Tobias Buxhoidt, founder and CEO of post-purchase communication specialists parcelLab, explains why penalising shoppers who are suspected of returning too many purchases is a premature move for most UK online retailers.

The recent decision by online fashion retailer ASOS to review its returns policy with the express aim of preventing shoppers exploiting it and to encourage what it calls “fair use” has been widely reported.

The main aim is to stop its customers ‘wardrobing’ – buying an item with the sole intention of wearing it once and returning it again. This is practiced by 20% of 25 to 34-year-olds, according to a Rebound study of 2,000 UK consumers, who also frequently buy clothes just to post photos of themselves wearing them on social media – or ‘snap and send back’ as it’s known.

ASOS says it will deactivate the accounts of those customers displaying “unusual patterns of returns activity”. Amazon is already doing this, while Brightpearl found that two-thirds of retail executives are prepared to follow suit.

However, before diving headlong into tightening their returns policy against customers, UK retailers would do well to improve the service they offer in this area first. Or carry out both simultaneously so that customers see that they are also getting something back, like ASOS did by extending its returns period from 25 to 45 days. And UK retailers could go a lot further than this, because there is plenty of room for improvement when it comes to returns.

Extending the returns period would no doubt be welcomed by shoppers, but there are other areas that they would arguably prefer to be improved first. Take providing a returns label with an order, for instance. Some 22 out of the UK’s largest 100 online retailers do not actually do this, instead expecting customers to sort this out themselves, while 16 ask customers to download the label, according to a recent ‘mystery shopper’ survey by parcelLab. Although almost half of the retailers studied did include a returns label, this was not always postage-paid, and for the many that do charge for the service, the average cost was high at £8.42 per item sent back.

Customer communication during the returns process was also found to be wanting. Although almost three-quarters informed shoppers that their return had arrived, the rest did not communicate with the customer at all. Meanwhile, 34 did not notify customers when they would be reimbursed.

Now, you might ask that if some customers are abusing the returns process, why should retailers make it easier for them to send purchases back? The answer is that there remains only a minority of shoppers exploiting the situation, with the majority returning goods legitimately. What’s more, a personalised, customer-centric returns process is important to two-thirds of shoppers, who check an ecommerce website for its returns policy before making a purchase (UPS Pulse of the Online Shopper Survey). Over a third, meanwhile, say they would consider not buying from a business that doesn’t personalise their experience, according to a recent survey by The Harris Poll.

This means that delivering the best possible returns experience can attract customers and help set retailers apart from their rivals. Once this is in place, then retailers can turn their attention to developing a strategy to prevent shoppers exploiting it, like ASOS has done, as it will sit far better against an excellent customer-focused returns policy.

In fact, communicating personally with customers during this phase of the shopping journey can actually help to offset the cost of returns. That’s because retailers can include offers and suggest complementary purchases in their return and refund status emails, which can inspire customers to spend more.

The returns process will always be a key and frequently annoying expense for online retailers, due to customers’ inability to try first and buy later. However, approached correctly, it can also be a big selling point, helping to both attract and retain customers. So before looking to police and penalise shoppers for exploiting the process, you should prioritise making sure you have great returns policy and operation in place.

Tobias Buxhoidt is Founder and CEO of post-purchase communication specialists parcelLab

Originally published The Industry.Fashion | 29 April 2019

Photo by Melody Jacob on Unsplash