Barnes & Noble representatives said they are aware that people often return books purchased elsewhere to its more than 500 superstores scattered across the country. Although the company could try to curtail the practice, it prefers to keep a lenient return policy to build goodwill with customers.
"On the store side, we have always had a lenient policy about taking books back from anywhere as long as they are in pristine condition," said Mary Ellen Keating, a Barnes & Noble spokeswoman.
An Amazon representative said only that the practice of buying from Amazon and returning to other stores is "not an honest practice."
This issue underscores the belief that retailers with an online and offline presence will take a competitive advantage in the market. Some consumers think twice about making online purchases because of the hassle in packaging and mailing items that need to be returned.
As a result, experts say online-only companies such as Amazon may have to seek partnerships with offline retailers to make the return process more convenient.
"If an e-tailer doesn't make a return policy as painless as possible, then yeah, they could be losing an important point of customer contact to a potential competitor," said Michael May, an analyst at research firm Jupiter Communications.
For customers, returning Amazon-bought books at Barnes & Noble may have another benefit. Without a receipt from Barnes & Noble, customers can only receive store credit for an exchange--not an outright refund. As a result, shoppers often get back more money than what the book was purchased for at the online store.
Currently, analysts do not estimate online returns to be that significant, especially for items such as books and CDs where shoppers usually know exactly what they are buying.
"Amazon's strategy has always been to provide customers with the most amount of information to minimize the chances of a return," said Alan Mak, an analyst with equity research firm Argus Research. "That seems to be a strategy that other retailers are also trying to adopt."