Daily Elysium: The Retail Wars

I'm pretty tired of retailers treating their customers as a burden instead of an asset.  You see it in just about every industry, a general sense that unless the customer conforms precisely to the EZ-Salez script, they should be treated with the exasperated disdain with which one would deal with a colicky child.  We're not just talking about customer service here, a phrase that's become so bastardized in the past decade or two as to mean almost the exact opposite of what it should, but retail outlets that treat the customer as a mindless, helpless, and often untrustworthy adversary. 

I walked into my local Software Etc. this weekend, a recently purchased copy of Homeworld 2 in hand, ready to return the software.  I was returning the product because I was unsatisfied with its quality, and I wanted to exchange it for an equally priced product.  I had my receipt, and I was performing the transaction in a timely fashion.  I had kept the box, the directions, the CD, everything in excellent condition, even removed the sealing tape across the box lid with a sharp knife to ensure everything was in new condition. 

There is no practical reason - none, zero, zip, zilch - why a product in such condition should not be returnable, and any retailer who refuses such should not be burdened with customers or money.

To be completely fair, in this particular instance the retailer did accept my return, but only, I think, because I knew the sales associate and, until recently, had been a regular customer.  I was informed, however, that it would be the last return, that their 'policy' had changed - apparently from a policy of treating customers with respect to a policy of treating customers as thieves - and that in the future if I purchased software from them, which is highly unlikely, I would be stuck with that software if I didn't like it.  Even if the product did not function as advertised, or failed to work with my system.

Software Etc. isn't exactly setting a new precednet here, following in the well trodden footsteps of Electronics Boutique which has been refusing returns for several successful months now, not to mention places like Best Buy.  Having been the last bastion of customer service in the ability to make hassle free returns, I was honestly surprised Software Etc. lasted as long as it did.  That said, their policy change is not somehow excusable simply because they are following the rest of flock.  They may very well have significant reasonable arguments for changing their return policy, but as a consumer I couldn't care less.  I have only one vote when it comes to how a company treats its customers and that vote is born in my wallet. 

So, once again the software retail industry, taking a page apparently from the recording industry, has taken to punishing its most dedicated customers purportedly for the nefarious actions of others.  Not unlike cd protections that inhibit the experience primarily of legitimate customers, and do very little to disuade genuine piracy, the removal of return policies for the actions of thieves is not only an empty gesture, but a fairly disengenuous one.

Naturally retailers point a damning finger at pirates for the need to refuse returns, and while we can all agree that software piracy is an industry problem, it's something more than naive to believe that piracy is a function of illegitimate returns.  These days with CD images, Bit Torrent, P2P services, and the like, software piracy is not the tricky exclusive domain of IRC and newsgroups.  It's also not a tide that will be turned by treating every customer as a pirate, and don't believe them for a second if they say that's why you can't bring back opened software.

With the entire industry in goose-step line, there's just no fiscal upside to accepting returns.  People will still buy their software regardless of the way they are treated, and the elimination of software returns means a lot less revenue heading back out the door.  And the source of the problem doesn't even stem from the retailers, it's the publishers who several years ago generally stopped accepting non-defective returns from the retailers, or made it such a hassle as to be a burden.  Not surprisingly this change of industry policy took place coincidentally with the age of patchware as greater software complexity led to more user-end bugs, and a greater degree of dissatifaction on the consumer end.  Swamped under a glut of returns from frustrated customers, publishers simply decided the easiest way to fix the problem of buggy software was to ignore it.  As far as the industry was concerned, bugs were a problem for the retailer to deal with, not the publishers. 

Software returns are such a problem for retailers because not long ago publisher X began generating a great deal of hype over FPS_game_345, released said game with a significant number of bugs to a consumer base that often returned FPS_game_345 to stores that could neither move the game from the shelves nor return the 'non-defective' product back to the publisher.  With great heaps of FPS_game_345 sitting useless in corporate warehouses at a loss, retailers did just what publishers had done before them.  They shifted the problem.  Now, buggy software is not a problem for the industry, for the publishers, or even for the retailers, but a problem instead for the consumer who is left with no recourse; just another casualty to the slapdash process of game development by committee that's become depressingly common of late.  Caveat Emptor!  Let Software Etc. tell us policies change because they are being sued for putting returned product back on the shelf, but the real reason is because they can not put that software anywhere else.

And, like I said before.  I honestly don't care.  You can give me all the reasons you want why customers have to suffer the consequences of poor service, but when it comes right down to it, it's my money, you're asking for it, and in return you offer potentially shoddy product with no returns.  Inevitably, this kind of treatment will engender the kind of consumer revolt that the music industry is experiencing.  And it is the consumer and the artists (developers, producers, etc.) that will suffer for the poor business practices of an entire industry.

