Serial returners are showing brands what an online shopping process looks like when you need to try before you buy."

Confession: I am a serial online returner.

As a working mother with a long commute, online shopping is more than a simple convenience — it makes my life possible. Bulky staples like paper towels and diapers are delivered to my doorstep each month. Last-minute toddler gear arrives regularly on rush shipping.

But my mailbox is filled with almost as many items going back to retailers. My entire spring and summer wardrobe was purchased online — with at least 50% returned. In the next few weeks, I’ll shop for my winter clothes the same way. Add in the online holiday shopping I’ll be doing for friends and family, who may or may not want to keep the gifts I’ve chosen, and I can feel retail and brand executives bracing themselves for the inevitable returns just from my online orders alone.

But it’s not just me. Nearly 90% of online shoppers have returned a purchase, according to a recent survey by Return Magic. As shoppers of all ages tap into the convenience of online shopping, retailers are confronting the reality of consumers’ preferences to buy online, then return, return, return — to the tune of billions of dollars in costs to retailers. Statista estimates return deliveries in the United States alone will cost $550 billion by 2020, 75% more than four years prior and that doesn’t include restocking and inventory loss expenses.

Some have called these expenses a ticking time bomb. But if online retailers can shift how they perceive the role returns play in the shopping journey, they don’t have to be.

Instead of viewing returns as a follow-up to the buying process, retailers can win by thinking of returns as part of the shopping process.

From Product Rejection to Product Trial

It’s easy to say that the serial returners driving huge return costs are taking advantage of the system. Amazon has even banned the most extreme habitual returners, identifying us as bad for business.

But serial returners aren’t taking advantage of the system, they’re showing brands what an online shopping process looks like when you need to try before you buy.  While shopping online is convenient, it leaves a lot of guesswork to the consumer on product quality, size and features. This leaves consumers with a certain level of risk, so it’s no wonder 41% of consumers buy variations of a product with the intent of returning. It’s serial returners like me who don’t think of paying for multiple sizes or variations online as akin to buying and returning. Instead, we think of it as a sort of refundable deposit to try something we haven’t committed to yet.

Only brands and retailers that think the same way — considering returns as part of the larger buying experience — will avoid getting gouged by growing customer return habits. Andrew Bowden, senior manager of product marketing at TradeGecko, hit this home in a recent interview with Shopify. “The most important question to ask when assessing your reverse logistics process,” he said, “is whether or not you’re designing and optimizing the experience for the customer or your business — ideally it’s a mix of both. When in doubt, default to the customer.”

Retailers Can Redefine Returns

Instead of punishing or dissuading online shoppers who see returning merchandise as part of the purchase decision, why not embrace them? What would the online retail customer experience look like if we shift the way we think of a “return” to a “try?”

Some retailers are taking small steps in that direction, encouraging online customers to use their brick-and-mortar stores for returns or exchanges. Digitally native direct-to-consumer brands are going further: brands like ThirdLove are redefining the experience to embrace how the need to try on shapes a shopping journey. ThirdLove is focused on fit; they incorporate an in-depth fit quiz before purchase and let customers return bras even after they’ve already been worn and put through the laundry. While I was trying on my new bra at home, I texted with a ThirdLove “Fit Stylist” for a new size recommendation. When I needed a new style, she provided the most seamless repackaging/shipping logistics I’ve encountered. Knowing this, I’m guessing they have an air-tight reverse logistics process built for efficiency and minimal cost, too. Over the last six months I’ve returned two bras. But I’ve kept five — and become a serial repeat customer. That’s a big deal when repeat purchases drive a whopping 83% of apparel shopping journeys.

It’s the more traditional retail brands that haven’t quite figured this out yet. Their struggle with the cost of returns leaves customers guessing on how an item looks in real life, receiving multiple packages that can’t be re-used, printing labels — and racking up costs to the retailer.

These brands look at serial returners as a problem to be combatted, but brands and customers both win if we shift how we perceive the role of returns in the online shopping journey. Because at the end of the day, we’re not serial returners. We’re just online shoppers.


Advantage Solutions

Greer Pearce
Vice President, Strategy
AMP Agency

Greer Pearce has been part of the strategy team at AMP Agency, an Advantage Marketing Partner, since early 2016.

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