I buy a lot of backpacking gear online, but no matter how much product research I do up-front, there are times when I need to return it. The sizing might be wrong, the product might weigh more than the web site said, or the gear may be less capable than I expected.
Whatever the reason, it helps to buy outdoor products from online merchants with liberal return policies that are designed to protect the consumer and make returning products easy.
For my reference, as well as yours, I’ve compiled the current (October- 2012) return policies of the multi-brand outdoor retailers that I do business with, as well as some comments about my experience returning products to them. If you have any questions about specific cases, please contact the retailer directly. I don’t work for any them and I can’t predict how they’ll apply their policies for every circumstance.
REI’s return policy is legendary and they do not have a time limit on when you can return a purchase. Their attitude is that you should be 100% satisfied, so you can often return a product even if you’ve used it and it didn’t work well. They just ask that you clean or launder it before returning it if it has been used.
I usually just drive to my local REI which is 15 minutes away and return the product in person, but you can also return products to them by mail, even without the original receipt! They do not pay for return shipping or postal insurance, however, but in-store returns are a way to cut this additional cost.
Backcountry.com has an unlimited product return policy, if you are not completely satisfied with your purchase or if your gear fails it’s warranty. There is no time limit on returns, but you need to get an RMA number from their website to return a product and Backcountry.com does deduct the cost of postage from your refund if you print out a UPS label on their web site. The advantage of doing this instead of paying for the postage yourself is that you don’t have to pay for insurance. The disadvantage is that you have to drop your return off at a UPS store or pick-up point, which can be a pain.
MooseJaw’s return policy is ok, but not as good as the ones from REI or Backcountry.com. They will issue you a refund, without a time limit, as long as your gear is RESELLABLE. I have no idea what that means, and there are exceptions like load bearing climbing equipment which can’t be returned. Like Backcountry.com, they do supply you with a prepaid shipping label (Fedex), but the cost of shipping is deducted from your purchase price.
EMS also has a good return policy. There’s no time limit on returns and you can return a purchase without the original receipt provided that you give them proper id. All items must be in good condition upon return, preferably with all accessories and original packaging, but you can use an item before returning it.
EMS makes you pay for the return shipping yourself, but they will refund the shipping cost if it’s the result of a manufacturing defect or shipping error. There is also the option to return the product to one of their 60+ stores, which can further reduce the cost of a return.
Campsaver only provides a 60-day return policy, although new, unused, and unopened items can be be returned to them for up to a full year. Items returned after the 60 day time limit are assessed a 50% restocking fee. Campsaver requires that you obtain an RA# from their web site or customer service department before returning an item and does not pay for return postage, unless you are returning an item that was received in damaged condition.
Altrec’s return policy is very similar to Campsaver’s – 60 days in original condition with all packaging and accessories, except for climbing equipment, climbing helmets, undergarmets including swim suits, and water bottles or equipment with an integrated water reservoir. None of these exceptions are returnable, so buyer beware. The only exceptions to these exceptions or any other products are defects caused by manufacturer error, which can be returned at any time.
Altrec does not don’t pay postage or provide you with shipping labels, so make sure you insure your package before returning it. They also require that you create and print out a packaging list to include in your return.
I think Zappos has one of the best return policies online and I make a point to buy hiking boots and trail shoes from them if they have them in stock and at a competitive price.
When buying shoes online, especially hiking boots or trail shoes, you cannot rely on manufacturer fit lists to get the correct size for your foot. Zappos totally gets this, and so when I buy shoes from them, I buy several pairs at once and bracket the size that I expect I need, so I can try out different sized shoes out with a variety of socks. Then I return the shoes that didn’t fit.
Zappos encourages this behavior by paying for all product shipping and return shipping.costs (US only) for 365 days from purchase. You can return unused items in their original packaging as long as that the merchandise is the same condition as when received. For shoes, this generally means you shouldn’t wear them outside or scuff them up. To return a product, you log into their web site, print out a prepaid UPS and USPS label for your package and send it back. Here’s a great video that illustrates the process.
Those are the main retailers that I buy mainstream backpacking gear from in the US. While I haven’t included any of the cottage manufacturers I do business with, I’ve never experienced any issues with them that weren’t easily rectified with an email. Ultralight cottage industry manufacturers rely on word-of-mouth referrals for their business and in my experience will go out of their way to make sure that all of their customers are satisfied, to the point of repairing used gear for free and paying the postage.
I hope this post was useful and encourage you not to take advantage of retailers who have liberal return policies unless you need them.
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