Shopfloor ADAM BERNSTEIN: RETAIL EXPERT Returning pain 34

As part of this month’s special online focus, Adam Bernstein offers guidance on how retailers should handle the online returns process.


elling online can add much to a business – new customers, greater reach, and to an extent, ‘free’ advertising if social media is

deployed properly. But online brings the risk of returns because of a statutory right granted to consumers to cancel an order within 14 days of receipt. At any one time a proportion of sales are at risk of being returned – there’s a loss on delivery charges which must be refunded, administration cost related to processing the returns, and of course, the question of what to do with returned items. However, rights granted under law also give consumers confidence in what they may be ordering.

Why we return

There are a number of reasons why consumers return products. Some are legitimate, but others are close on illegal if not morally bankrupt. Take ‘wardrobing’, where consumers order clothing to wear once, without removing tags, and then return the item for a refund after use. Electronics and tools see the same abuse.

But other reasons include faulty products on arrival, incorrect sizing or fit or product expectations not met, to name just a few. It’s of note that according to, an online shipping and marketing platform, 65 per cent of returns occur because of a retailer’s actions – especially those related to consumer expectations and sizing. But these should be easy to fix with detailed and accurate descriptions of the product, design, sizing, colour, materials, specifications and so on. Quality imagery from different angles that allows consumers to

determine what they’re considering combined with regular and reliable sizing should also help. Where appropriate, product videos may help consumers gain further insight. This approach works well with technical items including equipment and electronic devices. Allied to this is an option for consumers to review purchases with pointers for others on description accuracy. Another option is to allow in-store collection when possible. This cuts out the shipping cost and risk of products being damaged or going missing in transit. It also gives consumers the chance to examine an item before completing the purchase, which should reduce the need to return items as alternatives may be found while in store.

But retailers should also be checking if certain products are being returned in greater numbers than others; a rise could indicate a problem with a particular product or the way it’s been promoted that misleads.

Creating a returns policy A decent returns policy is a must and it should be written for use as a sales tool. Be upfront: A returns policy should make it easy for the consumer to understand their position. It should give consumers peace of mind. Remember – almost 80 per cent of consumers check a returns policy before making a purchase.

Cover shipping costs: A 2012 study from

Washington and Lee University in the US found that free returns can have a major impact on future sales. The research from two surveys, over

49 months, demonstrated that when consumers received free shipping on returned items, their purchases over the next two years increased by between 58 and 357 per cent! In contrast, when consumers had to pay for return shipping, their subsequent purchases decreased by between 74 and 100 per cent.

Give options: Convenience is orientated around the consumer, not the retailer. This makes it important to offer options when making returns. In store, Royal Mail, Collect+, MyHermes, DHL – offer the flexibility that consumers demand.

For some, in store is preferred as it’s sometimes easier. It’s instant, with no wait for a refund or worry about items lost in the post and it also allows the potential for a ‘replacement’ sale while reducing a retailer’s own returns- related costs.

Others will still prefer to post the item back; a pre-printed returns label will be correctly addressed and legible.

The refund: It stings to make a refund but there’s no point dallying. From the consumer’s perspective it’s an irritant that retailers seem quick to take payment, but slow to refund. Again, retailers that are slow may lose future custom.

Remember Christmas: Black Friday and Christmas makes for perilous times in retail as consumers often buy gifts ahead of the holiday season. By definition, the legal right to return won’t apply and so retailers should extend the returns period if they want to win custom.

April 2020

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