This week I answer a question from a listener who’s concerned that she could be banned from returning her purchases. Is this a thing? Turns out, it is. We talk about why it’s happening, who’s tracking you, and how to stay off the returns naughty list.

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Read the full episode transcript below! – Ep 39 Office Hours Banned from Returns?

Today’s episode of Office Hours is sponsored by Holding Hangers. Holding hangers come in different sizes so they can securely hold your garments from the inside using gentle tension, without stretching them out. Each size hanger holds a range of clothing sizes though, so you don’t have to worry about replacing your hangers if you go up or down a size. But, if you did change sizes and needed new hangers, Holding Hangers will exchange your hangers at no cost to you. How cool is that? Just another reason to love this innovative closet tool.

Everyday Style listeners can take 15% off their first purchase by going to and using code STYLE15. That’s STYLE15 in all caps.

Welcome back to Office Hours–the weekly show of the Everyday Style School podcast, where we answer one question, submitted by you, to help make style easier, and getting dressed more fun.

We’ve got a fun one today, that I’m guessing a lot of you had no idea was even a thing.

We’ve got an email from another Jen, who wrote “Recently, my husband got dinged for returning too many things to Home Depot, and a third party company that tracks returns now prevents him from making returns for store credit. I’ve heard of the same thing happening to people who return too many clothes.

I would love to shop online more because I wear size 11 shoes, but I’m afraid of getting blacklisted. Can you tell us more about the third party company who tracks returns, and how to avoid tripping their system?

As I’m reading this question, I’m imagining my millions–ok, thousands, of listeners being terrified that their last purchase was the one that put them over the edge, and they’re going to end up in return jail now.

Take a breath, it’s probably not going to happen to you, but let’s dig in here and talk about what this is, how it works, and how you can keep your return privileges active.

First, yes this is a thing. The largest company is called The Retail Equation. A lot of information I’m sharing with you comes straight from their website, so feel free to check that out. Also, I’m linking to a couple of other resources who have more to say on this topic The Retail Equation is a company that, among other things, is hired by retailers to track your returns through their Return Authorization program.

Before we go any further, let’s talk about why this is a thing. Return abuse and fraud is big business.

The Retail Equation–TRE from here on out, estimates that every year, 18 to 24 BILLION dollars are lost to return abuse and fraud. And Jen, I want to be clear that I’m not saying your husband’s returns were fraudulent and or abusive.

In all likelihood, they weren’t, which is one of the big problems that we’ll get to later. But return scams are a big deal. And they’re not always these super savvy scammers either…in my career, I’ve seen plenty of it, some shady, some honest mistakes, and some just weird.

When I worked for Chicos, an employee came to me and said “I can’t figure out how much to give this woman back for these things, I can’t find them in the system.

I didn’t have to do much investigating to find out why–all of these items were Cherokee, not chicos, and neither customer or employee noticed that she should have been at Target instead of our store.

Then I had a Linda, who, on our shopping trip brought a bag of items to return to Nordstrom. I had been in her closet the previous week, and I noticed these things from the pile of stuff she didn’t want anymore. I said, Linda, you’ve worn those for years! And she said, “I know, I’m tired of them though, so I’m bringing them back”.

I was horrified and tried to explain that that wasn’t how returns worked, but she was committed, and Nordstrom being Nordstrom, took them back. These things cost stores money, and guess what friends–the retailers aren’t eating the costs–they get passed along to you. So, return fraud and abuse are a big deal.

By the way, I’m saving my favorite return abuse story for our next Lessons from Linda. It’s a good one.

The other thing is that now those inventory cycles are so short, the shelf life of each item is short, too. Remember when you had 90 days to return things to the Gap? That’s when Gap had the same merchandise for 90 days at a time.

Now, in 90 days, that item would have been long gone, as would the 2 cycles after it. When people return things outside of the window, the store takes a hit because they often have to give you back more than they can sell it for.

But back to The Retail Equation

Here’s the way it works: Each retailer sets up their own rules for returns, and what, to them, constitutes abusive and or fraudulent return behavior.

The rules are usually the things you see on the receipt, or more increasingly, housed on websites–like how many days you have to return something, what happens if you don’t have a receipt, and so on.

Their rules for what constitutes fraudulent or abusive behavior is the stuff you’re not going to see. These are things like, how often are you returning? Are you returning big dollar amounts?

How often are you returning without a receipt, or outside the return window? How many days from your original purchase are you returning? Going back to what I said about short sale cycles, a retailer might say, we want to track people who constantly return on the very last day.

