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The Journal Gazette

Wednesday, March 16, 2016 6:42 pm

Retailers grappling with online returns

Sarah Halzack Washington Post

In many households, the following scenario is something of a Christmas morning ritual: Pry the wrapping off your gift from Grandma. Feign some "oohs" and "ahhs" over the shaggy sweater with the loud pattern. And subtly paw around the box, hoping there’s a gift receipt so you can return it for something you really want.

It is this consumer mindset that makes late December and January the busiest time of year for merchandise returns.

Although retailers have long had to grapple with the logistical hurdles of processing a glut of unwanted items, retail and supply-chain experts say the rise of e-commerce has greatly intensified the challenges. Items bought online tend to have a significantly higher return rate than in-store purchases, leaving retailers to adjust their inventory and labor strategies.

About 23 percent of all returns – nearly $60 billion in goods – take place during the holiday season, said Tobin Moore of Optoro, a company that helps retailers improve their "reverse supply chain."

While many retailers see a 5â ¯percent to 10 percent return rate on in-store purchases, Moore said the rate is typically 10â ¯percent to 15 percent for online transactions. For apparel brands, experts say, the online return rate can be 20â ¯percent to 30 percent.

A deluge of returns can be expensive for retailers, and not just because they have lost the initial sale. They often foot the bill for return shipping. To resell the item, they might have to put it on the sale rack or take it into the secondary market – an outlet store, perhaps, or a discount retailer such as T.J. Maxx. And they’re also incurring labor costs for unpacking, processing and restocking the goods.

Despite the costs, retailers have come to view flexible, easy-to-understand return policies as table stakes for competing online.

"When we first started in e-commerce, the thinking was, ‘We’ll make it as hard as possible (to return), because then the sales will stick,’" said Maria Haggerty, chief executive of Dotcom Distribution, an e-commerce logistics company. "As e-commerce has evolved, the retailers have realized that customer acquisition is such a huge cost, that if you get one sale from them, you don’t want to lose them" with a frustrating return policy.

That’s why some retailers are working to streamline their processes, providing shoppers with prepaid return labels for online purchases and trying to reduce the number of steps it takes to complete the return.

Overstock.com, for example, recently trimmed its return process from 12 steps to three.