How retailers can deliver a positive returns experience for customers

By Peter Ballard, Co-Founder of Foolproof, a Zensar company and VP Head of Marketing (EMEA) at Zensar Technologies.

Returns are a major headache for retailers, exasperated by online sales where vetting product quality is harder.

Last month, we conducted a piece of consumer research* which found that almost half of the UK (48%) wanted to return an unwanted Christmas gift. The prediction, based on the average cost of the gift being £20.48, is that retailers will be facing another over £500,000,000 in returns. It’s another blow for UK retailers, who have not had the best fortunes.

Even post-pandemic this potentially troubling trend of heightened returns could continue, as consumers have discovered a new found confidence in convenience of online shopping.

The brand value of returns

Returns cost a lot to process, there’s a people and logistical overhead and the risk of the item(s) potentially not being resold too. However, many brands have failed to consider what they’re missing out on by not offering a knock-out returns experience which delights rather than disappoints customers.

Returns should be treated with the same care as any element of your end-to-end purchase experience. Meaning what’s of paramount importance is designing seamless returns experiences, because positive experiences can promote future purchases.

Reasons for returning

There are many reasons why people chose to return items. Retailers could be experiencing a rise in returns most recently because of changing customer behaviour. More people are treating purchasing as an extension of online browsing as they get more comfortable with buying gifts online due to the inability to check items as they would in store. This is resulting in people purchasing multiple items, checking them at home and then returning those that don’t fit the bill.

One way to remedy this would be to invest in more engaging product descriptions, virtual demonstrations, customer reviews and supporting content upfront to convince people the items they want to purchase are up to scratch.

Four ways retailers can improve the returns experience

There are multiple ways that retailers can improve their returns experience for their customers. Here’s four simple tips which can help retailers get started today.

Conducting a service blueprint mapping exercise

Any returns experience includes multiple touchpoints, both customer and business facing. However, existing returns experiences are unlikely to have been architected under lockdown conditions or under the pressure of increased volume. By conducting a service blueprint exercise, you can understand the points on your end-to-end returns journey and what’s changed allowing you to take in previously unconsidered elements.

Take a few of the following for example:

  • Items generally take longer to return as people are leaving their homes less for non-essential trips.
  • Returns are taking longer to handle once in the warehouse due to restrictions around the proximity of your team to each other, leading to a longer lead-time for the refund process.
  • People are demanding pickup of items from their homes.
  • People cannot print forms as readily or easily as they don’t have printers, paper or ink and can’t just pop out to get some.

Investing in process and technology enhancements

Retailers have invested in their technological infrastructure in the last year to keep their websites running – ready to serve us, the stay-at-home consumer. This might have meant moving to the cloud, improving core systems or redesigning experiences to ensure people are served digitally in a timely manner. 

In light of supporting the increased volume of transactions some are seeing, particularly pure-play online vendors, it’s important that money is spent on the infrastructure supporting returns whether that’s technology or people related.

A smart way to do this is by creating returns excellence centres, where returns from across your company are routed to. This will create operational efficiencies and resolve returns in the least possible time by keeping them away from your main distribution centres. 

Articulating the returns journey clearly

One thing which is sure to exasperate returners is a lack of clarity on the process they need to follow, the steps within it and how long it will take to get their money back or a replacement item to them. Whether this is part of your packaging or online via your website you need to offer clear, concise and accurate information about how to get items back to you.

Moreover, how you describe your process should be a reflection of the reality today. For example, if you ask someone to fill out a return form online, place their item in the post and state that the money will be credited to their account within three working days you need to deliver against that, or you need to update your communications.

Expectation setting and delivering against those expectations accurately is crucial to designing better returns, it helps to build consumer trust.

Making returns as easy as possible, and widely available

A great returns experience puts the least possible onus on the person returning the item. Relying on complex processes or things like printers, or even people leaving their homes, isn’t feasible under current conditions. We recommend making as much of your experience digital, available via multiple means i.e., supplying a web form and a hard copy of a returns form.

Other smart recommendations include making the packaging of the item the vessel for returns. Further suggestions include offering multiple ways for people to drop off an item for return i.e., a network of shops, or collective drop off points. The holy grail being free, no hassle, returns pickup from people’s doors. This offers lots of ways to return whilst catering for those who are uncomfortable with or unable to leave their homes at the moment.

Summing up

Returns aren’t being considered with the same rigour as fulfilment by many retailers. Even those with typically strong returns experiences will suffer without deeper consideration or investment. Retailers must remember that returns experiences create brand value in the same way as any other element of a purchase journey. Especially now when it’s easier than ever for people to go elsewhere online.

* 2,016 UK consumers aged 18+, January 2021

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