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A recent survey from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) found that more than 60% of shoppers are less likely to return goods bought online. 

This is partly due to a lack of awareness from consumers about their rights when shopping online, but could also be the fault of retailers and their returns policies. 

This is an area where multichannel retailers can do a lot to reassure customers about buying online by allowing in-store returns, so which retailers are doing this? 

The problem with not having multichannel returns policies

I recently wrote about Orange as an example of worst practice in this area as, despite having a national network of stores, online purchases have to be returned by post, meaning that customers are forced to wait an unnecessarily long time for an exchange or a refund. 

This is how not to do it; customers see retailers as a single entity, and will not understand why online and offline is not joined up, they will just be annoyed when they cannot solve an issue quickly by returning it to a store. 

A bad returns experience will simply deter customers from shopping with that retailer again, online or offline. 

The benefits of a multichannel returns policy

Those retailers that can offer customers convenient returns in store if that is what they want have an advantage, as they can potentially offer a far better experience for customers. 

If customers can shop online with a retailer, knowing that they can return goods in store, this makes it more likely that customers will feel comfortable shopping online with them. 

In store returns also offer an opportunity for some up-selling; if a customer returns good bought online to a store and has a positive experience, then they may leave having bought more expensive alternative. 

So, a clear multichannel returns policy that is made clear at the point of purchase can be a factor in a purchase decision, but which retailers are offering this, and how are they communicating the message? 

Which retailers allow offline returns for online purchases?

Tesco's returns policy makes it clear that customers can take products back to the store if they wish to, and actually encourages this as the quickest option. It may also be the case that customers will be able to have problems rectified in store which would be otherwise missed, especially with electrical products. 

Argos also makes it nice and easy for customers, offering in store returns or free of charge collection. No problems there. Purchases from the John Lewis website can also be returned in store, and this is made clear in its returns policy:

Other multichannel retailers, including Currys, Halfords, Debenhams and Boots all allow in-store returns, though praise should go to M&S, Warehouse and TopShop for the clarity of their returns policies. 

Both retailers have included the returns policies on product pages, where customers are making a purchase decision in which a returns policy may be a key factor, especially for clothing.

Here's the M&S returns policy. The only issue is the line 'free returns in most UK stores', this should be made clearer. 

TopShop also displays its returns policy on the product page, but also has a clear link at the top of the homepage, which leads to this message: 

Which retailers don't do this? 

It isn't just Orange, other mobile phone retailers aren't too keen on allowing in-store returns, and also seem to have an aversion to displaying returns policies. 

I tried O2, 3, and Vodafone, and with all three it was way too difficult to find returns information, as if these retailers believe that hiding the returns policies will avoid the problem. 

With some effort, I actually managed to find the returns policy for O2 and Vodafone, via the site maps and FAQs sections, and neither allows in-store returns.

Here's O2's: 

As for 3, if there is a returns policy on the site, I couldn't find it. Even typing 'returns' into the help section didn't do it. This is actually likely to have customers heading to the local store, which is perhaps not the intention. 

As well as providing a better experience for customers with a more flexible returns policy, since mobile phones can be complex products, allowing customers to take items back to a store may be one way of solving simple issues and avoiding the need for calls to customer services, and the costs associated with postal returns. 

SportsDirect has a harsh-sounding returns policy, which could deter some customers if they read it before purchase. Delivery costs are non-refundable, and returns must be made by post only.

Check out this passage, not exactly what you'd call a hassle-free returns policy: 

To cancel an order you must return the goods to us immediately. The goods must be returned in the same condition in which you received them, and they will be returned at your own cost and risk. You have a legal obligation to take reasonable care of the goods while they are in your possession. If you fail to comply with this obligation, we may have a right of action against you for compensation. This applies to all goods that are returned.

Most high street retailers do allow customers to returns online purchases to a store, with one notable exception being HMV and Waterstones, where customers need to return goods by post, at their own expense. 

All of these retailers risk losing future customers with their returns policies. If you are a multichannel retailer, letting customers decide which channel they want to use to return goods can make it so much easier, and will reassure them when making future purchases when they know they can take items back to a store.

This is an advantage that multichannel retailers have over pure-plays, so why not make the most of it?

Graham Charlton

Published 19 March, 2010 by Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton is the former Editor-in-Chief at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or connect via Linkedin or Google+

2565 more posts from this author

Comments (4)

Avatar-blank-50x50

Lel1982

Very.co.uk have an excellent returns policy - I can highly recommend! I used to return to the post office but now I take it to my local store as it does the Collect plus service. I'm also told that they will collect direct from your home.

over 6 years ago

Avatar-blank-50x50

Mark Bolitho, New Business Director - Ecommerce at more2

A couple of our clients, Quiz Clothing and Officers Club are linking up store and online now - both report good take-up, and feel it's a very beneficial strategy.

over 6 years ago

Avatar-blank-50x50

Matthew Treagus, Managing Director at rtobjects

Nice post.

Good, clear returns policies drives initial conversion not just repeat usage.

Fashion retailers have to be good at returns - its the nature of the product - lots that others could learn from it. They know tha the optimum returns rate is not 0%!

Returns to store is much more likely to relate in a replacement purchase too.

It's no suprise that the telcos get it wrong; contractual complexity and reseller agreements obstruct the user experience here.

The biggest single obstacle to good multi-channel experiences remains internal organisation structures. The same issues that drove concerns about cannabalisation are, ironically, the same that obstruct return-to-store.

over 6 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

Hi Matthew - I can see the problems that the telcos have, but was still disappointed by how difficult the returns process was, and how hard it was to even find the information. 

over 6 years ago

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