L.L. Bean Revises Its Legendary Return Policy

Better make these boots last. Lacie Midgley/Shutterstock

In addition to being known for its durable outdoor gear, L.L. Bean's return policy is the stuff of consumer legend. A lifetime satisfaction guarantee meant that you could basically return anything at any time, regardless of when you purchased it, and L.L. Bean would replace it. Take that, boots with worn-down treads!

Now, thanks to what has been described as "a small, but growing, number of customers," L.L. Bean is scaling back and refining its return policy to avoid abuses.

In a letter to customers posted on Facebook, the company's executive chairman, Shawn Gorman, explained that customers now have a year to return any products, with the receipt. That subset of customers mentioned above, Gorman said, was interpreting the original return policy too broadly.

"Some view it as a lifetime product replacement program, expecting refunds for heavily worn products used over many years," he wrote. "Others seek refunds for products that have been purchased through third parties, such as at yard sales.

"Based on these experiences, we have updated our policy. Customers will have one year after purchasing an item to return it, accompanied by proof of purchase. After one year, we will work with our customers to reach a fair solution if a product is defective in any way."

The new policy is the law of the land on all purchases going forward, but if you have something purchased years ago, and you still have a proof of purchase, you can still return it.

"If it's been over a year and someone is able to provide a proof of purchase and if the product does not fall within one of our Special Conditions such as products damaged by misuse, abuse, pet damage, personal reasons unrelated to product performance or satisfaction and more, we would honor the return," L.L. Bean spokesperson Mac McKeever said in an email to Business Insider.

Combating fraud

Over the past five years, abuses of L.L. Bean's return policy had increased enough that, according to Gorman, the cost of returns and replacements from fraudulent claims had eclipsed the annual revenue generated by the company's iconic Bean boots. Fraudulent claims include third-party sales, items that were in perfect shape but someone had outgrown them or items that had just been worn down due to regular use and age.

Returns, as The New York Times reports, can take a bite out of retailers' bottom lines. Around $351 billion is lost to returns, with an estimated $22.8 billion worth of merchandise returned that has been shoplifted and "returned," purchased using fake money or backed with phony receipts.

Customer reaction varied from understanding:

To clearly not grasping the policy's intention in the first place (and also appearing to think that L.L. Bean isn't in the business of making money):

The new return policy still seems pretty generous. A year in which to return something (just make sure you keep that receipt) is better than the 30 to 90 days you get with other retailers.

Additionally, expecting a product to last forever, especially something you might use every day or something that experiences a fair amount of wear and tear, is a little absurd. L.L. Bean's return policy was a sort of social contract; the entire concept is grounded in the customer trusting L.L. Bean to make a long-lasting product and the company trusting the customer to buy a new version of it when it eventually wore out, as all products, particularly shoes, are wont to do.

That L.L. Bean didn't revise this policy sooner — it has existed in some form or another for 106 years — speaks to the fact that the system, generally, worked to L.L. Bean's advantage as a way to differentiate itself from competitors and to be seen as a company with a philosophy behind it, one that that customers wouldn't take advantage of.

Guess we're just living in more cynical times now.