Keeping An Eye On Returns This Holiday Season

Kevon Hill head shot

From free shipping promotions to hiring an army of seasonal employees, it seems like every day a retailer announces a new competitive initiative to guarantee a painless holiday shopping experience — hoping that customers come back long after the tree has come down. But for e-Commerce, now more than ever, it’s not only how the holiday rush is handled, but also what happens after the gifts are opened, that most resonates with shoppers and moves the needle in establishing customer loyalty year-round.

Yes, I’m talking about returns and I’m making the case that investing in returns throughout the holidays and beyond is investing in long-term customer loyalty. No business likes putting money back in the hands of its customers, but simplifying the return of an unwanted, over-sized cat sweater is an indirect yet impactful way to promote customer loyalty.

The wave of inevitable returns signals the end of the holiday season. Though the end is nigh, losing sight of customer care throughout the returns process is losing sight of an important step in building a customer relationship. According to a recent UPS study, 74% of online shoppers said that a hassle-free returns policy would influence their decision to buy from a retailer from which they are shopping for the first time. This confirms that the returns process is by no means an insignificant step in perfecting e-Commerce operations and driving customer satisfaction.


At a minimum, retailers should provide shoppers with a prepaid return label, communicate status updates and give shoppers with the ability to track packages throughout the returns process. This basic level of service is a simple, but meaningful, gesture for customers as the hectic holiday season winds down.

According to a recent StellaService study, the majority of shoppers expect a refund back in seven days or less during the holiday season — four days under the average refund time of top retailers. So how should a retailer manage customer expectations while offering top-notch service? The answer lies in communication and speed. No customer likes to be kept in the dark about the status of a return and refund, especially when tightening the belt after heavy holiday spending.

Men’s apparel retailer Mr Porter sends two notifications to customers throughout the returns process: One notification that the package has arrived in the warehouse and a second notification (often just a day later) that a refund is in progress. This constant communication guarantees that customers aren’t left to wonder about the status of their return or the amount they will be credited. Even better, Mr Porter consistently processes a full refund within two days.

Beyond ample communication, many retailers have turned to seemingly unconventional practices and omnichannel initiatives to facilitate the receipt of products to the warehouse and, in turn, provide customers with a speedy refund.

Just look to Apple, which sends customers pre-paid FedEx 2-day shipping labels as opposed to just standard shipping labels. Apple is able to shave down the amount of time a return is in transit, meaning the retailer is able to process and issue refunds in nearly record time. Amazon even begins to process refunds once a return label is scanned by a carrier. Ultimately, this emphasis on reducing the time it takes to initiate a refund is what seriously differentiates retailers in the eyes of consumers.

For other retailers, extending omnichannel initiatives to facilitate the returns process can be key in reducing customer stress. Earlier this year, Sears added returns and exchanges to its popular In-Vehicle Pickup service, allowing customers to pick up, return or exchange purchases curbside for free in under five minutes. For the on-the-go shopper, this means less time and energy devoted to physically returning a product. And as a bonus, retailers can cut cost and strain on their own fulfillment and returns channels.

Like all customer service initiatives, the key to creating a quality return experience depends first and foremost on easing the process for the customer. To the retailers that are going above and beyond in perfecting holiday operations: I urge you to also consider your returns process as a meaningful part of the customer experience this holiday season.

Sure, it may seem counter-intuitive to invest in a process that makes it easier to return money to customers. But during the holidays, it’s just that sort of attention to detail and customer service that makes a life-long customer out of a one-time shopper.

Kevon Hills joined StellaService in 2012 and is currently the Vice President of Research. In his role leading the Research Group, Hills and his team leverage StellaService data to provide deep, actionable insights that help companies improve customer service and fulfillment operations. His in-depth understanding of data and market trends helps him identify innovative methods that help Stella Metrics clients make more informed strategic decisions. At StellaService, Hills is also responsible for identifying new data sets to explore, the creation of new metrics and the data collection methodology.


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