Put On Your Thinking Cap

Behind the scenes, small retailers are juggling many issues, often leaving their store in the hands of an employee to operate the cash register, monitor the floor and help customers.

Employees need to follow company policies, but how much flexibility should they have when it comes to customer service? I began thinking about this issue a couple of weeks ago when I stopped by a small boutique in Dupont Circle that I've frequented for years.

It sells clothing from small designer labels, jewelry and other accessories, along with a smattering of items for kids. I found a great straw hat for my 4-year-old daughter -- replete with a bow tied above its brim sporting hanging blue lilac flowers on a white sash and a bright blue ribbon.

It was an unusual hat for a little kid and an impulse buy, but I knew it would be perfect for my little girl who often wears a tiara to school and wouldn't think about eating ice cream without rainbow-colored sprinkles.

I also picked up a travel game I could play with my kids while on our very long plane flight the next day to Israel. When I went to the counter to get rung up, I asked about the return policy. I was about to be out of the country for two weeks and wanted the option to return the hat if it was too small. The very pleasant cashier told me that all items must be returned by two weeks with a receipt. It sounded totally reasonable to me, except I would never be able to make it back to the store in that time frame.

I explained my situation and after some chatting, the cashier ultimately decided that she shouldn't sell the hat and game to me if I wanted the option of returning it. I asked for an extension on the return policy to three weeks, but the cashier said no, so I asked if the owner was available.

The owner said an extension was fine and told the cashier to write on the receipt that the return policy was extended to three weeks.

Ultimately, the hat fit my daughter who loved it and I didn't need to return it. But it made me think about return policies and how much flexibility an owner can give an employee who is faced with making decisions outside of the normal policy -- especially if it affects a sale.

By Sharon McLoone |  May 22, 2008; 8:00 AM ET
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