Betsy Stewart

Returns of online orders have long been looked at as inevitable. Something that should be factored into the cost of doing business and overall margins. However, the challenges caused by online returns can also be looked at as an opportunity.

If considered as a user experience issue, online returns quickly become a priority focus for brands. Establishing a policy and process that emphasizes customer convenience and choice will encourage loyalty and referrals – and set you apart from competitors. 

Online businesses should embrace returns as an obligation and an opportunity. “The customer experience of a brand does not end with checkout,” according to Randy Kohl, Head of Marketing at Gorilla Group. “The website experience, the receiving experience, and the return experience should be designed with the consumer in mind.”

According to Shopify, “consumers returned products worth $428 billion in 2020—just over 10% of total retail sales. The National Retail Federation estimates the cost of returns amounts to $101 billion.” 

And with a return rate averaging three times higher than brick-and-mortar stores (CBRE), online businesses must get it right. 84% of online shoppers would say goodbye to a retailer after a bad return experience

Omnichannel retailers, like Macy’s, can of course offer in-store returns for online purchases. Others have partnered with other retailers to accept their returns, as Amazon has done with Kohl’s. Other local, in-person options like lockers and drop-off locations are increasing in popularity. For online pure play brands with no physical retail presence, establishing a liberal returns policy and offering instant refunds can help mitigate return restrictions – and should be standard practice. 

Aggregators are increasing in popularity, too. In addition to streamlining logistics and giving consumers another choice, consolidated returns are an environmental consideration. For brands, establishing a perspective on sustainability and promoting that mindset is another brand priority. “Aggregated shipping in reusable containers reduces cardboard waste and lowers greenhouse gas emissions compared to returns by mail,” according to Happy Returns. (Early investor PayPal purchased Happy Returns in May of 2021.) 

No label. No box. No problem. Returns are coming to you. Considering 47% of purchasers want an easy-to-print return label (according to invesp), the next step for reverse logistics means you don’t even have to leave the couch. Walmart offers InHome, a pick-up service for returns – just leave it at your front door. “Skip the shipping box. Skip the label, too. Just tell us it's ready.”

The mentality for brands needs to be: returning a purchase should be as simple as placing an order. Extending this perspective means tracking towards label-free and box-free returns. And even at-home pickup as the most hassle-free return option.

And to limit returns in the first place? Prevention may be the best medicine. Focusing on providing detailed, high-quality online product content – written descriptions, images, videos, and customer reviews – is a necessary first step. From there, layering on additional tools, from virtual sizing and try-ons to AR-assisted in-room placement can help lower the overall rate of returns.

Consumers have choices and more choices are becoming available all the time. Quick convenience should be expected. Easy returns should be the norm.

In a competitive retail landscape, a hassle-free returns experience is a necessity – and frictionless returns are key to creating repeat customers. From customer joy to environmental benefits, streamlining returns has tangible benefits. This is essential to the customer experience and long-term brand success.