John Lewis' New Forever Return Policy Raises Paperless Issues

The $13 billion John Lewis chain in the UK has rolled out a new return policy time limit: forever. The only requirement is that the customer has to have a paper receipt. And therein lies the problem.

Whether it's through a payment card, loyalty number or some other means, IT has long had the ability to determine whether a product was purchased in its store and by whom, without the assistance of a crumpled piece of thinly sliced dead tree. Those systems are quite efficient at detecting fraud attempts and yet seem to be powerless to enable paperless refunds.

Some cynical sorts might say that the paper receipt requirement's purpose is similar to the rebate form, namely to reduce the monies that are due by making consumers give up to avoid the hassle. With a time-unlimited return, the passage of time makes it increasingly unlikely that the receipt will be retained (and that the consumer would be able to find it).

This raises the disturbing question of whether there's much of an incentive for IT to do away with the paper receipt. How will mobile impact all of this? The idea of printing a receipt from a mobile device seems Victorian quaint. Would John Lewis accept a receipt image displayed on a mobile device?

Of course, paper documents accompany the actual product when it's delivered (regardless of the way the item was purchased), so that's always an option. But why move into the paperless realm and use the systems that are already in position?

"We are able to check a product price, but we aren't able to access customer records at the till points [POS]," said Louise Cooper, senior manager of corporate PR for John Lewis. "Hence, this is why we need customers to bring in their receipt as proof of purchase."

Setting aside the environmental, cost, efficiency, improved accuracy and reduced labor implications of moving toward an almost-paperless store, the customer relations benefits are powerful. A forever return policy suddenly becomes real. No need for people to dig through old files to try and find the receipt from three years ago.

Easier returns translates into a pleasant and trusting experience. And with mobile POS interactions—which will happen sooner in the UK than in the U.S.—the movement to a paperless world may not seem like such a huge journey.