- Elysium



I'm surprised that there were any stores still accepting returns. All the chain software stores that I deal with stopped accepting returns several years ago.

The only solution to the problem that I've found is to grit my teeth and wait for reviews/demos before purchasing any game. I'm not going to spend a nice-sized chunk of my discretionary income for the month on an unreturnable something that may be a complete waste of my time.

There's no reason consumers should have to resort to that, Tomato.  Whether there's anything that can be done to change the standard is another question, but consumers shouldn't have to bear the burden of industry failures. 

- Elysium

<blockquote><b>I walked into my local Software Etc. this weekend, a recently purchased copy of Homeworld 2 in hand, ready to return the software.  I was returning the product because I was unsatisfied with its quality, and I wanted to exchange it for an equally priced product.</b></blockquote>

And that's GWJ's official <i>Homeworld 2</i> review?  Pretty blunt...and brief.

No, I'm not going to be working up a Homeworld 2 review.  I was unsatisfied with it, but only versus my own expectations.  I really didn't spend long enough with it to even write a decent set of impressions.

- Elysium

I just want to say a-f*ckin men, I don't want to be treaded like a criminal and pay for the privilege. I am so sick of copy protection, quit acting like I am going to steal from you. I am paying you money, you know, that thing you act like you want. Yet when I do give you money I get treated like sh*t. The only people who don't have to deal with it are the actual criminals. Many times I hear of all kinds of technical problems with games that the warez version simply doesn't have, while I rarely have any technical glitches at all when I apply nocd cracks to the games I buy. When the illegal alternative is better quality than your product and it's free, you're facing an apocalypse like the music industry is currently facing. f*ck em

Elysium, I don't want a review, but why did you return Homeworld 2? Was it technical or a gameplay thing?

I'm not arguing that completely eliminating returns isn't overly restrictive (I've been suckered into several non-returnable crap titles in the past - HOMM4, I'm lookin' at you...), but, if the policy on returns is *too* liberal, game stores will turn into free game rental outlets for people who don't want to pay for software. It costs them $$ every time someone returns a title, since they now not only have to repackage it, take time to ensure that it's not missing any manuals, still works, etc.; and, by law, then cannot sell it again as new. So the $50 they originally made on a title turns into about ~$40-$45, whacking their profit margin significantly. (Unless it's like the book publishing system, where they can return items to the publisher for a full refund - I don't think it is).

My suggestion on how to create a fair system would be to institute a one-day return policy: You get one day to return a title. If you can manage to play through the entire game in one day and want to return it, great - but if you return stuff too often, you lose your return priveleges. For the rest of us, who would only return software once in a blue moon, it protects us against crap games.

Another possibility would be to offer a partial refund based on the amount of time they owned the title. One day? 10% off. 2 days? 20% off. 3 days? 25% off. And so on.

Yeah but I think their whole thing is "the pirate could just go home and copy it and then return the cd!".  Having a one day limit would not prevent the copying.

Like Elysium said, as a consumer, you really have no recourse if you purchase a game and are unsatisfied with it.  It's like going to the movies, if you don't like you don't get the ticket price back.  That is why a whole industry has risen around movie reviews, so people don't waste their money.  The same thing is happening with games.

Nothing to do with software piracy, this is cold stone solid conspiracy between publishers and retailers to line their pockets with ill gotten loot. Nothing more nothing less. There are a couple Court actions going on over this issue (no class actions though that I know of) but invariable those with the time and patients to litigate will likely get a nice out of court settlement while the rest of us get screwed. It gotten to the point where buying a game has become some risky and aggravating if it's bad that I have substantially cut down my purchasing, and I almost never take a chance on anything I don't know inside and out in advance. I used to buy a game if I liked the box cover art, but so much low grade crap and the inability to exchange it have made those days gone, the sad thing is though that I'm much less likely to trip across an off the wall gem now... would I have learned about the wasteland lock pick if it game out today? I doubt it. At some point I just may give up the hobby and walk away because of anti consumer policies such as these.

Yeah but I think their whole thing is "the pirate could just go home and copy it and then return the cd!".  Having a one day limit would not prevent the copying.

Very true - it's been so long since I copied a game (C64 days) that I'd forgotten it was possible!

The movie thing isn't true, you can ask for your money back and as long as it's not the last 30 minutes of the movie they give it back. You can sit through an hour of it and realize it sucks and get your money back, no problem.

We won't get screwed, we'll get a nice settlement of a $5 coupon to EB!  We win! 

