for her second copy of “Worms Eat My Garbage.’’ “If you know anyone. . .’’