On re-reading this, I see that it is far longer than intended. My apologies, and I'll do better from here on out.
Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I understand your points, although I do not completely agree with some of them. Let's explore the limits a bit. I must say ... this is getting to be more of a discussion that I originally expected.
First of all, I see what should be returnable as gray -- not black-and-white. For example, if I was sold a stove and assured that it would simmer well -- there is no way to confirm that without trying it (at home or otherwise). If the stove turns out to not simmer, then I would feel I was misled and could return it. Note that is something I had no way to discover while leaving the item in new condition. (Assuming they did not have demo unit I could try -- if they did, then I should have taken advantage of that.)
Another example -- I cannot look closely enough at some things without damaging the packaging (e.g. shrink warp). I have no problem with damaging the packaging and then returning the product if I do not like what I discover. It is unreasonable to package things such that I cannot understand all I need to about the product before buying it.
Your zipper example -- I do not have enough information. It depends on whether the product was defective or not. I can imagine a defective or inferior quality product, in which case I have already agreed you should return it. OTOH I can imagine that I forced or otherwise abused the product, in which case I would certainly not be justified in returning it. The fact that people would make such a return ("I'm not satisfied -- I broke it, so it's not strong enough") is a good example of why REI cannot sell ultralight gear :( But the original example was more like deciding after the trip that you just did not like the sleeping bag as well as you had hoped you would. I do not believe you should return it for that reason -- you could, and should, have figured that out without going on the trip.
"How can you know if you're satisfied with an item unless you USE it in a real-world setting?" Well, several ways. Read, explore on line, published reviews, get opinions from people you respect, see others using it, inspect it carefully, think and analyze, try it out in controlled settings, ....
It seems to me that, basically, the question comes down to where you set the limits. Should I feel free to return something that wears out after 5 years, because I expected it to wear 10 years? Should I return something that fails because I abuse it -- for example I pitch an ultralight tarp such that the wind can catch it and tear it? How about if I catch my crampon in my gaiter and tear my new gaiter -- should I feel free to be dissatisfied with the gaiter and return it (assuming the gaiter was not sold to me as crampon-proof)? Should I return a garment a six months or a year later because I have gained / lost weight, and it no longer fits as well as I want it to? How about when I have been using my purchase for a few months and then something newer-and-better comes out, making me dissatisfied with what I already bought -- should I return the item I bought? How about if I bought a Firesteel and then discovered that it does not throw as many sparks as I hoped, and it is harder to light my stove with it than I had expected?
Just where do you think the limits should be? Surely you do not think there should be no limits, do you? Surely, at some point, the purchase must be final (barring subsequent discovery of a manufacturing defect).
As to the shoes -- "top of the line" does not really matter unless they fell apart (in which case they were defective, and I have already agreed should be returned). Perhaps your shoes were in fact top of the line -- different shoes are best for different people; they just may not have been right for you. More to the point, how hard had you tried to be sure they were right before wearing them in your city hike? How much had you worn them around the house before that city hike? Up and down some stairs, etc? That is the traditional way to be sure about new shoes. Are you saying that you could not reasonably have detected the problem without wearing them outdoors? Since you detected the problem in mere hours outdoors, I would think it is likely it could have been found indoors first. (Granted house wear is probably not a lot of help for such things as downhill ski boots or plastic technical climbing boots.)
Used gear sale -- yes, they recover part, but not all, of their loss. I doubt it is "most", and certainly not "all". They may recover most or all for those few items they are able to move into their rental inventory (if they do that).
REI has set the policy -- true, REI has set a generous policy. There is an implicit deal: in return, the customer needs to behave responsibly, and not abuse the policy. Too many customers abusing the policy would be a good way to get it more restricted. I firmly believe that there must be *some* limits to my ability to declare I am not satisfied and get my money back -- so I'd like to know what limits you think a customer should observe.
Insurance policy -- I am not arguing with returning gear that legitimately fails -- i.e. is properly used and still fails when it should not. That sounds like a defect to me. I am also not arguing against returning gear that a sales person mis-represents to you. But not if I abuse the gear, I did not look into it well enough before using it, or if I simply change my mind. And I **certainly** cannot condone purchasing an item, expecting using it on the trail to be part of the decision process as to whether or not you end up keeping the item.
"So, in conclusion, don't blame those people who chose to take advantage of REI's policy." The operative issue is what "take advantage of" means. If it means to avail themselves of good protection from defective products or sales people, then I entirely agree with you. Unfortunately, in some cases, I believe the interpretation is closer to the undesirable "to take advantage of someone". Doing so just because they can is the type of attitude that leads to the restrictive policies and rules we all dislike. Ones that look as if a lawyer wrote them. Better that we all behave in a reasonable and responsible manner to begin with.
Basically, there have to be limits to the policy, and I would like to hear what you think they should be. Customers should take some responsibility themselves, and I would like to hear what that should be. Customers expecting perfection is unreasonable, and returning gear because they are "dissatisfied" with less than perfection is not a realistic way to do business.
One final thought -- I see the REI policy as a generous one that is intended to shield the customer from defects and problems. To the extent it is used for that purpose, I like it and I have no objection to a customer using it. My objections come from seeing customers believe that the policy should transfer all risk of making a decision they may later regret and all risk of the customer making a mistake to REI as well. I simply do not believe that the policy is intended to assume those risks. Customers need to take responsibility for their own decisions.