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If it were possible somehow to design out returns from the ecommerce process by tweaking digital interfaces, you can be sure that some clever soul would have sorted the issue by now. It isn’t possible, of course, but that’s no reason simply to sigh over the inconvenience of it all and lost profits. It’s far better to engage with why customers might be returning items and to let this knowledge inform design projects. After all, in so many ways, effective ecommerce is all about acting on information flows. “Essentially [returns produce] a great big pool of data and you can either leave it there and hope returns go down, and you get less data, or you can feed that data back into the business,” says Matthew Curry, head of ecommerce at adult retailer Lovehoney .

So just how should retailers go about making the most of this data in order to bring down returns? In many respects, this is a challenge that revolves around wider usability issues. Analyse the data at any retailer and the chances are that one of the recurring reasons why customers return goods is simply because, for whatever reason, they haven’t bought the ‘right’ item in the first place.


“Really accurate descriptions of items and really detailed images” are key here, says Steve Cable, senior user experience consultant with usability experts cxpartners.

To take these two factors in turn, getting across the information that a customer needs can be a surprisingly tough copywriting challenge. At retailer Charles Tyrwhitt, for example, formal men’s shirts are a core part of the offering. These shirts are wardrobe staples for many, replaced over the years with similar items, yet despite this they’re not simple items to sell. “It’s actually a really complicated product because every shirt has a different collar size and different sleeve lengths customers can choose,” says Cable. “They have different collar types, they have different cuff types and then they have different cuts within those shirts – classic, slim or tailored. With all of this, people don’t necessarily know what it means so there’s an education piece around what these products are and which is right for a particular buyer.”

For Jennie Blythe, Charles Tyrwhitt’s head of web development and trading, a key message is getting customers to understand which ‘fit’ they favour. “We talk a lot about fit wherever we can. On the product detail page, we talk a lot about it and on the department and category pages, and in the information banners at the top of the product listings, just to make sure that customers really know what they’re buying,” she says. “If it’s the wrong product for them, they’re going to return it.” The upside here, she adds, is that when customers do settle on a certain type of shirt, they often return again and again to buy a similar item. Not only are returns down in this scenario, but because (gross generalisation ahead) men are lazy and conservative shoppers, sales are up.


Be careful over messages around delivery too, says Amy McGuinness, user experience consultant at cxpartners. “Sometimes I think companies try to second-guess what will be good for their customers,” she says. “You want to get something last minute, like a dress for New Year’s Eve, but you’re desperately trying to purchase it so that it’s going to get there in time. You expect you’ll get delivery options as part of the buying process, but actually all it says at the end of the process is free delivery. And that’s not what you wanted: what you wanted was to get that item on time.” If a party dress turns up after a party, it might be added, it’s far more likely to be sent back. However, it’s important to realise that crisp and concise text will only take you so far.

The Charles Tyrwhitt site also employs images and sketches to explain the different options. As for its product pages, these contained far bigger images than were commonplace when the site was first launched. That’s because imagery conveys information that words can’t. Sometimes, too, an image answers questions that would be incredibly difficult to deal with using text alone. Steve Cable recalls doing testing for Charles Tyrwitt. “A guy was looking at the image incredibly closely,” he says. “He leaned right into the computer and they have this zoom function that allows you to look at every little detail. And he looked at [the shirt] for a very, very long time, and then suddenly came up with, ‘Yep, nobody’s going to see my nipples through that.’ Okay, so now we know people want to hide their nipples with their shirts.” Another example cited by Cable is an eBay seller who specialised in handbags and was hugely successful. “She sold a whole bunch of handbags,” says Cable, “and every single handbag she took a photo of, she took a photo of it in the same position in the same room, so every product was comparable.” In a secondhand market where a scuff that hasn’t been mentioned might lead to an item being returned, the seller used imagery “to manage people’s expectations”. As for Lovehoney, the Bath-based sex toys retailer that featured in a recent Channel 4 documentary, the company ensures there’s a hand in the frame when videoing products since discovering that customers often returned items because they’d bought products that were too big. “[Customers] are a little bit less adventurous than they think they are,” says Matthew Curry .


