Customers will have only one year to return an item. Time


Some lifetime guarantees last longer than others. 

A small minority of shoppers who have returned items salvaged from yard sales or purchased decades ago to get an upgraded version or a cash refund have left some retailers saying enough is enough.

More retailers are changing once-generous return policies. Lifetime guarantees were thrust into the forefront last month when L.L. Bean said that in the wake of increasing abuse, it was putting a cap on its legendary open-ended pledge, limiting most returns to one year — a move that prompted outrage and at least one lawsuit by a customer who said the company was now  “breaking . . . its promises.”

Bean follows outdoor gear and clothing retailer REI, which dropped its lifetime guarantee in 2013. Membership warehouse retailer Costco began limiting its lifetime returns policy to just 90 days for certain major electronics like TVs and computers. And car maker Chrysler, as well as jewelry maker Silpada, have also pared back open-ended policies.

"Part of the reason is that retailers are very cost-conscious and have become increasingly concerned about the amount of abuse associated with lifetime guarantees,'' says Neil Saunders, managing director of the retail consultancy GlobalData.

Such lifelong guarantees are increasingly becoming casualties of an era of disposable products and fast-changing fashion. And with competitive pressures only rising, companies don't want to bear the costs of endlessly replacing an array of dated products.

"I think it was a sincere way that sellers inspired confidence in their products in the minds of prospective purchasers,’’ says Edgar Dworsky, founder and editor of Consumer  World, an online consumer education site and resource guide. But today, lifetime guarantees, from open-ended return policies to unending warranties, "are a dying breed.''

More: 'Loyal' L.L. Bean customer sues company for changing legendary returns policy

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More: Troubled Lands End gets a new leader

Sticking with guarantees 

Yet several retailers — Lands' End, Eddie Bauer, Nordstrom, Patagonia — to name a few — are holding firm.

“Our policy is guaranteed period, and we mean every word,'' says Michele Casper, spokeswoman for outerwear retailer Lands' End. "It is unconditional, and it’s part of how we do business.’’

The company, whose policy states that a dissatisfied customer can return a purchase at any time, isn't just talking about offering a refund for a lunch box or replacing a pair of snow boots.

In the 1980s, Lands' End sold an iconic London cab that was featured on the cover of its holiday catalog for $20,000. When the customer reached out to the retailer 21 years later, saying he wanted to return the taxi, Lands' End gave him his money back and reclaimed the car — which now sits at the company's main office in Dodgeville, Wis.

"That’s one of the more unusual situations, but it ... encompasses what we stand behind,'' Casper says. 

Nordstrom, which also puts no time limit on returns or exchanges, once honored the claim of a customer in Fairbanks, Alaska, who brought back a set of tires he'd bought from another business that had been on that physical site  before Nordstrom. The upscale retailer has never sold tires. 

Outdoor clothing and gear seller Patagonia touts its “ironclad guarantee.’’ Though it will charge a small fee to fix items damaged from regular wear and tear, the company will take back items years after they were purchased, attempt to repair them and if it decides that the item is worn out and can't be fixed, it will talk with the shopper about replacing it or receiving a gift credit.

Patagonia, which counts preserving the environment as part of its mission, also recycles items and will buy back and clean products that are still in good shape, putting them up for sale on its site  

The company has "no plans to change our policy,'' says spokesman J.J. Huggins. "Abuse is not widespread. We treat our customers with respect, and we get the same in return."

Yard sale returns

It was returns of a different stripe that drove L.L. Bean to change a policy that had been its hallmark since 1912.

The company's executive chairman, Shawn Gorman, said in a letter to customers Feb. 9 that “a small but growing number’’ were taking advantage of L.L. Bean's open-ended guarantee, seeking refunds for old, worn-out products and items picked up at yard sales.

Now, L.L. Bean shoppers will have just one year to return a product and must show proof of purchase, though the company will try to resolve issues beyond the one-year time frame if an item is defective. 

A suit filed in Chicago federal court says the outdoor goods company's "repudiation of the warranty is a violation of the law." The complaint, filed by L.L. Bean customer Victor Bondi, said the retailer "must provide corrective notice to all potential customers about the change.''

Will Taylor, another longtime L.L. Bean customer who lives outside Boston, was also angered by the shift.

“I am not happy with L.L. Bean, and this letter Gorman sent is an insult to me and thousands of other customers,’’ Taylor, an accountant, said in an email sent to USA TODAY.  "This will have a major impact on L.L. Bean. ... We have given them a lot of business, and they show no appreciation.''

L.L. Bean could not be reached for comment.

A Dying Breed 

REI changed its open-ended returns policy in 2013. Since then, customers have only been able to bring back or exchange items they were dissatisfied with for a year after purchase. For outdoor electronics, the window is even smaller — 90 days — though an item with a defect in its materials or the way it is made can be brought back at any time. 

"Our returns policy is still among the best in the industry,'' REI said in a statement. 

Car maker Chrysler began offering lifetime warranties on new vehicles in 2007, a move that was virtually unheard of for a car manufacturer because cars so often need repairs. But two years later, it decided to no longer offer the unlimited guarantee.  It knocked it down to a five-year, 100,000-mile warranty instead.

Chrysler, now Fiat Chrysler, says it still honors the lifetime warranties from that period.

And while Costco continues its popular lifetime returns policy for most products, it imposed a 90-day limit for certain major electronics like TVs, camcorders and computers “due to the rapid technology changes,’’ it said in a statement. The warehouse retailer added that after the change, it began offering a second-year warranty on TVs, appliances and computers and a “concierge program’’ that provides free technical assistance.

To be sure, some long-term guarantees may never have been as generous as they initially appeared. Restrictions are often buried in the fine print.

“The trouble is, what does 'lifetime' mean?" Consumer World's Dworsky says. "Is it the life of the product? Is it the consumer’s life? That’s where the ambiguity comes in, and that’s where consumers have to read the fine print.’'

Such disclosures are recommended by the Federal Trade Commission, whose guidelines for advertising guarantees and warranties say that if a business uses terms like "lifetime,'' its marketing should clearly define the time frame that it's referring to.

But some lifetime guarantees, which can include warranties to repair or replace an item found to be defective, can also expire simply because the company that made the promise goes out of business or gets a new owner.

That was the case with jewelry maker Silpada. The Kansas-based company was well-known for the lifetime warranty it offered on its signature silver pieces, but when it announced it was going out of business in 2016, it said it would honor that policy only through July of that year.

Berkshire Hathaway's Richline Group bought Silpada in October 2016 and continued to accept lifetime claims for 15 months. But current policy offers only a one-year warranty for manufacturing defects and a 60-day window to return an item if a customer is dissatisfied.

“So many times we see these companies advertise on TV ‘lifetime warranty,’'' says Anthony Giorgianni, associate editor for personal finance at Consumer Reports. "But you really have to wonder how long they’re going to be around.”


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