I buy at retail and try a lot of new gear as it becomes available. More than once I have made some terrible decisions on what I thought would work for me. I don't like throwing away money on a bad decision if I can help it.
Worse case is boots that don't fit. Best case is a pack that I don't like for every detail but is an awesome pack none the less.
The better on-line or local retailers give you zero grief on returning unused items. The very best of the on-line retailers even pay to have the item shipped back to them. Many of the best clothing manufactures and some of the best retail out-lets offer a 100% satisfaction guarantee and/or a lifetime guarantee.
For years North Face stood behind their Goretex products and replaced one of my jackets twice before discontinuing that specific model. That garment was eventually replaced with a jacket I didn't work well for my use. But North Face Warranty always went the extra mile to make it right. I bought a lot of North Face gear because of that first transaction and the ones that followed it. A few years later I bought my wife a jacket on sale, as a gift, that ended up not fitting. The local North Face retail store where we bought her jacket from refused to take the jacket back for credit or exchange and the staff got more than a little nasty with my wife in the process. After all the good customer service over the years with the North Face Warranty Department standing behind their products that one face to face transaction at a North Face retail store stopped us from buying North Face again. You still can't mention North Face around my wife because of that experience! It really was that bad.
In my industry/business the parts I buy are expensive and have to be 100% right or they don't work. My first "learning" experience with a warranty started with a major part that costs about $600 and is the platform for a $4000 machine. When I found that part with a manufacturing defect I called up the manufacture directly, stated the problem and asked that the part be replaced. To my shock...yes shock...the manufacture refused replacement and waffled his way around the real issues ultimately blaming the problem on me.
I was truly dumbfounded at the response or lack of it in this case.
Thank goodness I had bought the part from a major wholesaler in the industry. They offer a 100% satisfaction guarantee with anything they sale. No questions asked after I called and explained the situation. They sent me out a new part the next day even before I had returned the broken one! They are a class act and a business I will go out of my way to deal with even if at times I pay a little more for their products. The difference for me in that transaction was literally making money that month or loosing $4000.
If you want a truly outstanding customer service experience all it generally takes is a trip to NORDSTROM's.
So I have gotten to the point where I check to see what the return policy is where I buy gear. Eddie Bauer, REI, OR and Mountain Hardware all have a "Life Time" guarantee. And I have used that guarantee in the last 12 months at REI, Eddie Bauer, Outdoor Research and Mountain Hardware to my complete satisfaction. I have also used the return policy at Zappos.com and Backcountry.com with zero hassles. Generally it was gear I bought and decided I didn't need or would not use, wrong size, bad fit or sometimes it was a minor fault that was replaced with a duplicate and a couple of times it has been gear that just didn't live up to the advertised expectations. No matter the reason I walked away happy in the end at all the businesses mentioned.
What I didn't include is all the online retailers, store front retailers or the wholesaler themselves I have dealt with in the last 12 months that have offered less than stellar service. Over charging on shipping, return hassles or no returns, wrong gear sent, slow refunds etc. All that and more in the last 12 months.
The guys mentioned in a positive light are the best of the best that I have purchased gear from. When making your own purchases check out the retailer (online and local) and see what their return policy and guarantees are. You might be surprised. The one policy that bugs me is "no returns on climbing equipment". Many of the smaller retailers use that as a catch all. If it even remotely represents climbing gear, generally all sales are final. Most likely (but not always) it means the same store will send you to the manufacture with any warranty issues instead of dealing with it themselves. Decide for yourself if that is a good or bad thing. I like dealing with and solving the problem with, the guy who took my money.
Be cautious! The outdoor industry is huge. The buying power of "us" as a customer base is huge as well. The profit margins on soft goods is almost unbelievable. Hard goods, a far bit less so. But don't just assume when your gear breaks or you blow a seam in you favorite piece of clothing that you just go buy a new one. Take a look at it...think about it. Read the manufacturer's own fine print! Should it have done better? Maybe it was long past warranty and it's useful life expectancy! But if not, call the manufacture. The warranty info is generally easy to find on line. Call them up and let them know the problem and ask how they are going to fix it? The good ones will jump at the chance to fix the problem.
If need be, hold their feet to the fire a bit :) And, oh my gosh, be careful with foot ware. Good alpine/ice climbing boots can easily hit $500 or more these days. From my experience I can easily say, never, ever, buy directly from a boot manufacture. Always buy boots from a respected and honest retailer...REI, ZAPPOS (Zappos has better than average boot sales and easy returns) and Backcountry.com come to mind. And make sure they fit before going out side even though sometimes it is almost impossible to tell, or you'll own them. (REI is the one exception to the rule that I know of) Again. from personal experience I don't know of a boot distrubutor (almost everything is a Italian made) in the USA that won't weasle walk on you if you have a boot problem including obvious manufacturer's defects. "Repair instead of replace" is the common answer....or it is a "cosmetic defect, no problem". Sound familiar?
The bad ones??...even a blow torch won't help. "Caveat emptor!".
You might be surprised at the end result.