Easy Product Returns -- at an Extra Cost?

Illustration: Harry Campbell
"Satisfaction Guaranteed." That's the traditional merchant's pledge to customers, a promise that if you aren't happy, they'll make things right. Such promises used to be an integral part of the shopping experience.

Now, however, some e-tailers are offering that kind of guarantee as a checkout extra--a service that you pay for, like extended warranties. And like so many other services these days, it's outsourced.

Assurz, a relative newcomer in online commerce, is the purveyor of the "100% Satisfaction Guarantee" you can now obtain for most products at TheNerds.net (and, by the time you read this, at TigerDirect). Offered during checkout, the service will tack about 3 percent onto the cost of your purchase.

A Paid Satisfaction-Guaranteed Policy

Here's what Assurz's service promises: 90 days to decide whether to send the purchase back; full reimbursement for all charges, including shipping, should you decide to return it; and prepaid return shipping by Assurz.

That's much better than TheNerds.net's standard return policies: 30 days for returns, you pay for return shipping, and the company deducts shipping charges plus a 3 percent "credit card convenience fee" from the refund for returned items.

The charges are only part of the hassle. Like most retailers, TheNerds.net requires that you call for an RMA (Return Merchandise Authorization) number before sending anything back; if you don't get that number, the company charges a 15 percent restocking fee.

When I tried buying a TomTom One GPS unit from TheNerds.net and opted for Assurz, I encountered an initial glitch: The total bill reflected the $7.87 cost for Assurz, but the service wasn't itemized in the printout or the Web version of the bill. This matters because you need an Assurz number as well as your order number if you want to use the service.

I quickly called customer service and was told it would be fixed immediately. But the itemized charge was still missing a week later, when TheNerds.net e-mailed me to say that the item was out of stock and that they would refund the amount billed to my card.

Returns Only

Assurz CEO Steve Hoffman says that Assurz offers what he calls "regret-free shopping." For retailers, it promises to lower the abandoned-shopping-cart rate among nervous customers.

Of course, some shoppers might be annoyed that they have to pay for the service; but Assurz says some of its merchant customers absorb the cost of the service themselves.

Assurz doesn't solve all post-purchase issues. Hoffman emphasizes that it does not, for example, accept returns of defective products; these must be handled through the manufacturer's or retailer's warranty process. Rather, it is meant to be the perfect antidote for buyer's remorse.

While I love the concept, I'm less thrilled about having to pay up front for it. After all, I don't buy tech products intending to return them, so to my mind Assurz's service is like insurance: a bet that things won't go as planned, and that the retailer won't be there to help you. It's a shame that customers now have to pay to guarantee their own satisfaction because merchants can't afford--or don't feel the need--to do it anymore.

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