TURNING A RETURN INTO A SATISFYING CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE IS NO EASY TASK – BUT THERE ARE PLENTY OUT THERE TRYING. CHRISTIAN ANNESLEY EXAMINES WHAT CUSTOMERS LOOK FOR IN RELATION TO RETURNS – AND HOW TO SATISFY THEM DESPITE THE INC
Most of the time – eight or nine times out of ten, let’s say – the final act of an ecommerce transaction happens at a customer’s home. An item has been ordered and it’s then delivered in a parcel or package right on schedule, with a product inside that manages to meet or exceed the buyer’s expectations. As a customer experience, it’s the kind of end-to-end positive process that would rate highly if it was analysed and scored. But what about those transactions where the delivery of the item turns out only to be an element somewhere in the middle of a longer ecommerce customer journey because a return is required? How do retailers ensure – indeed, can they ensure? – that transactions that include a return still rate highly with the customer in terms of the overall experience? And, as the returns space evolves, how are customer expectations about returns shifting?BEFORE AND AFTER
The customer experience and understanding of returns is best separated into before and after. Before refers to what customers look for before buying in order to be reassured about a returns process. After covers all the elements of a return once it’s become a necessity that needs to be completed.
Various surveys have shown that most shoppers consider a retailer’s returns policy before they contemplate buying from them. One recent study, conducted last year by comScore in the US, found that 63% of shoppers looked at the returns policy up front – and that nearly half of all shoppers said they would buy more often from, and recommend, a retailer with a lenient, easy-to-understand returns policy.
It’s an idea that is borne out in many of the responses to Internet Retailing’s returns survey, conducted for this supplement. One manager at an educational resources supplier noted in his responses, like many others, that the business is aiming to improve its standing with customers simply by modifying its returns practices and how it presents returns in the first place. “We are doing this in order to shrink the customer’s perception of any risk in dealing with us,” he adds.
The before side of returns also relates to other basics that retailers need to get right, such as ensuring the returns policy is easy to find on the website – and probably that the return is also free. It’s all informed in part, in this multichannel world, by the need to compete with the instant and free convenience of bricks-and-mortar store returns, where a customer is refunded immediately, costs are minimal besides the time and effort involved, and where some major retailers, like John Lewis, now even offer unlimited refund periods for unused returned items. “When it comes to the customer, I think most retailers understand these days that it’s worth going the extra mile to deliver a satisfying return experience,” says Jemma Harrison, founder of custom beanie company Funiwear.
“A small online outfit like ours cannot offer free returns like an ASOS or unlimited refunds like a John Lewis, but the guiding principles are the same: to work smarter and to look after the customer in whatever way possible, and especially when it comes to being quick with a refund when it is due.” Being fast with a refund could be down to having speedy, efficient logistics in place – or it could even be delivered through a policy to refund before an item has come back into stock, which an increasing number of retailers are starting to look at as an option. “One of the things we are guided by, in relation to the customer experience, is the feedback we collect from regular satisfaction surveys of new customers, including those who have returned,” says Christophe Baldy-Moulinier, logistics and customer service director at fashion sales site BrandAlley.
“It’s a constant feedback loop that can help us modify our strategies, and our next incremental change in the UK, in common with other retailers, is to start offering free returns – but in our case the refund will be in the form of a voucher to use off the cost of the next order.
We have launched the service in France already, and it’s an option that quite a high proportion of our regular customers are taking up.”
For example, one of our survey respodents has a strategy that sees it withdraw any product that doesn't offer consistent customer satisfaction, with returns as an crucial element in reaching that decision. “Our returns policy has also been made clearer and we have introduced a pick-up service,” adds the director. It’s a common approach to the problems with particular products that high levels of returns often serve to highlight, and another of our survey respondents notes in a similar vein that “repeat problems with a product, reflected in a high returns rate, will lead to us discontinuing the sale of the product.” REAL RETURNS
Of course, whatever effort retailers make to control the risks, there are still tens of thousands of returns being completed by customers every day in the UK, which means there is clearly a need to keep that process as painless as possible. In the logistics-focused feature in this supplement we examine some of the evolution of the returns offer for customers, where companies like the multi-country online fashion retailer ASOS are among those that lead the way, offering returns that are free and trackable, plus return options that include doorstep pick-up, CollectPlus returns via a local convenience store, and standard Royal Mail returns.
Next to this, though, what other options are there that could promise to improve the returns experience for customers? For many of the smaller retailers, there is clearly still room to make step-changes in terms of the returns offer – for example, the move by ASOS to free returns was a big step that other large retailers have mostly matched, but smaller operators aren’t always willing or able to swallow the cost. Similarly, the expansion of return options to include doorstep pick-up in some cases and, increasingly, ultra-local returns through networks like CollectPlus, are propositions that have yet to cascade down to the smaller retailers. At the top end of the market, though, many experts out there now reckon we should not expect any disruptive changes to transform the landscape in terms of the customer experience of returns.
Instead, the returns space across the top 20 UK ecommerce sites is sufficiently mature now, the argument goes, for there to be only incremental improvements coming through: evolution rather than revolution, you might say.ACTION AND REACTION
” Analysing and responding to returns issues and trends as they arise, just as BrandAlley does, is a common theme among many retailers, which usually treat returns as an element of a wider customer service strategy.
There is also agreement that all those incremental improvements could still add up to something substantial for many customers. If you stop to think for a minute about all the areas where change is happening, from smarter analysis of returns data to changes in product design and mix to clever use of merchandising tools and product presentation to all the customer return options that are out there, there is plenty at stake.LOCKER POTENTIAL
One area where the returns experience could still be added to among leading retailers is in the use of lockers (also known as dropboxes) as another convenient return drop-off point. Electronic delivery and return lockers have been around for a while serving the needs of businesses, but the likes of ByBox are now in the consumer space too, offering customers the ability to collect items from a ByBox locker and to drop off a return using one. The location of many of the lockers and the limited scope of some of the locker networks remains an issue, but ByBox in particular is investing heavily in rolling out its locker banks to high streets and train stations, raising the prospect that such lockers could become more widely used for returns in time. The main benefit of such lockers over the alternatives in the returns space will rest on the convenience for ecommerce customers of the locations chosen and on the 24-hour availability of the lockers.
In addition, there is some potential to use locker banks as transaction points to facilitate an instant exchange on a popular item. Inderveer Tatla, marketing manager at ByBox, explains: “The primary purpose of the MyByBox service for online customers is to receive items, but the locker is being used already in places as a transaction point for returns: not just faulty or unwanted goods but for any return – repairs or maintenance or for specialist cleaning. “Next to this, we can also see that there is the prospect that someone who receives a faulty router through the post, say, could be offered an instant exchange of the item by visiting a locker bank where some identical routers have been preloaded either for the pick-up of a purchase or for a return. The technology is there to be able to do this so it’s just a question of seeing if it’s possible to bring it to market.”
It’s one tantalising idea among many in a complex market that will surely continue to evolve for the benefit of customers in the year ahead.