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Maybe your can of beans is dented or damaged and you don’t notice til you get home from the grocery store. Maybe the bread you just bought is moldy and you don’t find out until you pull out a slice. Are you going to drive all the way back to the store to return it, or hang onto it and try to remember to bring it – along with your receipt – the next time you go shopping? More likely, unfortunately, you’ll just end up tossing it and taking the loss.

Well, Walmart doesn’t want that to happen to you. It’s invented a new online return process that will refund your money for damaged or unwanted groceries – and you may never have to leave home to get your money back.

Don’t race to Walmart’s website just yet, because the idea so far exists only in the form of a newly-published patent application. “System and Method for Automatically Processing Online Refund Request” describes a system that will allow you to log on, submit a refund request online, and if you’re lucky, you may not have to return the actual product to the store at all.

By using an app to scan your product’s bar code, or typing in a name and description of the item online, you can explain what was wrong with the product, describe its condition, and request a refund. The system will then do a cost-benefit analysis to determine whether the store actually wants the item back. Is it opened or half-eaten? Is it something that can be reshelved or donated? Or is it so inexpensive that taking it back would be more costly than it’s worth?

If the system decides it’s not worth the trouble of taking your returned item back, it will give you a refund or a credit to your account, and tell you not to bother returning the actual item to the store. That’s similar to what some other online retailers do – if you’ve ever tried to return an inexpensive item to Amazon, for example, sometimes you’re given a refund and told you don’t actually have to send the item back.

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If the system decides the store should accept your return, then there’s no getting around the fact that you’re going to have to head back to the store. But Walmart’s proposal tries to make the process as painless as possible. It describes a “speedy return counter or a kiosk” where customers with preauthorized refunds can return their item at their leisure, and “skip the standard line for returns.”

Lest you think that you can stroll through Walmart grabbing a cartful of inexpensive items, submit for a refund online, and then keep the products – Walmart has already thought of that. “Serial returners” can be flagged by the system and prevented from using the online return process, if they request too many returns in a certain period of time, or if they try to return too many items that are past their expiration date or already half-eaten.

Ultimately, the idea behind the improved return process is to make things easier for you – and make that reflect better upon Walmart. “Grocery items are generally inexpensive, and not many consumers would like to make a trip back to a store and wait in line simply to return a bag of candy that is worth less than $3,” Walmart’s patent application explains. “The value of the returned product is not worth the time and effort to return it.”

That’s annoying for you, but potentially worrisome for Walmart. “The store that sold the product is not benefited from this,” the application goes on, “because the consumers would blame the store for their loss and switch away to other stores.”

After all, if you end up having to pay for products that are no good and have to be tossed out, are you likely to keep shopping at a store that forces you to throw your hard-earned money into the trash? If Walmart can make it easy to get your money back, you might not mind so much shopping there again in the future.

So if this idea becomes reality, you’ll be able to shop with confidence, knowing that you’ll never have to pay for groceries that you never get to eat. Until then, better keep checking the condition of your groceries carefully before you leave the store, because as all savvy shoppers know – the most expensive food you buy, is the food you throw away.

Image source: Walmart

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