The point of "Point of No Returns"

Marketplace broadcast an episode featuring “secret shoppers” who tested the consistency of stated return policies at various retailers in Toronto. The complainant, Paul Shantz, thought that the program was advocating the rip-off of retailers, and that the message was to encourage consumers to take advantage of return policies. I found that the program was clear that the purpose of the secret shoppers’ return attempts was to test the consistency of the application of store policy. The program was also clear that there is a cost to fraudulent returns. The context in which the scenarios were played out did not advocate unacceptable behavior and the program did not violate CBC journalistic policy.

COMPLAINT

In January, 2014, the CBC News consumer affairs show, Marketplace, broadcast an episode entitled “Point of No Returns.” Produced as a result of audience suggestions, it addressed the issue of return policies and some of the problems associated with returning merchandise in Canada.

Three Canadians were chosen to play out scenarios involving returning merchandise. The program provided them with some training in negotiations – some tips and pointers on how to successfully negotiate to get a full refund on merchandise. There were three scenarios enacted by the consumers chosen. In the first case, they were asked to get a cash refund for merchandise without the original packaging, although they did have receipts. In the second, the customers had no receipts and were instructed not to provide any personal information. In the third instance, the ante was even higher – in one case, the participant was asked to return a half-eaten meal at McDonald’s; another was to return a dress that had been worn, and the third was to return a custom-ordered can of paint, even though the store policy clearly stated that the sale of such items was a final one.

It was the “boot camp” where the CBC shoppers were coached, and the scenarios enacted that caused you to complain. You felt the programming was advocating and condoning unethical and immoral behavior. You felt that Marketplace was advocating that consumers attempt to cheat retailers:

I get really disturbed when corporations are taking advantage of customers, but it is also true that the reverse happens as well.

I am quite disgusted that CBC would run a “how-to rip off retailers” show which basically is encouraging the public to take advantage of retailers, and providing them with the tools to do so.

You stated that the first two of the three “challenges,” as the show put it, were in a grey zone, but that the third went too far, and encouraged improper behavior. You pointed out that this third challenge “does not in anyway benefit honest consumers, only ones that are trying to cheat retailers. The long-term results of this would be more people trying to rip-off retailers and that will lead to higher prices for everyone else.” You also mentioned that a sale is seen as a contract, and that a non-refund policy is part of the terms and conditions of sale. You believe that CBC was providing the skills and opportunity for the shoppers to break a contract.

You felt the explanations given you by the program’s senior producer only rationalized the program, and that the proper response would be an admission of error and another program dealing with the issue of consumer fraud.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The senior producer of Marketplace, Chad Paulin, responded to your concerns. He explained that unlike some American states and the European Union, Canada does not have consumer laws that govern returns. In this country, retailers set their own policies. He said it is up to consumers to know and understand them. With that in mind, he explained the goal of the program:

Our goal was not to teach people to cheat retailers as you suggest, but rather to see how often stores are consistent with their own policies, with the aim of empowering consumers in the absence of any real consumer protection.

He told you that research they conducted before producing the episode indicated that although stores have stated policies, those policies are not applied consistently. That is why they decided to test out various scenarios. The goal of the “boot camp” was to give the designated shoppers skills to advocate for themselves effectively and to view the process as a negotiation. He went on to explain the goal of the three “challenges” carried out by the chosen shoppers:

We designed each of the three challenges to highlight types of returns honest customers attempt every day or situations that stores frequently encounter. With respect to the issue of contract law that you have raised, we were aware that our testers had no right to go in and make demands, that all they could do was ask the store to make an exception.

As with all Marketplace tests, we did not know what the results would be in advance. Each of our nine tests were based on real life situations and gave the store the opportunity to uphold their policy or go outside that policy and provide enhanced customer service. In many of our test cases, retailers responded by making an exception to their return policy.

He addressed the issues you raised about the third test undertaken – the one that included a previously worn dress, a partially eaten meal, and a custom can of paint. He explained that they were unsure of the outcome, and in all cases they were testing the reaction to the attempted returns. He said that according to estimates from U.S. industry sources, only 1% of customers commit fraud when returning merchandise. He also noted that they decided to include the return of a worn article of clothing because it is a common practice. He also assured you that the program did not wish to cause any loss to retailers, and offered to return the cash and gift cards the shoppers had obtained.

