Database Nation

There is an interesting piece in Sunday’s Washington Post on some of the consequences of the rising number of special-purpose databases popping up. The central example in the Post story is a returns database used by retailer “Express”:

Darlene Salerno considers herself a loyal customer of the Express clothing chain, shelling out roughly $2,000 for its trendy outfits each year for the past decade. On a recent shopping trip, she bought a tank top, a button-down shirt and some khaki pants, but realized when she got home that she had similar items in her closet. So a few days later she took them back to the store. She presented the items, the receipt and waited for her money.

Instead, the saleswoman handed her a slip of paper that said “RETURN DECLINED” and told her to call the toll-free number at the bottom for more information. She phoned and was informed her account showed “excessive” returns.

Apparently Limited Brands, which is the company that owns Express, has put in place a new database that tries to detect return fraud. There are, apparently, some people who use clothing stores as giant closets for their weekly workwear, “buying” something on Saturday, wearing it that week, and returning it the following weekend. The Express’s new database is intended to pick up that sort of things, and then deny those frequent returners the right to actually return product.

It is interesting, but as always it is only as good as the underlying data. As the piece rightly points out, errors in the rising number of databases containing fragmented information about you and I is costly to correct. First you have to know the database exists, and then you have to find the error and prove that it is incorrect. It is time-consuming, at the very least.

And what about aggregating that sort of information? It is easy to imagine that multiple retailers might like to combine forces and find returns fraudsters at Gap, Express, and Victoria’s Secret. According to the piece, that has been discussed among chain-owners, but it is not yet going on.