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Why it’s time for retailers to embrace returns culture

woman on a laptop with 'return policy' on the screen

Another day, another article about the importance of good returns management. Even as returns become increasingly normalized across retail channels, consumers still experience a lot of friction when it comes to navigating returns processes. 

The reason why isn’t surprising. Brands aren’t exactly big fans of returns, and it’s very tempting to discourage them through lengthy and complex returns systems. But as free and easy returns become more widespread, this strategy is only going to backfire on retailers.

So, what are retailers to do when faced with escalating return rates? 

As the old saying goes: If you can’t beat them, join them.

In this post, Whiplash is here to tell you why you should start embracing returns culture – and how you can create a returns process that turns one-time buyers into loyal repeat customers.

A brief history of returns

It wasn’t all that long ago that returns were considered something of a faux pas in retail. 

Stores would routinely put all kinds of barriers in the way of customers being able to make returns, like narrow returns windows, lengthy paperwork, and store credit-only refunds. Plus, having to return items in-person is an awkward experience that many consumers would rather avoid!

As with many other areas in retail, ecommerce was a game-changer for returns. As consumers began shopping online in greater numbers, they fell in love with the convenience – but also encountered the difficulties of buying items without testing or viewing them first. 

To entice consumers to purchase, online retailers shifted to offering more generous returns policies that allowed consumers to get a full refund – no questions asked.  As this practice became more widespread, retailers across channels were forced to follow suit. 

Over time, this has transformed hassle-free returns from a perk to an expectation. Over half of retailers say they won’t shop with a brand that doesn’t offer hassle-free returns.

Returns culture: A friend, not a foe

With merchants under pressure to meet consumer expectations for easy returns, this has often caused resentment and or even hostility within the retail sector.  But characterizing returns as ‘bad for business’ fails to consider the ways that online sellers can benefit from embracing returns culture:

Staying competitive

As we mentioned above, returns have become a normalized part of shopping across channels. If retailers aren’t willing to meet consumer expectations, their offerings will pale in comparison to retailers who are more accommodating. 

In short, it’s impossible to stay competitive without making returns a core part of your customer acquisition strategy. Because if you aren’t willing to offer an easy returns process, somebody else will!

It might be hard for some retailers to acknowledge, but the truth is that returns culture is now deeply ingrained into the consumer psyche. So rather than trying to fight against it,  consider ways you can use returns to boost your value proposition as a retailer.

Increasing brand loyalty

Because so many consumers now prioritize returns in their purchasing decisions, this offers retailers is a valuable opportunity to boost retention. If ecommerce returns affect 20-30% of orders on average, that’s 20-30% of your customers that you can foster loyalty with through a satisfying returns experience.

But satisfying returns experiences are not as common as many consumers would like. The reason is simple: Many brands put their efforts into the pre-purchase experience, rather than what happens afterward. 

By demonstrating good customer care during the returns process, you can build a healthy base of repeat customers – 95% of consumers say that they would shop with a brand again after a positive returns experience!

Improving your business

Amid the phenomenon of bracketing purchases and ‘wear once and send back’, it can be easy to forget that many customers make returns for very valid reasons. 

So, if you want to see fewer orders come back into your warehouse, you need to start asking why it’s happening.

Returns offer you a valuable opportunity to improve your retail operation. For example, if you have a high proportion of customers who are returning garments due to incorrect sizing, this could indicate that you need to provide better sizing guides on your product pages. Likewise, thin product descriptions and poor-quality photos can result in customers buying items that are not suitable.

By using the information provided during the returns process, your can lower return rates by helping customers to make more informed purchasing decisions.

3 ingredients for a seamless returns process

1. A solid returns policy

If you want an efficient returns process that minimizes confusion for both you and your customers, a comprehensive returns policy is key. A returns policy means that consumers know their rights if they need to make a return, and also protects retailers from being disadvantaged. 

You can state, for example, that all garments must be unworn and have all tags attached to obtain a return. This way, you can ensure that items can be resold. 

A good returns policy should cover: 

  • What customers are entitled to e.g. a refund or store credit
  • What the returns window is
  • What condition the product needs to be in
  • Who is responsible for shipping costs
  • How customers can initiate a return

For more on this topic, check out our comprehensive guide on how to write a return policy.

2. Offer multiple return options

The key to winning over customers with your returns management isn’t just to make the terms generous – but to make the process easy to navigate. 

For example, if you refuse to accept in-store returns, this means considerable inconvenience for your customers. Especially if they have to pay for return shipping and packaging.  Even if a full refund is on the table, the amount of hassle involved with this process means that the customer is unlikely to shop with you again. 

According to a study by emarketer, 75% of those surveyed said that they wanted to return items in-store as opposed to shipping them back. In-store returns also offer you advantages when it comes to managing inventory. 

When customers return items in-store, you can choose whether to restock them at that location or send them back to the warehouse. By sending returned items to your facility in bulk, and can also reduce your shipping costs.

3. Partner with a fulfillment provider

Whether you are an established or an emerging retailer, returns management can be time-consuming and complex to navigate.

How do you know whether your return policy strikes the right balance? How can you use sales data to track returns trends? Are you in a position to rapidly scale up returns processing during busy periods?

When returns are such an integral part of being a successful retailer, consider outsourcing your returns management to an experienced fulfillment provider. Because 3PLs have access to real-time inventory reporting and management systems, this gives you full visibility over returned stock and faster turnarounds to reselling. This way, you can concentrate on growing your business, rather than the nitty-gritty of reverse logistics. 

No retailer wants to have to deal with a pile of returned packages, but how you choose to navigate this process can be the difference between thriving or surviving as a retailer. If you use the returns process to meet consumer expectations for high-quality customer care, you can forge a much closer relationship with your customers – and gain a much more loyal customer base!

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