Well after 26 and 1/2 hours, I was able to return ToEE for D&D Heroes.  I worked it a little but it was the truth.  I told him I struggled with the game.  I told him the final straw was the fact that it crashed to desktop twice and it had a hard core forced reboot lock up in Win XP.  I told him the forced reboot in XP is inexcusable!  I said it with enough weight that he believed me. (I think he only understood that crash was bad and not the particulars.  He sounded like a console guy.)  Sure enough, an even swap was made for like priced products and I'm happy.

Funny thing is, ToEE is still on my hard drive.  You wont catch me playing it anytime this millenia.

I'm not here to defend the industry or the practices, but I am here to shed some light on the subject from the perspective of an industry insider.There are multiple issues regarding this decision and unfortunately, it can also depend on which perspective you take (PC vs. Console, Multiplayer vs. Single player). In the case of Homeworld 2 (PC Multiplayer), the game in most cases should not be returnable. Why? Because on each copy is a CD key used to play multiplayer, and in some cases, the new owner of the returned box was unable to get the full play out of their purchase (since the previous owner is still using the CD key or has given it out). While we can all say it would just be a few minor cases that this occurs... it happens enough to cause problems. Don't get me wrong - it's not just the previous customer - I've heard cases where employees opened packages, took CD keys, and rewrapped it.There is also a worse issue though, that most people are unfamiliar with. Most time when the middle man - Best Buy, EB, Software ETC. - buys the game, they now OWN that copy of the game... and it's their job to sell it and get it off the shelves. Agreements with publishers regarding returning nonselling games are few these days (if they exist at all). If you're an BB, EB, SE that buys a game at around 35$ or so to get it on the shelves when it comes out, and then the game doesn't sell... well you can imagine the economics of it - the profit lost (selling that game for 30-35$ can hurt), the shelf time, the interest lost, etc. Keep in mind that a couple of months post game release the game is now "old" and must be reduced in price. If person A returns the game, citing poor quality, gameplay, etc... and the retailer takes it back... the group that suffers is the retailer, not the developer/publisher.So I'm unsure it's fair to assess that the retailer is at fault. Perhaps the finger pointing should be elsewhere.

I appreciate your response, and just to be clear I once managed a Software Etc. so I'm not speaking from an uninformed position, but I don't think any of what you brought up excuses retailers from transferring their problems onto their customers.  The fact that the industry has chosen to put retailers into a bad position by utelizing CD keys, and then not accepting non-defective warehouse returns is not the customers fault or problem.  In the current scenario the group that suffers is the consumer, and while I don't want to see retailers put out of business, industry standards that hamstring consumer rights aren't acceptable.

- Elysium

This may sound naive an' more than a little bit idealistic ... but wouldn't the solution to this whole problem be if publishers just stopped releasing unfinished beta copies of their games and released finished, polished, fixed products out their doors from the get go? I have not done any real study into this .. but it seems a majority of reviews nowadays (at least for the last few years) always seem to focus on how such and such game needed a little more polish or a little more work, or something was too ambitious and they could have polished it up with a lil more work ... I've been a gamer for quite some time (if you don't belive me ... check out the old game challenge thread I did a while back) ... and I don't remember reviews that would emphasize this problem so much ... waaay back in the semi-OG gaming days of Ultima, Bard's Tales, Wizardry, and Archon.

This whole piracy thing doesn't fly with me either ... for instance ... take a look at Blizzard and everything they make. They make what I believe are arguably some of the best games out there on the market ... so wouldn't logic dictate that their games would be a huge target for piracy ... YET ... somehow they still manage to sell millions and bazillions of units. If you make a good product ... I truly believe (and once again I admit perhaps naively) that people will buy. (Build and they will come!)

What we need to figger out is how we can get this message across to the publishers and corporate "bottom-line" deadline pushers. We need to evaluate if perhaps the corps are being to unrealistic in their expectaions of their software developers, or perhaps if the game makers need to also re-evaluate if'n there's some serious mismanagement of funds and resources that are causing rising operation and manufacturing costs and missed deadlines.

Sheesh! I didn't want to go this far with this ... but another thought just hit me ... Now I'm not blasting game developers in any way .. but I ALWAYS hear about how the game development cycle is one of a nice easy beginning and then it's a mad crush at the end to finish the game ... coming from a marathon runner ... that just doesn't make mudch sense to me ... maybe we need to convince some of the industry to people to take a good hard honest look at themselves and evaluate their whole production process. That way ... we ... the consumers with our hard earned money ... will be happy to spend it on a product which we can be confident will give us what we desire and won't be a bug ridden festering pile, and the corps will meet their bottom line, and the developers will get their fame and recognition ... and we get to have our lil bit of fun saving the world one more time.

And THEN finally we won't have to deal with all these stupid return policies and what not that these stores keep inflicting on us.


ps be gentle on me again please I really didn't think about what  I wrote .. i kinda just let meyself be guided by the force so please don' ask me to explain myself