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.