The date for your annual family picnic has been set. You’re bringing your famous corn casserole. Your mom knows you’re bringing your famous corn casserole. She looks through the coupons from the local and Detroit Sunday papers and finds they both have the same coupon for your number one ingredient. She clips them for you. You also clip both coupons from your copies of the Sunday papers and head out to the store.
You get to the checkout line with your four identical coupons from the newspaper only to be told you can’t use them. The store has a new policy limiting you to only two identical coupons per transaction. You feel like they’re looking at you out of the corner of your eye because you’re trying to cheat them out of an extra fifty cents on a can of corn.
Heck, the time it took you to cut those two fifty-cent coupons probably wasn’t worth it, but now you’re walking out feeling judged, and just a little ticked off that the store has such a ridiculously strict policy for something that seems so innocuous. The cashier, feeling your pain, tried to use the third coupon, but it shut down the register completely and needed a manager’s override which only added to your feelings of shame as you could feel the eyes of everyone else in line behind you judging you as the criminal you appear to be.
Does that sound far-fetched?
That is what has happened at a large, Midwest grocery store chain. Apparently to cut down on extreme-couponers and people printing multiple coupons off the Internet, this large chain has reprogrammed their registers to only allow two of any identical coupon per transaction. Use a third one and the register shuts down. Your only choices in the above scenario is to either cause the people behind you to wait even longer while you make the cashier ring up two cans of corn separately or forego the extra dollar in legitimate savings.
Either way, you feel like crap and are probably thinking you’ll avoid that store the next time you have coupons.
Plus, the store really didn’t change anything. The extreme-couponers are still going where the best deals can be made. If that means they stand in the self-checkout line and ring up thirty seven transactions, then they’ll stand in that line. The money they believe they are saving is worth their extra time (and they don’t care about the people behind them in line.)
The store doesn’t save any money or make their business any better, either. In fact, they slow down the checkout as people with three or more coupons have the cashier do multiple transactions. And unless the coupon is provided by the store itself, the store isn’t saving any money. Jolly Green Giant reimburses them for every coupon plus a little extra for handling.
Most importantly, the store sends a loud and strong message to its customers. We don’t trust you!
Here is where the retailer went wrong …
The retailer saw a tiny percentage of customers taking advantage of a loophole or doing something they just didn’t like. The retailer then enacted a restrictive, me-first policy that negatively affected all of their customers, including the ones who never had any intention of “taking advantage” of the retailer. Those customers were just doing what most would call common sense, using the system in place to save a little money.
As retailers we do that often. We create rules to stop the minority by inconveniencing the majority.
We do it with restrictive return policies. I saw one store that had a 30-day return policy. Period. No exceptions. Remind me not to go Christmas Shopping there before Thanksgiving.
We do it with limits for credit card transactions. (See my recent post on that here.)
We do it with rules. I used to have a rule of certain items we wouldn’t giftwrap for free. When we realized the rule was me-first, we changed it to only restrict items around which the wrapping paper wouldn’t stay (like an assembled tricycle).
The funny thing is that these restrictive rules never really stop the behavior we intend them to stop.
People who exploit loopholes will exploit loopholes. If you close one, they’ll look for another. Fortunately these people are the exception, not the rule. So treat them like an exception, not the rule.
Set your policies up to be customer-first.
Make your return policy as liberal as possible. If you have one person taking advantage of the situation, deal with that one person. I had a customer bring back fourteen puzzles one year, all because they were missing a piece. As it turns out, I only had fourteen puzzles returned that year. Those fourteen pieces were the only ones out of a million pieces we sold that were “missing.” I pulled the customer aside, explained this fact to her politely and respectfully, and told her she was no longer allowed to return any puzzles.
You may be surprised to know, she continued buying jigsaw puzzles from us.
Make all your rules less restrictive than your competitors. First, very few people will take advantage of you. Second, most of them are still making you money because they are shopping in your store. Third, no one walks out feeling shamed in any way.
Part of the goal of every transaction is to win the right for another transaction. Piss off your good customers and all you’ll have left are those trying to find another loophole to exploit.
PS Yes, LL Bean just changed their incredibly liberal no-questions-asked-we’ll-take-it-back return policy because of people trying to exploit it. But if you look at it, the new policy is still far more liberal than any of their competitors, still fits their quality-first guarantee, and doesn’t hurt any honest customers in the process.
PPS I’m still trying to understand why this grocer created this new coupon policy. If the coupons were from the brands, the grocer would get reimbursed, so no harm there. If it was because of online coupons being printed multiple times, there are many ways to avoid that issue with today’s technology, or even by going old-school with a really strong legal disclaimer. Either of those would be preferable to being stuck in line behind someone trying to buy seven cans of corn and not understanding why the coupons his sister gave him won’t work.