REVIEW

As a consumer affairs program, Marketplace has a particular mandate and responsibility to inform consumers and to hold to account companies and institutions that interact with them. The program must do so within the CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices. The policy guide provides some extra guidance for consumer journalism. The principles of consumer reporting are clearly spelled out:

Consumer information programs are intended to help consumers make informed choices of goods and services or to show how to solve certain problems. This is consistent with the mandate to inform citizens so that they may make decisions on public issues.

The conclusions set out in this kind of reporting are based on thorough research and not on personal opinion. Research for such programming will be meticulous and will be carried out as much as possible in consultation with competent organizations and specialists.

The program in question set itself the goal of helping consumers solve the problem of legally obtaining refunds. It did so by testing various circumstances and situations their research told them were fairly common. There is nothing in the language or the tone that advocates committing fraud. The script clearly states the purpose of the boot camp is to provide negotiating skills, to maximize the possibility of obtaining a refund. The instructor in the boot camp is not advocating any particular outcome, but teaching a particular approach applicable to any negotiation. The technique prescribed is to be patient and civil. This would conform to the policy statement that the program can “show how to solve certain problems,” in this case, to maximize the chance of getting the money back. Program Host Erica Johnson sets out the program’s purpose at the outset:

Stores in Canada don’t have to give you your money back or an exchange or even a credit. That means a successful return often comes down to a shopper’s individual abilities. And that’s what we’re testing.

Your concerns arise from the scenarios created for the chosen consumers. I see your point that by highlighting it at all, one could be seen to be encouraging returns, no matter the justification. The program is careful to emphasize that this is being done to test the consistency of response in an environment where stores set and interpret their own policies in the absence of any regulatory framework.

The first scenario is created to test the policy that items must be returned in their original packaging. The reason for the second scenario is explained by Ms. Johnson: “Challenge number two targets the fact a lot of stores now ask people to disclose personal info during returns.”

The context for those choices is clearly provided – that store policies are not consistently applied, and there are ways to maximize the chances of getting a refund. In tone and in substance, I do not see this as encouraging fraudulent behavior. The program lives up to its obligation for fairness in other ways: it points out that liberal return policies are a way of keeping customer loyalty and, conversely, that those who abuse those policies increase costs for everyone.

It goes further than that, as it is obliged to do by CBC’s journalistic standards and practices; it provides another perspective entirely through an interview with a spokesperson for the Retail Council of Canada. In order to get a different perspective on the second scenario, testing the need to provide personal information to get a refund, Ms. Johnson asked Stephen O’Keefe, the Retail Council spokesperson, why retailers would require personal details, and he explained it is done not to “affect the honest customer, but to act as some kind a deterrent” for customers who are trying to take advantage of the system. Ms. Johnson adds that the Council says customers who take advantage are costing stores a billion dollars a year.

The third scenario troubled you the most, because it comes closest to crossing an ethical line. The three shoppers were asked to try to return a half-eaten meal, return a customized can of paint which is marked “no return” and to return a dress that was worn. The context was provided, and it was certainly not to get consumers to take advantage. The program host stated:

Our three testers have spread out in and around Toronto’s Eaton Centre. They’re trying to get a refund or credit to see how far stores will bend their return policies to keep customers happy. Danielle’s trying something people do all the time, returning clothing after it’s been worn. In the industry, it’s a worry called “wardrobing.”

Further context is provided from the perspective of the Retail Council representative after this challenge as well. He points out that when a store can’t resell the merchandise, such as used clothing, it takes a loss, which hurts the retailer and the customer through higher prices.

The Marketplace episode functioned from the point of view of the consumer, as is its mandate, but it provided proper context about why the issue of retail returns matters, and its cost to both consumers and retailers. While its examples may have been audacious, I see no indication that it was promoting fraudulent behaviour. Rather, it recreated plausible common scenarios and tested them out so that both store owners and shoppers might draw their own conclusions about return policies and how they are applied.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman