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Revisiting Bracketing: Friend or Foe?

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Last spring, we tackled the concept of bracketing. This is a shopping strategy where shoppers buy multiple versions of the same item with the intent to return those that aren’t suitable.

In our first article, we reviewed all the ways that bracketing has a negative impact on a merchant, including:

  • Fluctuating inventory levels because more inventory is in transit to and from the customer, making it hard to forecast for replenishment.
  • Higher fulfillment costs when shipping larger orders
  • Slower returns processing with higher volumes of returns and restocking needs

While all of these challenges hold true, we would be remiss to simply dismiss bracketing as inherently bad for merchants. Bracketing is a trend for a reason, so perhaps if we dig in and understand the reason behind bracketing, we can develop strategies to address these underlying shopper needs.

Our partner TryNow, whose technology enables brands to offer Try Before You Buy programs to online shoppers, is here to discuss how implementing bracketing as an official customer acquisition strategy, rather than allowing it to happen under the radar, is a beneficial move for ecommerce businesses. 

Why do shoppers bracket?

The most common causes of bracketing occur in apparel. A shopper will be shopping with a brand for the first time and is unsure of their size, so will order multiple sizes with the intent of keeping one and returning the rest.

It’s easy to take this base case and extrapolate to other examples, like a repeat customer wanting a new pair of shoes and trying a variety of colors, or a shopper looking for a new handbag and wanting to see which version has the right pocket size for her phone and laptop.

There are many more examples we could explore, but the common theme is that shoppers are not as confident when they shop online as when they shop in store. Shopping online is by definition two-dimensional, so there’s only so much that can be communicated through product descriptions and photography. 

This dilemma presents shoppers with two alternatives: order multiple items to find the perfect fit, or abandon checkout altogether.

We know that this kind of uncertainty drives many consumers away from purchasing online. So the key question brands need to ask themselves is: which is worse, to lose a sale, or to deal with the challenges associated with bracketing?

Reframing the problem

Shoppers who bracket are trying to tell us something – they have a problem with the way shopping online works. For a moment, let’s throw out our original summary of the challenges bracketing creates for merchants, and instead focus on the problem shoppers have.

Shoppers bracket because they want to find something they will love, but need to see the item in person first. For every one of these shoppers, there are probably nine others who don’t even get as far as considering bracketing and simply abandon cart. Cart abandonment in ecommerce is incredibly high, with the average cart abandonment rate sitting at 69.82%. That’s a lot of revenue that’s being lost due to uncertainty. 

How can merchants solve this problem? The answer might be simple: make it easier for shoppers to do what they want. Let shoppers ‘try before they buy’.

Focus on shopper needs

In 2005, no one offered free shipping and returns. It made sense at the time – it was expensive to ship items and process returns, so adding some friction to the process ensured that shoppers checking out were highly incentivized to keep their items.

The problem? This friction actually prevented a significant number of shoppers from purchasing in the first place. That opportunity cost increased when Amazon flipped the industry on its head by offering free shipping and free returns.

The result? A more seamless shopping experience meant more shoppers ordered more and kept more, and this novel experience became a table stakes expectation in ecommerce. 

Amazon saw what others didn’t – that paying for shipping and returns was part of the cost of acquisition, and that loyal customers are better than missed opportunities.

We can apply the same logic to bracketing and try before you buy. Bracketing can be seen as a form of negative a bad shopper behavior that merchants should try to mitigate, or it can be seen as an opportunity to make shopping on at your online store easier and more delightful.

Making sure the good outweighs the bad

Offering a Try Before You Buy program does not mean that a merchant has to accept lower profitability. It’s actually the opposite – if we believe that making it easier to try items online is what shoppers want, then the result should be profitable growth.

Yes, that means shoppers will bracket. Yes, that means that all of the challenges associated with bracketing are still true. 

So For Try Before You Buy to work as a strategy, a brand needs to see that the benefits that outweigh the costs.

Earlier this year, we published a guide to Try Now, Buy Later, in partnership with TryNow.

TryNow also believes that try before you buy and profitability go hand in hand. In their experience, merchants that offer Try Before You Buy programs see increases in gross profit and contribution margin. 

Someone reading this struggling with returns due to bracketing may be thinking, “that’s crazy, how?”. 

Let’s take a look:

  • Offering Try Before You Buy reduces the uncertainty of ordering something online. Shoppers can bring the store to their door, and only pay after they try and decide what to keep.
  • Reducing uncertainty increases conversions, which means marketing spend is more efficient.
  • $0 carts incentivize shoppers to order more, and according to TryNow. Bigger orders often result in more kept items, especially in apparel. Not to mention, shoppers who use Try Before You Buy use discounts less often, which also improves margins.
  • Shoppers who have a delightful shopping experience and find something to love with their first purchase are more likely to return to the store and order more. This means that customer lifetime value increases.

TryNow has seen such massive gains in marketing efficiency and AOV that even after the costs associated with returns and shipping are accounted for, brands are making more per order. This means more capital to reinvest in the company’s growth.

How do I know if Try Before You Buy is the right strategy for my brand?

Embracing bracketing and deploying a Try Before You Buy strategy is a big shift in perspective for many businesses. Partnering with a provider like TryNow – that can automate the technology and payments side of the program – democratizes the capability beyond industry behemoths like Amazon and Stitch Fix, but technology alone is not enough.

There are 4 things you need to be successful with Try Before You Buy:

  1. An amazing product. This may sound obvious, but we’re saying it anyway. If you have a product that shoppers love, TBYB will work. If you have quality issues or are still sorting out product / market fit, you might not be ready yet.
  1. Preparedness for scale. As we’ve outlined, TBYB programs accelerate growth, which can put pressure on your organization if you’re not ready to scale the business. Making sure your warehouse operations are nimble, your returns process is seamless, and other operations are dialed in is step one to ensuring TBYB works.
  1. Conviction and commitment. TBYB programs touch every function in an organization, so it’s critical that there is alignment top-down that such a strategy is a priority. We are still in the early days of the TBYB movement, which means as innovators your team needs to be willing to learn and refine to hit your goals. If you’re hesitant or inflexible to change, you may not be ready yet.

Bracketing can be an issue for some brands, but for others, can be reframed as an opportunity to drive growth by making shopping online a better experience. This does require a change in mindset, but if done well, can unlock transformational growth for brands.

Want to know more? Check our deep dive into why it’s time for retailers to embrace returns culture.

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