Retail Returns: How to Make the Return Process Frictionless for You and Your Customers

contact free returns

We get it. Returns are a pain.

If you’re like most retail merchants, you don’t love thinking about returns, let alone spending your precious time and energy working to improve your returns process. In fact, you may wish returns would just go away entirely.

But we both know that’s not going to happen.

Actually, it’s just the opposite. Returns are a necessary evil in retail and have been increasing steadily as more commerce shifts online.

"Returns are a necessary evil in retail and have been increasing steadily as more commerce shifts online."

When shoppers buy online and can't see and touch items before purchase, they often compensate by buying moreperhaps multiple sizes, colors or styleswith the expectation they will return anything that does not suit them when the order is delivered.

Some reputable sources have sized returns as a trillion-dollar problemthe Achilles’ Heel of commerceand leading industry players are taking steps to address it.

Every day, a certain very large ecommerce player is training all its customers—i.e., most of your customers—that returns can and should be so simple, fast, and easy that they are essentially pain-free. That customers should be able to shop without fear, knowing that if a purchase doesn’t work out, the cost to return it in terms of their time, effort, and money will be close to zero.

If you have any doubt this is true, we’d encourage you to go to said retailer’s online return page and look at the options you’re given to return. None of the return options displayed first even offer the option of printing a return label (they use QR codes instead).

Or visit one of their third-party return locations this weekend and see the line of online shoppers preparing to drop off their return items with no box or label, for an immediate approval and refund.

Frictionless retail returns are happening in a big way. And while this might seem like a challenge for your business, our experience shows that if you approach returns thoughtfully and make intelligent choices for you and your customers, you can tame the returns beast and create a positive, frictionless outcome for everyone.

First, is it nuts to make retail returns easier?

Many merchants are understandably uneasy about the idea of making retail returns frictionless for customers.

“If I make returns easy, will that increase my return rate and jeopardize my profits?” 

Our experience with over 100 Shopify merchants has shown us that, if implemented thoughtfully, making returns frictionless for your customers—and for yourself—can be quite healthy for your bottom line.

Why is making the returns process easier better for retail businesses? 

  1. Most customers don't decide to return an item because the return process is easy. They return it because the purchase genuinely didn’t work out. The decision to keep an item or return it is largely not a function of the ease or difficulty of the return process.

  2. Customers who want to return an item, but don’t because they find your return process cumbersome, are significantly less likely to shop with you in the future. Lots of studies confirm this, and you probably know from personal experience, it’s true.

  3. For most merchants, your top 10% of customers account for a disproportionate share of your sales. These customers, almost universally, have the highest return rates—because they love to shop with you and try new products and styles. By making returns easy, you increase their frequency of purchases—more than their return rate—and their net purchases increase.

  4. And the simplest reason of all: When customers understand and believe that returns are easy, they’re more inclined to make purchases from you, and to make more frequent and larger purchases too. 

If you want one final proof point, consider this.

Of all the merchants who have ever worked with Happy Returns to make their return process easier for customers and themselves, the number who have changed their mind and decided to revert to a previous, friction-filled approach is… zero. Literally, not one.

Overall, they must believe improving their return process is beneficial, or at least manageable, for their business.

To those who might wonder, what about serial returners and those who abuse the system?

Yes, that can be an issue (whether your return process has friction or not), but that is best addressed by implementing processes to manage those particular customers—not by making returns grueling for all your (best) customers.

So, how do you make retail returns frictionless? 

1. Automate your return flow 

Putting returns on autopilot provides a painless return experience for both you and your shoppers, while freeing your team up to work on other tasks.

Merchants have a fantastic opportunity to use return apps to offload the burden of returns from Customer Experience teams and provide shoppers with a self-service experience. 

By utilizing best-in-class software to automate your returns, you can customize your online portal to include all of your policies and guidelines, including your return windows, return fees, final sale items, and much more.

You can go even further by including special features like “returnless refunds,” which let customers receive refunds for low-value items you specify, without requiring them to return the items. 

2. Automate your exchanges

exchange options

Reduce refunds by making exchanges as effortless as possible, and giving your customers plenty of opportunities to choose this option on their own.

Again, by using software, you can proactively offer exchanges based on the shopper’s return reason, or automatically show them other options by size or color based on available inventory.

Automating your exchanges also helps deliver a customer experience that is similar to in-store shopping, where an associate would be on hand to help the shopper find the right color and size. 

3. Help your CX team automate return processing

While automation can help reduce the returns burden, there are often unique scenarios that require judgement calls and extra attention from CX teams.

For example, you may want to make exceptions to your return policy, whether that’s allowing a shopper to return past the window or allowing returns for VIP customers. Ensure your CX team has tools to manage these exceptions and a set of guidelines when business decisions are required. 

4. Offer multiple return methods

Most retailers already provide several delivery options, including the ability for shoppers to pay more for expedited shipping. The same idea applies to exchanges and returns.

Empower your shoppers by providing multiple methods for returning, beyond the hassle and wait of returning by mail. This can include returns to your stores or in-person returns to a third-party network. Neither of these options require a box or label, and both offer the shopper an immediate refund or exchange.

5. Offer at least one highly sustainable option 

With over 61% of consumers saying they only buy from retailers with sustainable business practices, returns present a chance to go green, so consider offering returnless refunds for low value items to eliminate needless shipments.

"Over 61% of consumers say they only buy from retailers with sustainable business practices."

Another great way to make your returns eco-friendly is by aggregating items into cardboard-free reusable boxes at a third-party location and shipping them in bulk. Not only does this method greatly reduce your costs by avoiding the unnecessary expense of individual shipping, but it significantly cuts down greenhouse gas emissions and fuel waste.

The planet (and your bottom line) will thank you. 

6. Offer a free return option 

Shoppers are being trained by that previously mentioned ecommerce giant to expect at least one free way to return an item, so it’s worth considering if this is something you can support.

We recommend you offer at least one free option for returning in person and then consider charging for returns by mail, since shipping is becoming increasingly more expensive. 

If you have brick-and-mortar locations, those are obviously able to serve as a hub for shoppers to make their returns without having to pay. But even merchants who only sell online can take advantage of free in-person returns by utilizing third-party networks as drop-off points.

In this way, merchants are able to make their free return option the one that is the least expensive for them to pay for. 

7. Keep your return policy simple

With a clear policy that leaves no room for interpretation, your shoppers know exactly what to expect, reducing the need for angry customer service calls down the line. When you draft a clear policy and make it prominent on your site, you can increase conversion rates and decrease customer churn.

Also, when you create a relatively simple policy that’s in line with customer expectations, you relieve them from the pain point of trying to keep track of your policy versus other merchantsa simple thing that goes a long way in raising lifetime value. 

8. Limit returns with basic best practices

When it comes to making returns frictionless, don’t forget to include the basic steps that will help limit them in the first place.

For example, make sure you post clear size charts to help avoid unnecessary returns due to size – the reason for 50% of all returns in footwear and apparel.

Similarly, it’s important to clearly mark final sale items, and to include customer reviews of your products, to help make your shoppers as confident as possible before they press purchase. 

You can do this

As we mentioned at the start, customers are learning every day now that returns can be as simple as creating a QR code online and dropping off their unboxed items at a local store.

With a thoughtful approach and the support of new technology and services, you can offer the frictionless returns experience your customers want, in ways that are beneficial to your business.

Want to improve your returns process?

Automate returns and exchanges, convert refunds into exchanges, and more with Happy Returns.

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