Nordstrom is famously forgiving when shoppers change their minds about purchases.
Customers love it — especially those whose motives may be questionable. The Seattle retailer has been known to take back well-worn clothing, shoes bought years earlier and jars of half-used moisturizer.
When Elana Pruitt was a Nordstrom sales employee years ago, she recalled, shoppers would make purchases with gift cards and then quickly return the items for cash. Technically it's allowed, said Pruitt, 33, now a social media coordinator and fashion blogger in Eagle Rock. But she considers it "a bit tacky."
"We had a lot of really great, loyal customers," Pruitt said, "but because the store was so generous with its policies, it was totally taken advantage of."
These days, shoppers are playing faster and looser, experts say. Serial returners have been conditioned by a culture of retail discounting and tight economic times. And the Internet has opened up new opportunities for testing the limits of retail return policies.
At times, the activity amounts to flat-out fraud. Sham returns involving stolen merchandise, items bought with fake money and doctored e-receipts cost the industry $8.8 billion last year, affecting nearly 95% of retailers, according to the National Retail Federation.
But there's also a mushrooming undergrowth of not-quite scams and ethically hazy work-arounds — tricks that regular customers pull to save some money. Spending a minimum of $50 to get a freebie and then returning everything but the gift. Scouring aggregator websites for online coupon codes intended only for a retailer's email subscribers. When buying discounted items that are final sale, asking for a gift receipt just in case — that way, the product can be exchanged later for store credit.
"To me, it's stealing and it's unethical, but it's a gray area," Pruitt said. "I hate thinking that people next to me in line have agendas, but I'm sure they do."
Some consumers justify their tricky tactics as a necessity in a shaky economy or simply as smart shopping. Others call it a form of retail Robin Hooding — retailers, they say, overcharge for products, and those bloated corporations wouldn't miss a few extra dollars, right? And there are those for whom wriggling through the loopholes in a return policy heightens the thrill of a bargain hunt.
And shopping with subterfuge is getting easier as more consumers go online.
In the wilderness of e-commerce, which sprawls across computers, smartphones and tablets, shoppers have birthed new ways to game the retail system. They can namelessly swap deal-hunting tips on shopper forums and plug in multiple dates to repeatedly tap birthday promotions, among other ploys.
"Consumers are savvier and smarter than they've ever been before," said Matthew Ong, senior retail analyst at online personal finance company NerdWallet Inc. "There's so much more information available — they're talking to hundreds, thousands of other people."
Retailers are playing directly into some of the schemes.
Many offer special deals to first-time shoppers or customers who sign up for email lists, hoping to establish a database of information to help with targeted advertising. But anyone with multiple throwaway email accounts can take advantage of such promotions more than once.
Stores also are flinging deals at shoppers to encourage more digital purchasing. Buy one, get one free! Spend $25, get shipping on the house! Freeloaders will exceed the minimum spending threshold online, get hold of the giveaways and then mail back the rest of the haul, never showing their faces.
"The Internet provides anonymity," Ong said. "You can hide behind your purchases in a way you can't at the checkout counter at the store."
But some retailers are finding ways to block sly shoppers.
Online coupon aggregator RetailMeNot said it monitors coupon redemption from users and is in constant contact with retailers such as Macy's and Best Buy. The company said it tightened the rules for what kinds of codes can be listed by users, whose submissions make up a third of the roughly 500,000 codes in the RetailMeNot database.
Nearly three-quarters of retailers now require customers returning items with no receipt to show identification; 12.3% mandate ID even with a receipt — both up from 2012, according to the National Retail Federation.
Starting last year, dresses priced at $150 or more at Bloomingdale's are tagged with visible black plastic markers that, once removed, prevent the item from being returned.