While 67% of U.S. shoppers say their latest return was “easy” or “very easy,” improving the experience for the remaining third of consumers is vital: 13% would refuse to shop with a retailer again after a poor return experience, according to the State of Online Returns report by Narvar Improving returns is particularly important during the holidays, as the share of shoppers who had an easy experience drops to 57% for gifts.
New customers are particularly sensitive to return process friction. Just 45% of global customers said the return process for their first purchase was easy, and 31% said they would not choose that retailer again. Additionally, overcoming these challenges takes more than reducing friction during the return process itself. It’s also about building loyalty throughout the journey, including by providing transparency into the process, offering flexible options and building a positive reputation over time.
"It's a nuance a lot of people don't pick up,” said Elain Szu, VP of Marketing at Narvar in an interview with Retail TouchPoints. “You need to think about the return process in terms of the full customer journey, not just when they’re at the point of return. To build that brand loyalty you need to zoom out and think about every touch point that you have with the customer, and that really starts during the consideration phase when the customer is on the product details page.”
Szu offered the example of a new Warby Parker shopper: they won’t know exactly how the glasses will fit or what the color scheme will be like, and problems with these factors are the reason for 46% of returns to non-Amazon retailers. Warby Parker addresses shoppers’ concerns by mentioning its “hassle-free return” policy right on the product page. Nike takes a more informative approach, by including an expandable “Free Shipping & Returns” banner that can be clicked for more details about the retailer’s policies, making sure shoppers know exactly what they have to do if a problem arises.
The Return Process Should Play To A Retailer’s Strengths
Buy online, return in-store (BORIS) policies are powerful tools. In addition to offering a potentially more convenient return option for digital shoppers, they also:
- Offer opportunities to drive unplanned purchases for 22% of U.S. shoppers;
- Give shoppers a reason to make planned purchases (24%); or
- Cause shoppers to make an exchange versus a return (26%).
However, not every retailer is well-suited for BORIS. This isn’t necessarily a cause for concern: just 10% of shoppers said they’ve made an in-store return in 2019, compared to 17% in 2017. Companies should focus on creating a return policy that aligns with their overall operational strategy, whether the focus is on e-Commerce or brick-and-mortar.
"Think about Everlane versus a company like Gap,” said Szu. “We know that Gap has a pretty large retail footprint and Everlane really doesn't — they're pretty limited in terms of brick-and-mortar locations available to a customer. So I think they have different goals. When I think about Everlane the store experience is almost secondary to what they're trying to drive, which is e-Commerce. When I think about a company like Gap, it has a very different goal.”
Online-focused retailers can still gain the benefits of in-store returns by finding ways to recapture the sale or generate incremental revenue. For instance, 50% of returning shoppers and 43% of new customers would make an online exchange if it included free shipping, and 43% of returning shoppers and 37% of new customers would take an exchange option if it was simply offered. According to Szu, retailers should offer relevant alternatives and make the exchange process as simple and painless as possible to maximize this potential.
The effort to turn returns into exchanges shouldn’t come at the cost of convenience, however, regardless of whether it’s being handled online or in-store. The top reason for being satisfied with a return was the process being fast and/or easy, at 58%. Another 30% of shoppers appreciated being able to drop off their item at a convenient location, which can mean options such as a drop box (21%), a convenient store location (21%) or a drop-off locker (17%).
"At the end of the day, the consumer wants what's convenient for them, and ‘convenient’ could mean very different things,” said Szu. “It could mean I want something that's close to my kid’s school, so I can make a return when I'm going to drop them off for school. It could also mean I drop off three pairs of shoes that I bought from Nike and the shirt that I bought from Gap at the same time so I don't have to go to both stores. I think the rise of these third-party locations for pickup and drop-off has taken a really interesting turn for the industry, and really offers retailers the ability to create more choice and convenience for their customers without necessarily investing in more brick-and-mortar.”
An Overall Positive Experience Makes Returns More Pleasant
A good shipping policy isn’t just about how it performs — it’s also about how shoppers perceive it. For instance, 61% of shoppers rate returns on Amazon as “easy” or “very easy,” compared to 58% among other retailers, even though Amazon’s processes often contain more points of friction:
- 46% of Amazon returners needed to print a return label, compared to 30% elsewhere;
- 28% of Amazon returners needed a return authorization, compared to 22% elsewhere;
- 16% of Amazon returners needed to schedule a pickup, compared to 8% elsewhere; and
- 16% of Amazon returners needed to find a different box or envelope for their return, compared to 11% elsewhere.
The secret to Amazon’s return success is the e-Commerce giant’s excellent communication capabilities and reputation for reliability, according to Szu. Amazon Prime in particular is associated with best-in-class shipping policies, and fast, free shipping creates a positive halo that carries over to the return process.
"The consumer is not necessarily factually or rationally based. It's really more about the feeling of security and transparency in the process,” said Szu. “So even though there are many more steps of friction in Amazon's return process, the perception that Amazon is actually easy to return with goes a long way. I think that's partially because they've done a good job of creating this system of messaging, where they're letting the customer know the state of their package or return at every stage.”
While few retailers can match Amazon’s reputation or capabilities, they can still learn from it and other online exemplars. Reassuring the shopper from the moment they hit the product page, letting them make returns the way they want and cultivating a positive experience across the entire brand can help retailers smooth over any rough patches and make their return policies as cost-effective and painless as possible.
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