Do that to them a hundred times, and they might be like, yeah, no thanks. The Retail Equation tracks return, and using the retailer’s own standards assesses a risk score for that retailer. It’s not an overall risk score that applies to every brand TRE works with.

So, even if you’re playing by the rules on the receipt, eventually you could lose your return privileges for engaging in behavior that mimics, to that retailer, abusive or fraudulent returns, even if your returns are on the up and up.

It’s funny that Jen mentioned the Home Depot because there’s actually an industry term, called “The Home Depot Rental”. This is when people buy a tool, or a product that they only need for a single project, maybe even one little thing, then they box it back up and return it.

This is the home improvement equivalent of women wearing clothes with the tags on for one event, and then returning. The stores know–and they can’t put those items back on the shelf at full price.

Stores who see a lot of that activity, as the home depot, likely have more strict rules for what looks fraudulent. Again, not saying it is fraudulent, but the tracking software and algorithm don’t know that. They just know it looks like it.

But you say, wait, isn’t that against the law? Don’t they have to honor those policies on the receipt no matter how much you return? Legally, no. Returns are a privilege that retailers can revoke.

However, what will usually happen is that they will honor the return real-time in the store, and then send you a notice that your return privileges have been modified or revoked

How do they know what to track? If you have a receipt with your return, and they scan it, obviously, they get all the info they need. If you don’t have a receipt, and you hand over id, like your driver’s license for a return, they’re tracking your return behavior that way.

Also, we make it even easier by giving them our names, phone numbers and email addresses, which is tying our purchases to our returns.

Most of you listening probably want to know how to know if you’re on a store’s watchlist, and sadly there’s not much you can do here.

You can request an activity report from the Retail Equation, which will tell you all the returns they’ve tracked, including date, dollar amount, and whether or not you had a receipt for it. What the report won’t tell you is where those returns put you, risk wise, with each retailer.

Meaning, you could have a hundred returns from one store with more relaxed rules, and have a low-risk score there, or you could have 5 returns at a store with strict rules, and have a high-risk score there.

The Retail Equation doesn’t give you access to your risk score with each store, the rules of each retailer, or even what stores they work with. It’s a pretty tight-lipped organization.

Again though, it’s important to note that The Retail Equation doesn’t share information between brands they work with. So your activity with one store doesn’t affect your score with another. It is on a retailer by retailer basis.

So, armed with no information, how do you avoid getting banned? Again, There’s not much you can do, but here’s what I recommend.

First, don’t worry too much about it. The Retail Equation says only 1% of people are ever modified or banned from returning to a particular store.

Again, each store sets up its own rules. Zappos encourages customers to buy more than they need and return the rest because they know that shopping online for shoes is tricky.

We’ve already established that stores like the Home Depot probably have stricter return rules, for good reason. The same behavior that could get you blacklisted from returning at one retailer could be no big deal to another.

Stores that operate a big portion of their business online most likely have more lenient rules, because almost 40% of online clothing purchases are returned. That’s a huge number, and we don’t see thousands of people getting banned daily.

Second, Follow the return policies. Always have a receipt. I don’t know about you, but I struggle with this one. A salesperson can hand me a receipt, and by the time I get home, I have no idea what happened to it.

A good idea is to start accepting the emailed receipt most retailers are offering now so you always have it.

Not having the receipt is the biggest flag to retailers, so that’s the most important thing to stay off of the naughty list. Also, Return within the stated window.

I know that retailers have policies in place for what happens after that window, but as I said earlier, with sales cycles as short as they are, you’re costing them money every time you do that.

If you do happen to get on the bad side of The Retail Equation, you’ll get notified that your return privileges are being modified or suspended, usually for a period of time. It’s a pretty drastic step to ban someone from returns for life, and retailers really don’t want to go that route.

Follow the rules for that time period, and you should be back in good graces.

Also, reach out to the company, and ask to be reinstated. There are a bunch of articles online about people who called out brands on social media and contacted the company and finally were reinstated.

Bottom line, play by the rules–always have the receipt and don’t stress too much about it. The odds are, this won’t happen to you.

Thank you to Jen for sending in the question, and If you’re listening, and have a question you’d like me to cover in Office Hours, email it to

Once again, I’d like to thank Holding Hangers for sponsoring this episode and don’t forget to visit and use code STYLE15 (all caps!) to take 15% off of your first purchase

That’s all for today–see you next week!

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