My friend’s father was a used car salesmen and would often deal with upset customers who would try and bring back vehicles. He quickly learned that, at the point someone is trying to bring back a used car, they are in a pretty rotten mood. Whatever transpires they are leaving his dealership upset. They might (and early on in his dealership did) even get the refund but they aren’t coming back so he developed a saying: “You’re either an asshole with $200 or an asshole without it, but your an asshole either way.”
I think for used car salesmen, this is actually (I still wouldn’t advocate this approach but I am making a point) not horrible advice. I have car dealerships where I can’t even remember why I swore off going back, I just know I did. They bring out the worst in many people and, at least from my personal outlook on retail design, have the fatal flaw of being so outwardly transactional and intentionally confusing that irritation is just a natural state of being. So if you end up with a lemon from a used car dealer, the chances are pretty slim you will be doing business with him again. Therefore if he is going to be an asshole either way, and the power of the transaction is still in his hands then what is his motivation to make a customer friendly decision?
Unfortunately I think many small retailers suffer from this hard edged approach regarding returns. Obviously I get the logic behind it; just last week I had someone in my store looking for an item in a medium that I was sold out of and had no way to order another. I lost the sale. I swear, not twenty minutes later someone came in to return that very item in a size medium. This sort of thing happens all the time and it is frustrating as hell. The natural inclination is to think to yourself “hah! this is exactly why I have the return policy I do! ” But the secret is, your customers don’t care, nor should they. Customers will do what is best for them 100% of the time and you can pretty much accept that and alter your behavior accordingly or be wrong and go out of business.
Now what is best for customers in many cases means supporting their local economy, shopping somewhere they trust the staff or any number of other reasons. Most customers are completely understanding of small store return policies. Small shops carry smaller runs of apparel (part of the appeal) and if something is sitting in the trunk of a car for a month waiting to come back, in all likelihood, they have missed the opportunity to sell it. But what I believe many smaller businesses fail to see is the potential future value of the client standing in front of them. I don’t just mean value in the monetary sense. I have seen proposals, marriages and breakups, I have customers I exchange Christmas cards and gifts with, I’ve seen some of their kids grow up. You are truly part of their lives and if you don’t think that is special then you are in the wrong business.
The goal is to be part of their lives for long enough to see some of those aforementioned life events transpire. The truth is, you usually have no way of knowing if the person returning the sweater is just passing through town or your future best customer. I am not saying to abandon your return policy, I certainly won’t be doing that. But keep a level head when explaining to it and if they aren’t accepting it than work with them to find a solution and make sure they know you are okay (do this by actually being okay) with the outcome. Treat them like you would if it was your best customer in that situation and maybe someday they will be.