The Return Burn: How To Save Holiday Orders And Build Loyalty Online

Black Friday is just a few weeks away, and retailers and shoppers alike are now facing one of their biggest nightmares: returns. 

Ecommerce stores must handle this with a precision that could not be imagined back when 15% was considered the standard mail order return rate, judging by The State of Returns: Finding What Fits, a study released Thursday by Narvar. 

For one thing, 38% of consumers will not even buy an item if they can’t find the returns policy. And they’re picky about it: 39% won’t buy if they do not have the option to return by mail, and 28% will abandon the effort if they have to contact someone to handle a return. 

For another, returns are now part of the loyalty process: 96% of consumers will buy again from a retailer who has provided “an on-brand, seamless and flexible returns process.”   

Moreover, 77% of first-time buyers who rate their return experience as easy or very easy proclaim they will shop with that retailer again. That jumps to 88% when repeat buyers are added into the sample.  



Email is crucial to this process because customers must be apprised of the state of a return, whether something is out of stock and how to go about making a return — triggered communications that must be delivered precisely, and in real time.  

"Proactive communication, whether via email, SMS, or other channels, is absolutely critical to give customers peace-of-mind about their return," says
Andria Tay, global director of marketing & communications for Narvar. "Over the past couple of years, we’ve found about 35% said receiving updates on the status of their return contributed to their positive returns experience." 

Tay adds, "This is also another opportunity for brands to continue to engage with their customer — entice them to buy something else, visit the store, download the app, or simply thank them for their business — and continue the loyalty loop."

Email teams must also know how consumers want to return things. Shoppers say:

  • It’s easier to return by mail — 33% 
  • It’s easier to return to a store — 41% 
  • I wish I could return items to the nearest store like a grocery store or convenience store — 42%

All these feelings have been magnified over the past year. (Speaking of out-of-stocks, 37% are shopping early to deal much-publicized supply chain issues). And they illustrate why Narvar includes email communications among its services. 

Narvar surveyed 1,040 US consumers who have returned at least one online purchase in the last six months. It found, among other things, that some consumers will pay for to make returns, although many won’t. 

Of those polled, 24% will use ask for same-day delivery only if it’s free (They’ve already tried it). But 32% will pay up to $5, 18% more than $5 and 14% would agree to a monthly subscription rate. 

Similarly, 41%--those who have tried it—will request two-day shipping only if it’s free. But 16% will pay a subscription fee for the service.  

It’s not just returns: consumers are also open to making exchangers online, which helps the retailer “save the sale,” 

Overall, 60% replace an item they’ve returned, 42% with the same retailer. Why make a switch with the same retailer?

  • Easy to exchange for different color/size/model –52% 
  • Easy to exchange for completely different item--33% 
  • Of those made exchanges, 38% did so by mail vs. 9% in-store. 

What about the 18% who sought to replace the item with a different retailer? Here's why they return:

  • Out of stock at original merchant--33% 
  • Better pricing –25%
  • Faster replacement—13%

Who’s good at returns? Amazon: 73% say the process is easy, 22% that it’s OK and 5% find it difficult. 

In contrast, 66% say non-Amazon retailers provide easy return experiences, while 28% describe them as okay. And 10% complain that they’re difficult. 

Why do people return things at all?

Fit and size issues account for 42% of returns. Bracketing is at the 58% level as people struggle to find the right fit without trying on the item in-store. 

That’s why there’s high interest in new technologies like AR: 88% of shoppers rely on photos, descriptions, reviews and sizing guides to make decisions. 

Oh, and about the overall return rates: They're not much worse than they were in the mail order days. 

"Online return rates vary greatly by category and other factors, with apparel being among the highest, and beauty among the lowest--we see an average of 15-20% across the industry," Tay says. 

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