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Hi, Kevin Coupe here, and this is FaceTime with the Content Guy.

Recent events, I think, suggest that while businesses think they know what their value proposition is, in the end it is the customer who decides.

Last week, for example,MNB reported on a change made by iconic retailer LL Bean to what was seen as a lifetime return policy. Arguing that it actually has been a “lifetime satisfaction guaranteed” policy, and that a growing percentage of people have been abusing it to the point that it no longer is sustainable, the retailer now has said that returns have to take place within a year, and be accompanied by proof of transaction. (Product defects - even after a year of ownership - will still qualify for an exchange.)

Not surprisingly, the story got a lot of play on Friday.

I was intrigued by two different takes on the announcement.

In Esquire, for example, the story described the previous guarantee as “outrageously generous, and basically unparalleled among retailers—and now it's gone.”

The story went on: “L.L. Bean’s return policy was much more than just a return policy. The legendary vow was as much a marketing tactic as an actual corporate policy. The promise provided the company with plenty of marketing material both in-store and on the website, and it was also an implicit way of telling customers that L.L. Bean’s apparel and footwear is well-made and prodigiously long-lasting. It was a sign that ‘we stand behind everything we sell,’ but now customers will have to take L.L. Bean’s word for it.”

In other words, there is understanding about why the change was made, but somehow the company is less in at least some peoples’ eyes.

At The New Yorker, there was a different take. The story noted that the old policy was a kind of comfort food for shoppers, an indication that “whatever losses it might take on returns it more than made up for in sales, and that the store represented a kind of retail utopia.” But unlike Esquire which seemed to think that the change was a mistake, The New Yorker concluded that the old policy “was an odd corporate experiment in believing the best in people; now that it’s over, it seems crazy that it lasted as long as it did.”

As I’ve said here before, it is a shame that LL Bean found itself in a situation where the old policy was unsustainable, and had to make the change. For me, the retailer’s value proposition is in the quality of the product - I have a dozen of its Sunwashed Canvas Shirts, and pretty much the only reason I get new ones is because they come out with a new color. Some of them must be 20 years old, with no sign of falling apart.

Obviously, for others, it was the guarantee that was the value proposition, even if they misinterpreted it or abused it.

We saw that this week when an Illinois shopper filed a lawsuit against LL Bean, claiming that the company essentially has breached its contract with customers, and asked that the suit be given class action status. The Chicago Tribune writes that “the company’s ‘refusal to honor its warranty’ deprived customers of the bargain, according to the suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Chicago,” which also asked the court “to recover damages for all Illinois residents who bought L.L. Bean products prior to its policy change and order the company to honor the lifetime warranty.”

I imagine that LL Bean’s defense will be that it had a lifetime “satisfaction guaranteed” policy, not a lifetime return policy, even if it was consistently misinterpreted, and that the change is actually more of a clarification. I think that’s a legitimate claim - after all, if a person returns a worn out pair of boots after a dozen years, isn’t that the very definition of satisfaction? (If LL Bean wants to put me on the stand as a semi-expert witness, I’m totally up for it.)

Still, this is a new reality that LL Bean is going to have to live with. As I said in my original commentary, they’ll get blowback but I think it’ll blow over.

But I think it highlights something that every retailer has to do. You know what you think your value proposition is. But are you absolutely sure what your consumers think? Just curious.

That’s what is on my mind this morning. As always, I want to hear what is on your mind.
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