Beware of stamping “lifetime warranty” on your products without considering all the ramifications. It’s a well-intentioned move, perhaps. But it’s also primed for fraud and abuse.

You might offer that logo as a proud symbol of your product’s quality — that it can withstand a lifetime of use and, therefore, is worthy of your purchase. Some customers, however, interpret that logo as not worthy of their investment in care or respect because, “No big deal if I break it; I’ll just get a free replacement.”

  • Some customers expect a product to last through several human lifetimes, as a kind of inheritance, passed from parent to child. Really?
  • Leave your garden hose in your sunny driveway and consistently drive over it until it splits — is that indicative of poor quality or rife abuse?
  • Break a screwdriver while using it as a pick axe — worthy of a free replacement?
  • Leave your lawn furniture out in a violent windstorm so that it breaks when it flies into your neighbor’s garage. Still worthy of a free replacement?
  • Your parent bought a hedge clippers 50 years ago and now it’s fallen apart; did it fulfill its lifetime?
  • You picked up this broken hardware tool at a yard sale and now want a free replacement because you know it had a lifetime warranty. Sound good?

Obviously, an ambiguous “lifetime warranty” has many interpretations, and not all of them are legitimate or honest. And if you work in retail, you know that there are customers who will exploit any loophole for self-gain, whether righteous or not.

First define the terms: whose lifetime — the product’s, based on average usage of that item, such as a light bulb warranted for a particular length of time? Or the owner’s lifetime? What is a lifetime — how many years? Does an 80-year-old man get a shorter “lifetime warranty” than a 20-year-old man? Sound ridiculous? Not to some devious people.

Who is eligible for this lifetime warranty? The original owner only? Do you allow transferability? Can you bequeath the item to another person? How would you authenticate an original owner from anyone else?

Do you require your store receipt as proof of purchase from your store or is an empty, faded package — or no package — good enough; do you even know if the item was purchased by the claimant or was it rummaged from a garbage bin? Is your store expected to replace, free of charge, an item purchased elsewhere? For example, if you buy a lifetime gym membership, but your gym goes out of business; would you expect any other gym to honor that lifetime promise for free? Is that reasonable?

Should you replace the item free of charge or give a cash value credit? Your customer whose father bought the hedge clipper for $1.99 50 years ago now wants a replacement at the current cost of $39.99. Is it equitable to give him free clippers at current cash value or credit based on original purchase price?

What do you do about honoring the warranty of products that no longer exist? Your customer hands you a broken, now-defunct item with one feature, but all that’s manufactured now is a similar product with nine features. Still think it’s equitable to replace for free?

These are all true and usually unpleasant encounters from the retail front lines emanating from that flip phrase “lifetime warranty.” These possibilities need to be considered and spelled out before you put your enterprise at risk. The specific terms/conditions need to be posted, or you’ll certainly set yourself up for abuse.

You may think that by promising a lifetime of use, that you’ll earn a lifetime customer. Frequently the customers who abuse that promise are not lifelong customers; it can be debated whether they’re customers at all if the only time you see them at your store is when they’re claiming a free replacement.

Frankly, are those the kind of “customers” you want to attract with your vague, unconditional “lifetime warranty?”