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GUEST COMMENT Goodbye unwanted returns, hello conscious returns 

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The buy, try, return culture has long thrived on the back of free returns. Despite this appeal, it’s high time to acknowledge that free returns are not free at all. While the costs of returns may not always be directly borne by customers, that doesn’t discount the fact that returned goods go through at least two repackaging processes and must travel greater distances, both inbound and outbound. Needless to say, this can really make things significantly worse for the environment and add to logistical complexities, writes Rob van den Heuvel, CEO and co-founder Sendcloud.

Rob van den Heuvel, CEO and co-founder Sendcloud

Picture this: in the UK alone, customers return £7bn of internet purchases every year, and more than a fifth of all clothes bought online end up getting returned. For the retailer, it translates to an average cost of £20 per returned parcel, thanks to a range of shipping, warehousing, and repackaging costs. Handling returns and reselling has become so prohibitively expensive that some retailers, including Amazon, are even advising their customers not to bother returning the item, but to keep it instead and still receive a refund.

The rules of the game are changing
Return charges introduced by retail giants like H&M and Zara have led to a rethinking of the retail landscape’s approach to handling returns. The high economic costs of returns are slowly but surely driving the adoption of paid returns as the new norm.

At the same time, many in the industry are concerned whether return charges would dissuade potential customers. It poses an interesting question; if customers are willing to pay for delivery, why not for returns as well? Customers were quick to embrace free shipping as an initial incentive to start shopping online. Now, they will have to get used to the reality of paid returns.  

A return fee can be part of the solution as long as the ease of return is preserved
Return fees can be a smart decision, even though they are primarily motivated by financial concerns rather than environmental ones, as long as the ease of returns is maintained. It’s fairly simple— retailers should transparently communicate what customers can expect when they return a product, clearly outlining the conditions, timelines, and processes. Such straightforwardness is not merely a nice-to-have, but an essential priority, as it is a sure shot deal breaker for many customers. Numbers show that 67% of online shoppers do not even consider ordering from an online store if there is no clear information available on the return policy, while 81% regularly check the policy before placing an order.

Besides, the return process should be easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy. Currently, 60% of online shoppers claim that returns are a big hassle. That’s far from ideal. Retailers must pay special attention to the specific pain points of their customers when it comes to returns, and effectively set solutions in motion. For instance, customers should be allowed to opt for a return method that is convenient to them, with the ease of a few clicks— irrespective of whether it’s a pickup, a parcel locker, or drop-off.

Retailers should embrace conscious return practices themselves too: technology to the rescue
While encouraging conscious return behaviour in customers, retailers themselves should ensure that they practise what they preach. This means evaluating and reevaluating their own return practices to become more aware of any shortcomings or areas of improvement. For instance, taking the effort to understand why a certain product is always returned. The good news is that retailers could seek the help of technology in facilitating conscious returns. They could leverage predictive analytics to anticipate return behaviour and improve decision-making. If data reveals a recurring pattern of returned items being attributed to sizing concerns, it may prove useful to update the product information in this case.

Going beyond simply returning items, Return Merchandise Authorization (RMA) is a streamlined system designed to conveniently deal with the nitty-gritties of repairs, refunds, and replacements. Depending on the terms of the warranty or set return policies, returns can be approved or denied. Ultimately, the goal is to streamline the return process, making it easy for everyone involved while also maintaining customer satisfaction and minimising the workload.

On the customers’ side of the equation, Virtual Try-On technologies especially, could offer a respite to the whole game of returns. This way, customers can enjoy a more personalised shopping experience that allows them to visualise how the product will look and fit without having to engage in guesswork. By enabling more informed decision-making, it reduces the likelihood of customers purchasing items that may not meet their expectations and subsequently needing to exchange or return them.    

The future of returns is paid
Return charges are here to stay, whether customers like it or not. One thing is for sure. This new era of returns will encourage both retailers and consumers to rethink their return practices more consciously. While inducing customers to think twice about buying and returning an item, return fees simultaneously work in favour of retailers by allowing them to implement more economical, smoother and, overall better processes. As long as they make returning as easy as possible, retailers can make paid returns work.

Rob van den Heuvel, CEO and co-founder Sendcloud

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