These examples may seem straightforward, but they’re only a first step in terms of considering how focusing on returns might improve a business. Mo Syed, head of user experience at ecommerce specialists Amplience, argues that companies need to look at the whole returns process, both in order to make it as smooth as possible and to analyse in detail precisely what’s going on. Aside from any cost implications, he points out, returns can have a bad effect on a company’s reputation. “You have to start measuring things: for example, you have to have a list somewhere telling you what are the highest returned products and what are the categories they sit in,” says Syed. “You have to ask, ‘What can we do about how we’re presenting this product to reduce the amount of waste, to reduce the returns?’” This can lead to some imaginative responses. He puts forward the example of a shoe retailer that discovers fit is a big issue (which it usually is for clothing retailers of all types). Why not let customers help other customers here? “In the reviews for the shoes, they put a field which is whether the shoe comes up big or whether the shoe comes up small,” he suggests. “They’re providing a kind of social annotation to the product detail page, which gives you a little more information about the fit, which in turn reduces the likelihood of a return.” These kinds of approaches dovetail with that at Lovehoney. The company designs some of its own products, which are first mocked up on a 3D printer. Following manufacture and packaging, the new item arrives at the company’s new product workflow, a stage at which the company shoots videos demoing the product and review samples are sent out to members of the Lovehoney community. No new Lovehoney product goes live until the company has received these user reviews. Taken in conjunction with a content team of 10 people writing product guides, it’s an end-to-end system designed to get across accurate and useful information to consumers. “Essentially, people return things because they’re not satisfied with them and so it’s our job to make sure they are satisfied with them. This essentially means educating them,” says Lovehoney’s Matthew Curry. “Most people come to our site with absolutely no idea what they want. They’ve probably heard of a word, like a ‘rabbit’ vibrator or a ‘bullet’ or something like that, but that’s as far as their knowledge goes. So we have this ethos when we’re designing a page to recommend and educate.” Granted, Lovehoney’s products do extend as far as “weird medical bondage”, which at the very least makes the company somewhat unusual, but it’s an overall design approach with built-in checks and balances that translates well to other kinds of retailers.


Nevertheless, it’s worth emphasising again that whatever companies do, returns will occur and it’s important that retailers recognise and embrace this within the design process. In this context, there’s no point in actively hiding away returns information. “I know that some people will say, “Well if we tell people how to return stuff, they’re going to return stuff,’” says cxpartners Steve Cable. “Well, yes, maybe, but the way it really works is that it’s a bit of a security blanket. We see the same thing happen with phone numbers on websites. We have a general rule-of-thumb that if you have a customer service number it should be at the top of the website and on every page. “What we tend to see in user testing is having that number up there doesn’t mean that people are automatically going to call, but they know they can relax a bit because they know if there is going to be a problem there is somebody to call. It means they’re more willing to continue looking at the site. Equally, if we are upfront about returns and delivery options, then customers are more likely to say, ‘Well if there is something wrong with the product then I can return it.’” If other design elements are in place, this shouldn’t occur and, if it does, surely it’s better to have more returns if they’re being generated by higher sales figures? As cxpartners’ Amy McGuinness points out: “It’s how you deal with someone when they want to return something that will affect whether they come back and shop with you.”



“If you give someone the ability to spin a product through 360 degrees and really zoom in to examine the product before they buy it and/or watch a video of how the thing actually works in reality, then consumers are empowered to a much greater extent to make the right purchasing decision. The upshot is they are less likely to send stuff back.”

Mo Syed, head of user experience, Amplience


“[Offering a no-quibble returns policy] is a point of difference, so we use it as a reassurance message throughout the site. From the home page to the checkout, we will tell you, ‘There’s no risk here. If you buy something and you’re not sure if you’re going to like it, don’t worry, you can always send it back and we’ll recommend you something else.’”

Matthew Curry, head of ecommerce, Lovehoney


“On the product details page, we have a number of tabs where we’ve put in illustrations for the different fit types for our products, and we’ve given information on the weave.”

Jennie Blythe, head of web development and trading


Tyrwhitt “Returns will happen. Even if returns happen because it’s a duff product, then you need to feed that back to buying, who then feed it on to the people they’re buying from.”

Matthew Curry, head of ecommerce, Lovehoney

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