How to Navigate the Returns Experience During and Post-COVID-19 Crisis
With stores closed and social distancing in effect, consumers rely on online shopping now more than ever, causing e-commerce to explode by 40 percent in March. While retailers have focused on deep discounts, curbside pickup and optimized delivery, they should also hone in on a critical and lesser-known factor of customer loyalty: the returns experience.
Returns are an inevitable cost of doing business, especially with e-commerce having up to three times the return rate of brick-and-mortar retail. Furthermore, they’re a huge part of the consumer experience. Eighty-nine percent of consumers said they were less likely to shop with a retailer again if they had a bad experience, according to our research. To earn loyalty in the long term, and encourage purchasing now, retailers need to think about how to elevate the returns experience.
Modify return policies to promote customer loyalty and encourage near-term shopping.
Many consumers are hesitant to venture out during the stay-at-home period. Retailers should extend return policy windows to encourage people to buy now, without fearing the hassle of a return during social distancing. E-commerce retailers such as Amazon.com have extended their return policy windows, while omnichannel retailers like Target have paused in-store returns, allowing customers to hold on to their returns until stores reopen. Free returns is a particularly valuable tool for items with high return rates, such as apparel. As of April, 44 percent of the top apparel retailers now offer free returns, with some online retailers like Brooks Brothers advertising free returns on its website.
Make e-commerce returns easy and convenient for consumers.
E-commerce returns are historically a hassle for retailers and consumers. Some online retailers require shoppers to call or email to return, print labels, pay for return shipping, and also don’t allow shoppers to return e-commerce purchases to brick-and-mortar stores if they have them. Beyond adopting more shopper-friendly policies, retailers should aim to provide a frictionless returns experience.
Retailers can simplify the returns order process for consumers with an online portal. ASOS, for instance, recently launched an online portal to start a returns order and help consumers easily find nearby drop-off locations. Returnly also helps retailers and brands offer consumers a seamless digital returns experience with an instant credit option to encourage a near-term purchase.
Second, retailers can offer consumers more flexibility in where they can return — e.g., physical retail stores, shipping centers, third-party drop-off locations. To make drop-off options more convenient for consumers, UPS partnered with Michaels to provide contactless returns.
Prepare to handle an influx of in-store returns.
Sixty-six percent of consumers prefer to return items in physical retail stores. In the isolation period, consumers have been holding onto their returns. Retailers should anticipate a surge of returns to stores once they reopen in various parts of the country. Therefore, retailers should focus on making the returns experience as seamless and convenient as possible.
For example, return-only cashier lines or cashier-less drop-off areas can minimize wait times and limit contact between employees and consumers. As physical stores begin to see a returns surge, retailers will also need to process returned items efficiently to avoid clearance sections from becoming overwhelmed and disorganized with excess items, which can negatively impact the customer experience.
The returns experience should be an opportunity for retailers to foster loyalty, rather than being a point of frustration for consumers. While a shopper may initially be hesitant to make a purchase that might need to be returned later (for example, if they’re unsure on a shoe size or cosmetic shade), offering a thoughtful and convenient returns experience can quell any reservations and lead to short-term purchases and long-term loyalty.
Larisa Summers is the senior vice president of marketing at returns technology company Optoro.