Leading Article: When the unreadable is returnable

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The Independent Online
IT SOUNDS like a repeat of the Hoover fiasco waiting to happen. Books etc, a chain of 10 London bookshops, has just made a remarkable offer to its customers: when they buy books, they may read them for a month and then bring them back if they do not like them. The only conditions are that customers have to produce the original receipt, and the books they return must still be sellable. The chain hopes that only one book in 20 will find its way back - and that increased sales will vastly outweigh the cost of returns.

Traditionally, that kind of no-questions-asked guarantee has been offered only on two kinds of products: either those so cheap that few people go to the trouble of claiming their rights (when did you last post back to Kellogg's a half-eaten packet of Corn Flakes?); or those that are unharmed by use. Persian carpet dealers, who know that faded colours and gentle wear make rugs more attractive, often tell their customers that they will buy rugs back at the original price years after they have been sold.

To make such offers on goods that are hard to resell with imperfections, a firm has to be either foolhardy or supremely confident of its product. Marks & Spencer won millions of customers by allowing them to try on clothes at home before deciding whether to keep them. John Lewis emblazons its carrier bags to this day with the legend 'Never knowingly undersold', meaning that customers who can find the same product sold more cheaply elsewhere can claim a refund of the difference.

In recent years, though, it has been in the US and Japan that companies have been most daring. In Tokyo, electronics companies routinely do repairs and give refunds on faulty products well after any formal guarantee has expired. Bread and Circus, a fast-growing US supermarket chain, gives customers their money back if they do not like something they have bought - and twice their money back if there is something wrong with it.

British business has often been strangely reluctant to do the same. Even on products as hard-wearing as compact discs, consumers often find themselves fobbed off with a credit note when they come back dissatisfied - as an Independent writer did last week with a recording of Rossini's Stabat Mater that featured a German tenor whose vibrato he found uncongenial.

Yet with luck the Books etc initiative could herald a wider trend. Earlier this year Jaguar started offering buyers of its cars in the US an unprecedented guarantee that allowed them to buy a car, drive it around for 30 days and then return it. Contrary to the predictions of pessimists, the return rate has been less than 1 per cent. A wide spectrum of businesses in the UK could learn a lesson from that. Let wine merchants be next.