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GUEST COMMENT Making returns simple after Christmas

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Earlier this month Alibaba Group officials hailed the success of the two shopping websites it owns, Tmall and Taobao Marketplace, in together passing the RMB $1 trillion ($157bn, or £97bn) sales milestone for the first time. Jack Ma, chief executive and chairman of Alibaba Group, said the achievement meant that Alibaba would this year pass Amazon and eBay to become the largest ecommerce company in the world, by annual GMV (gross merchandise volume). Today we feature a guest comment written for Internet Retailing by James Hardy, head of Europe at

by James Hardy

After the frenzy of sales in the run-up to Christmas, online stores shouldn’t expect to be twiddling their thumbs come Boxing Day. Once the festivities have died down, the first working day after Christmas tends to be the busiest time for returns and exchanges, both in-store and online, as customers traipse back with gifts that didn’t quite hit the spot. But it doesn’t have to be a painful experience for internet retailers. Here’s how to make the process go smoothly and nurture a positive relationship with your customers throughout.

Meet customers’ expectations

In an ideal world, no one would ever feel the need to return a product. But there’s no accounting for taste, and one person’s idea of a perfect gift can be another’s definition of unnecessary clutter. Even so, you can try and prevent returns before they happen by making sure a customer’s expectations are fully met. Give detailed, accurate product descriptions on your website and ensure the photos are representative so the person who buys the present knows exactly what they’re giving.

Allow the return

There are few thriving bricks-and-mortar stores that don’t accept returns, and the same should go for online retailers. Customers will feel more comfortable knowing they have the option of bringing back an item they’re not happy with, whether it’s for a full refund, an exchange or a credit note. If you make it clear that all sales are not final, it indicates you have full confidence in your product. There will always be a small percentage of customers who aren’t satisfied, particularly if they received the product as a gift, so be sure to account for this in your budget.

Keep it clear

There’s nothing like a confusing returns policy to make customers feel frustrated. In your summary text as well as the complete policy, go for clear wording and avoid any complex legal jargon so there can be no doubt about what your rules are. Aim for friendly, open language to show people you’re just as happy to accept an unwanted return as you are to charge them for their purchase. This means avoiding threatening terms like ‘must’ and ‘we will not be responsible’ and instead emphasising your willingness to help.

Choose a time frame

While you may not be able to give customers a whole year in which they’re free to return an unwanted gift, it’s important to state exactly how long they have to decide if they’re going to keep it. Whether it’s 30, 60, 90 or 120 days, make the time frame clear to customers so there’s no room for interpretation. It’s a good idea to have a separate time period for damaged or malfunctioning goods, as this will build customer confidence too.

Show and tell

Don’t trip up your clients by hiding your returns policy away. Mark it clearly on your website, on receipts, in the package and on consumer correspondence so they know exactly what they’re dealing with. And keep all staff fully informed of what the policy is to avoid any confusion or hold-up during the post-Christmas returns onslaught.

List the requirements

Customers need to be absolutely sure of what’s required of them when they’re returning a gift. Can they give it back once it’s been opened? Does it need to be in its original packaging? Should they include the receipt? Think about all the requirements for your policy and make sure these are properly communicated to your customers.

Pay for postage

Offering to pay for the postage of the return may seem like a hefty expense, but it will build brand loyalty in the long run and show that customer satisfaction is important to you. Whatever you do, avoid any nasty, hidden costs for your customers. If you do decide not to cover the costs of postage in certain circumstances, make sure this is totally clear to clients from the outset.


A stream of promotional emails can be annoying for customers and is likely to end up in their junk mail. But in the case of returns, communication is key. Keep them informed at every step of the way, by sending out alerts when a return is received, processed and when the follow-up is completed. It will save a small business a lot of time and hassle in dealing with calls from anxious customers.

Don’t go it alone

If you’re a small business, the prospect of dealing with a huge volume of returns can be daunting. You can minimise the fuss by outsourcing your fulfilment and returns to another company. You just pay a fee and they deal with the rest, saving you time and hassle. But make sure you do research and pick a firm that will meet your requirements.

Make the most of returns

Instead of dreading the Boxing Day frenzy, look on it as an opportunity to create a positive relationship with your customers. Use the process to gather feedback about why they aren’t happy with their gift, so steps can be taken to improve their experience the next time. If the customer is pleased with the transaction, it will increase the chance of them purchasing from you in the future. What’s more, a friendly returns policy can give unsure shoppers the confidence they need to hit the ‘buy’ button.

James Hardy is’s head of Europe

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