Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Return this--if you can - Sao Paulo

One of my least favorite things to do in Brazil is to return something that I have bought or been given. The process is so archaic and so customer-unfriendly, you cannot believe it. Today I had smoke coming out of my ears at the plumbing supply shop--I'm guessing you could see the fumes in Miami.

Here's how the return policy works in most cases. You buy something, in this case a faucet part. You are so proud because your Portuguese has worked for a technical piece of equipment. Chuffed, you swan home in a haze of ego puffery.

You pull apart the faucet, because you are American and self-sufficient. You once were a do-it-yourselfer hanging out at Home Depot. Then you realize that the US$25 part does not work in the faucet, in spite of the authorized dealer telling you it will.  In spite of the manual saying it will. It will not.

Being American and hopeful means that you will go back to that same shop later that day. With the unopened product. And they will say to you: sorry, no money back. Not even store credit--you can choose something of same value that very day only. Yet I find myself not in need of any other plumbing part. 

According to consumer rights' laws here, there are two ways to get your money back. One, if you have bought something on-line, you have seven days to return for a refund. I assume this is because the actuality might be different from the photo on line. Two, in a commercial establishment, you may return an item for your money back in the case of defect or if the item is "inappropriate for consumption". Then you have 30-90 days (the difference being non-durable and durable items). In practice you will have a tough time proving "inappropriate for consumption" and you cannot return something just because you've decided you didn't like it, or you already have one.

Most stores allow a return within 30 days only. When you return something, you do not get your cash back. Or credit on your card. No, you have to choose something else in that store and right away. If the value is lower, they do not give you the difference. More likely is you find something more expensive and you have to pay the difference.
Now what happens when your twin boys get duplicated birthday presents? You run all over São Paulo trading them in at the various stores before the 30 day limit expires. Each time you don't get money or a charge back on your card--only a credit that you must use immediately. Now. Quick--the Ironman costume or the Hot Wheels tower?  Never mind that they don't play with either--I've got to trade it in! I'm in a panic!

A Target or Nordstrom's would eat these return policies for lunch. My father once returned a pair of shoes to Orvis after 15 years asking if they could re-sole them and they just sent him a new pair. My father is an Orvis man for life.

I would have a difficult time saying the same about my local stores.


  1. Great post! I haven't had to go through this ritual yet, but I am dreading the day that I will need to.

  2. That's a very good point. I think a lot of Brazilians will be surprised to know that the law doesn't support consumers returning goods just because they changed their minds (i.e., if there's nothing wrong with the product). I certainly was. In fact, here's an article that says pretty much the same thing:

    On the other hand, the cynic in me thinks that Target and Nordstrom would love to use a Brazilian returns policy if they could. They are probably forced to "be nice" to consumers either by law or a competitive environment where they stand to lose sales if they're not.

    What I mean to say is that the current consumer laws in Brazil were actually a big improvement when they were first introduced (1990) but 23 years later, it's probably time for some changes. Why don't you start a campaign at to update consumer protection laws in Brazil? There's probably a project lying around Congress somewhere that hasn't garnered enough public pressure or political will to move it forward.

    1. I don't doubt they are an improvement. I think I will let the Brazilians lead the charge at the campaign, but I like how you're thinking. I pretty much try not to buy anything here which is not working out so well.

      Not sure I agree on Target and Nordstrom. I think these two companies, as well as Orvis and in particular LL Bean, among others, have figured out the value of customer loyalty. The fact that my father will look first at an Orvis catalog (yes, remember catalogs?) for something because of how he was treated 10 years ago, is a testament to the value of treating your customers well. If company here ever figures that out, they will be formidable competition.

    2. Sorry but I don't believe in companies that prefer to be nice rather than make a profit. Even the companies you mentioned would provide poor customer service if that made them more money.

      More to the point, I think Brazilian customers are more sensitive to price (and less to customer service) than you think. Maybe that's because they have less disposable income (compared to Americans, for example) or some other reason, but I don't think great customer service alone will do it.

    3. Ah, but don't misread my comments, Andrew. I didn't say they were being nice to be nice. I said "these two companies...have figured out the value of customer loyalty." Specifically, yes, of course, they are realizing that it costs more to cultivate new customers than to keep their old ones loyal and buying more. It has nothing to do with "nice". It has everything to do with money. They are companies after all, not Santa Claus.

      I am going to do a bit of research on your last point. Are Brazilians more sensitive to price than other countries? Maybe classes C & D. That may be changing with the growing middle class. Let me give you a (albeit US) example. I had a used BMW (I think they call it pre-owned) in the US and when I was waiting in the service department one day, a guy came in and absolutely lost it at my customer service rep. After the man had left, I asked Marcos (still remember his name 8 years later) if that happened a lot. He said that yes, and that he preferred his old job working at Honda service because there people were just happy to have a car. At BMW, those who could afford a BMW were expecting to be treated like little gods. Yet, as more people could afford BMWs (that was in a boom time there), they were no longer little gods but rather one of the masses.

      Enfim, what I am trying to say is that I think that Brazil will be expecting more from customer service as its middle class grows. "I deserve" to be treated well. And of course, get the best price...

    4. I agree with you. A lot of it might be a reflection of social inequality: the rich expecting faultless service and the poor expecting none. I sure hope it improves.

  3. Sadly, Target is not all that. I recently had an experience where they refused to let me return a shirt that had been purchased 4-5 months prior (never worn, tags on, etc.) because "that barcode isn't in our computer anymore." They refused to even give me store credit, an exchange, nothing.

    1. Well, darn. Even the mighty Target is fallible.