The Threat of Substitution Is Always Around the Corner

the who

Now I have Substitute by The Who stuck in my head.

So I had a particularly notable and unsatisfying customer service experience this year. I say “this year” because it’s been slowly unfolding like a slow-motion train wreck throughout almost all of 2020.

Bear with me here, because it’s kind of a convoluted tale.

There’s a brand of outdoor apparel that I’ve been loyal to for longer than I want to admit. I’m not going to name it because I’m not here to drag the company over its debacle. I have a larger point to make, and being publicly mean to them detracts from that. I’m no Karen.

All I’m going to say is that I’ve been a fan of its hiking shorts for years. They’re well-made and ridiculously durable. So durable — in fact — that I’ve seldom had to buy replacements over the years. If you know how hard I am on clothing and equipment, you’ll appreciate where I’m coming from.


I ordered a new pair of hiking shorts April 16, 2020. They were delivered on April 22. They sent me the wrong size. Like, not even close. But, no problem! I filled out the RMA form on their website to arrange an exchange for the right size on April 23 — then hit submit.

The system sent me an automatic reply:

“Thank you for contacting us. Please be informed that to ensure the safety of our staff and community, we have minimized personnel in our customer service department. Therefore returns & exchange request processing will experience service delays until further notice.

Due to this change, we have extended the return/exchange window indefinitely to accommodate for any response delays you may experience.”

Okay, fine. We’re in the middle of a pandemic. It’s affected my business, too, I totally understand.

May 3. I’d had no correspondence back from them. So I emailed them. Their automated system sent me the same message as before.

  • May 19 — Someone finally emails me back, promising me an RMA and a FedEx shipping label.
  • May 21 — I finally get the RMA and FedEx shipping label.
  • May 27 — My exchange arrives. It’s the wrong product entirely.
  • June 3 — They send me a new RMA and FedEx shipping label.
  • July 17 — It occurs to me that I’d gotten busy with other things and forgotten all about this. I send their customer service an email inquiry on the status of my exchange. Again with the automated message asking for my patience.
  • August 8 — I remember again that I haven’t heard back. I email them again. Again, an automated message.
  • August 17 — Someone finally emails me to apologize and tell me that the style I want is out of stock, and offers me a refund. I politely accept the refund.
  • August 20 — Refund processed to my PayPal.

While all of this was slowly working its way along, I was still online shopping elsewhere, and found a different pair of shorts from another apparel brand that I ordered on spec, and fell in love with. Notwithstanding the glacial pace of the first brand’s customer service, my brand loyalties have shifted.

During this whole wild year, my household’s online shopping has been the most it ever has, and things get sometimes have to be returned. Literally, no other store we’ve bought from online has skipped a beat in their returns and exchanges. Certainly, no one else took four months to process an exchange.

This brings me to my point: Michael Porter’s Five Forces analysis of competition lays out:

  • Threat of new entrants.
  • Threat of substitutes.
  • Bargaining power of customers.
  • Bargaining power of suppliers.
  • Competitive rivalry.

Let’s focus on the Threat of Substitutes. Other brands, vendors, products etc. are always out there in the wings trying to gain market share. Giving a loyal customer a chance to shop around means you run the risk of them finding something they like even more than they like you and moving on.

That ends the lesson.