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You might think that, for retailers with a network of stores, allowing customers to return items bought online to their nearest shop would be a no-brainer. Sadly not. 

50% of the UK's multichannel retailers were not able (or willing?) to accept returns for online purchases. 

This suggests that, though many retailers have worked hard to integrate online and offline channels to provide a better experience for customers, many still have work to do. 

The stats are from MICROS 2014 Online Returns and Refunds Report, which analysed 217 retailers, 197 of which had both a store network and an ecommerce site. 

Why are returns important? 

A site's returns policy is often a key factor in a customer's decision to make a purchase, especially if they are harbouring doubts.

They may be concerned about the size, or it may be a gift for a friend or relative which they may not like. 

In such cases, returns policies can be a deal breaker. For example, let's compare and contrast these two approaches.

Sports Direct

Take a look at this. Sports Direct may have an extensive network of stores (more than 470 in the UK), but don't expect to be able to return purchases to any of them. 

 

It's more then just that. The returns process is quite off-putting. Customers need to print and fill out a returns form (why not send one with the delivery?) and then return goods at their own cost within seven days (if they want the original delivery charge refunded). 

The wording isn't great either. It comes across as very harsh. 

If a full refund including original delivery costs is required then the entire order needs to be returned back to us within seven (7) working days. However you will be responsible for the cost of returning the goods to us. If a refund is payable to you we will process the refund as soon as possible, and, in any case within thirty (30) days.

The goods do not need to be in their original packaging however in a sellable condition, and 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.

In short, it suggests that returning items to Sports Direct is going involve a fair amount of hassle. That could be enough to deter many people. 

TopShop

By contrast, TopShop makes a point of emphasising its easy returns policy, and offers in-store returns. 

It also offers a variety of other options such as Collect + and doesn't impose a seven day deadline like Sports Direct.

The result? People unsure of sizes and fit are more likely to shop here, knowing that returning items won't be a major headache. 

In addition, returns represent an opportunity to showcase your (hopefully) excellent customer service and provides an opportunity to cross-sell or up-sell when they come into a store for a return. 

Which returns options are retailers offering? 

53% of the 217 retailers offered a choice of methods for returning an unwanted item bought online.

86% allowed the customer to return by post, with 36% insisting on post returns. 41% allowed return to a retailer’s store, while 28% gave an option to return to a Collect+ outlet, up from 16% last year.

The Collect+ stats are interesting, as this allows online-only retailers to provide an offline returns option and match the multichannels. 

In summary

When MICROS first carried out this study in 2007, 40% of retailers offered in-store returns. The fact that this has only shifted to 50% in the seven years since then suggests that many of these multichannels have work to do. 

Customer experience is all important if retailers want to maximise customer retention, and allowing customers the convenience of returning unwanted items to stores is part of this.

It should be an absolute must for retailers as, though there may be organisational separation between stores and ecommerce channels, customers see brands as one.

They aren't interested in any logistical complexities, they just want convenience. 

For the brand refusing the return, it's a missed opportunity to educate customers about a complex product, or to upsell or cross-sell while the customer is in the store. 

Multichannel retailers shouldn't risk losing future customers with painful returns policies. If you have a store network, let customers decide which channel they want to use to return goods.

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

Graham Charlton

Published 7 May, 2014 by Graham Charlton

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

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Comments (1)

Pete Austin

Pete Austin, CTO at Fresh Relevance

Q. "Customer experience is all important [and] the convenience of returning unwanted items to stores is part of this. This is an advantage that multichannel retailers have over most pure-plays, so why not make the most of it?"

A. OK, I'll bite.

I agree with the premise, but I suspect this is not about marketing. Maybe it's that some retailers don't trust their staff.

When retailers allow returns of unwanted items in store, the responsibility for the process - e.g. checking whether the items are legitimately purchased and undamaged so they can be accepted from the customer - falls on the shop staff.

I'm not suggesting that this applies to the brands named in this post - or that any particular group of staff are less reliable. But in general it would be interesting to compare the wages, training and turnover of staff in stores that do allow in-store returns vs those that don't.

Does anyone have first-hand experience of this issue?

about 2 years ago

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