Worn and Returned: The Truth About 'Wardrobing'

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — She didn't mean to eavesdrop, but fashion blogger Elaine Wiart couldn't help overhearing a questionable comment one woman uttered to her companion while attending an event.

"The woman said, 'Careful not to spill your wine on my dress -- I have to return it to the store tomorrow,'" recalls Wiart, who also works as an image consultant. "And what was worse was that she acted as if this was a perfectly acceptable thing to do."

It turns out that "wardrobing"—the practice of returning an item you've already worn or used that's not defective—might be more common than you think. And while it may seem harmless, the truth is that many retailers are taking notice and implementing stricter return policies as a result. Curious to learn more? Read on to find out who's practicing wardrobing, why it's bad for retailers and how it could impact your own shopping experiences.

Who's Doing It—and Why?

Who exactly are the biggest wardrobing offenders? It seems there's no one-size-fits-all answer.

"There are a lot of people practicing wardrobing—people you would never expect," says Hitha Prabhakar, chief research officer at AitchPe Retail Advisory. "It ranges from celebrity stylists and wealthy suburban soccer moms to young people who are looking for a job and can't afford to buy an interview suit."

But what drives our desire to try and beat the system? Social pressure may be one factor.

"No one wants to be caught wearing the same outfit on multiple occasions," says David A. McKnight, an image and lifestyle consultant. "I've worn things twice, even though they were styled differently, and I've had someone say to me, 'I've seen that jacket before,' as if it's a sin to wear something twice. Also, in the days of Instagram, a lot of fashionistas are looking to get noticed by posting 'selfies' wearing the latest trends, and God forbid they wear something twice."

Prabhakar says that the state of the economy also plays a factor in wardrobing. "Stores saw a spike in wardrobing during the recession when people weren't spending as much but still had events to attend and interviews to go to," she explains. "You usually see a spike in wardrobing during times of economic downturn."

Is It Legal?

Wardrobing might sound like an innocent thing to do—after all, many of us have returned something we've already worn at least once in our lives. But the truth is that wardrobing is actually considered "return fraud."

"It's technically illegal, but the problem is there aren't any real [legal] consequences," says Prabhakar. "And it's difficult to tell if someone has only worn a garment once."

How It's Hurting Retailers

According to the National Retail Federation's 2012 Return Fraud Survey, which was completed by loss prevention executives at 60 retail companies, nearly two-thirds (64.9%) of retailers said they were victims of wardrobing last year.

The survey also found that wardrobing and other forms of return fraud, including returning stolen merchandise and using counterfeit receipts, caused the retail industry to lose an estimated $8.9 billion last year.

How Wardrobing Can Hurt You

It's not just retailers who suffer from the negative effects of wardrobing—shoppers can also feel an impact in the form of stricter return policies.

Bloomingdale's is one major retailer who is reacting to wardrobing with a pretty drastic measure. The store is now attaching "b- tags"—bulky, 3-inch black plastic tags—to dresses retailing for $150 or more. The tags are cleverly attached in places that are difficult to hide when the item is worn, such as on the front bottom hemline, and items returned without the b-tags will not be exchanged or refunded.

"These b-tags are in place to reinforce the fact that Bloomingdale's will be unable to accept a return of merchandise that has been worn, washed, damaged, used and/or altered," a Bloomingdale's spokeswoman tells us.

Alternatives to Wardrobing

We know—wardrobing can be especially tempting if you need more outfits than your budget will allow. But the truth is that there are several honest ways to purchase stylish clothing without breaking the bank.

One idea is to shop at consignment stores, in which you can purchase new or gently used items for a fraction of the original retail price, many by top designers.

"I've often found clothes with the tags still on them for nearly 75% off," says consumer savings expert Andrea Woroch. Woroch says that you can also sell some of your own used clothing and accessories to consignment shops to offset the cost of new items.

If you'd rather buy new than used, you can find brand-name items significantly marked down at designer discount stores such as T.J.Maxx, Marshalls and DSW.

Woroch also suggests checking out the website GiftCardGranny.com, which sells gift cards at a discounted price by popular retailers such as Anthropologie, Bebe, Nordstrom and Bloomingdale's.

And if you don't want to spend any money at all, don't forget about good old-fashioned borrowing. "Get with girlfriends to swap clothes and share dresses to keep your look fresh," says Woroch.

--Written by Kristin Colella for MainStreet

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