Fulfillment is a retail industry term for delivering rewards and rebates to customers. When your paid magazine subscription comes with a free tote bag, when your rewards card offers bonus points at specific types of stores, when your certain-dollar-level purchase enters you to win round-trip airline tickets … someone somewhere has to make sure that you meet the qualifications to receive the thing that was promised to you and then fulfill on that promise.
Breakage is the industry term for the actual unspoken goal of fulfillment: that consumers will make an initial purchase and then be too lazy or confused or disorganized or frustrated with the artificial hoops they have to jump through to get their free thing that they’ll miss a deadline or overlook a step or lose a receipt or just get angry and give up. It’s why you have to request your $25 check when you reach 25,000 points on your cash-back card. It’s why you have to supply original receipts and cut out bar codes and fill out an official form to get your $10 rebate on light bulbs. It’s why merchandise returns after 30 days get you store credit that’s issued on a plastic card or slip of paper you can put in a drawer and forget about. It’s why your points expire and the fine print is on a separate website and there’s no number you can call if you have questions.
And I—the 20-plus-year advertising copywriter who writes promotional stuff every day for retail clients and who actually knows how to survive the system—recently racked up $500 in breakage losses.
I bought matching flight suits for the domestic partner and me a couple Halloweens ago at Belmont Army Surplus, whose website sucks so much I’m linking you to a google search instead so you can hate them from lots of links. But the domestic partner is freakishly tall and even the biggest flight suit they carried wasn’t long enough for him. So I took our flight suits back. But Belmont Army Surplus has a Draconian returns-for-store-credit-only policy. They told me they keep all the store credits in a database organized by email address so I didn’t even need to worry about a receipt. Of course, when I went to cash in my store credit for something else, there was no record of my return or even my email address in their database. Since I was dumb enough to believe their database story, my receipt was long gone. And when I asked the guy behind the counter what my options were, he treated me like I was trying to rob him. Moral of the story: NEVER shop at Belmont Army Surplus.
I changed a return American Airlines flight from a business trip last year so I could stick around and have a weekend vacation. Since the ticket was non-refundable, I was given a $400 credit that I had to use for a new flight within a year. Fine. Whatever. But six months later when I went to redeem my credit over the phone, American Airlines informed me that I had to schedule my replacement fight in fucking person at a fucking O’Hare ticket desk. And since I never fly out of O’Hare, it took me (what I thought was less than) a year to finally book a regular O’Hare flight so I’d have a reason to make the trek out there and book my replacement flight. Of course, by the time I got there I’d missed the deadline by three fucking days. When I complained to the desk agent about their stupid schlep-out-to-O’Hare policy, she said I might be able to bypass the rule and book my replacement flight with a supervisor … over the fucking phone. Fucking seriously. And when I called … wait for it … the supervisor told me I’d missed the deadline and I should basically go $400 myself. I fucking hate you, American Airlines.