Back in the distant past of 2012, our illustrious editor shared his 14 best practice tips for how ecommerce sites should handle online returns.

Upon reading the above linked article you’ll notice that very little in terms of best practice has changed in the intervening years.

The benefits of nailing customer returns are also still the same. Customer satisfaction leads to better retention and higher CLV.

However in the intervening two years since the above publication, how well have some of the top UK ecommerce sites presented their returns information? Let’s take a look...

Best practice

Here’s a quick refresh on what we’ll be looking out for in terms of best practice: 

  • Easy to read, jargon-free returns policies.
  • A returns policy that’s easy to find.
  • Does it offer free returns and paid-for postage.
  • Are the returns labels and reusable packaging already provided in the delivery?
  • Can I return an item purchased online to my local branch?
  • Are there multiple options for returning items? Freepost, drop off at Post Office, Collect+. 

Other tips for reducing the chance of an item being returned in the first place include offering detailed product descriptions and images, using customer reviews and providing accurate online fitting and sizing tools.

B&Q

B&Q’s generously extended returns policy is featured at the top of the homepage in amongst its delivery options.

This then takes you to a well-detailed returns policy page. Here it’s revealed that you have to either phone, email or write to B&Q in order to arrange a collection.

This seems needlessly inefficient and time-consuming. Is this so that items can be properly vetted by a customer service representative? The policy clearly states which items are ineligible for return on the page already. There is also no mention of whether returns are free for the customer or not.

If B&Q offered a speedier returns function via the website itself, surely any ineligible items could be flagged up, with the option of a customer service agent being available to contact the customer directly for further assistance

On the plus side you can return online items to your local branch.

House of Fraser

There’s no mention of returns above the fold on the homepage, so you have to scroll down to the smaller navigation menus at the bottom.

On the returns policy page, House of Fraser very humbly states that it’s a free service in parentheses. This could be trumpeted much more loudly.

Within each collapsible menu there is an awful lot of information to wade through, and none of it is particularly easy to read. You also have to read a few of these in order to get the full picture of your return.

Even then, I’m still not entirely sure how to return an item.

So I can post or courier the item back to House of Fraser, but it has to be within 14 days if I want a full refund? I can’t exchange an item by post though? I can also get a refund in store but not if I paid by PayPal, in this case I will be offered an exchange or a gift-card?

Hang on, how do I post an item back? Where do I post it to? There are no links here or addresses to be found.

There’s a lot of scattershot info here, with some of the more pertinent bits missing. It’s now that I realise that there’s an extra menu on the left hand side that features these options…

I assumed this would be the same information as found on the current policy page, but when clicking on each option it actually reveals the information I needed.

Great! This is really helpful and reveals that the returns label and pre-paid address label will be found in the original package. Not only that, but House of Fraser can arrange for a courier to pick up larger items, or items can be dropped off at a Collect+ station.

It also clearly states how long your refund should take to clear.

This is all good stuff, but could really do with being linked to a lot more clearly and directly on the homepage. As it is, the useful returns info can be found within a ‘customer services’ link at the bottom of the homepage, underneath the link that reads ‘returns and refunds’.

M&S

The returns link is at the bottom of the homepage, but it is easier to see House of Fraser’s. The returns policy page itself also clearly links to all the relevant options you may need.

M&S has already begun its extended Christmas returns policy, which is brilliant considering it’s not even mid-October yet. Even outside of this period, M&S offers a 35-day returns window.

M&S offers free returns and the ability to return online items back to its store. It’s also not as strict on needing a receipt or packing note as others are. If you’ve lost your receipt you’ll be offered a credit or exchange to the value of the item’s last known selling price.

The only downside here is that for any large items that don’t fit in M&S’s prepaid packaging, the customer will have to pay a standard £50 collection fee. Much less generous then House of Fraser’s free courier service.

John Lewis

Again the returns policy is buried in the nether regions of the homepage. However once clicked-through you're presented with a very bright and easy to navigate affair.

Once you click on ‘returns procedure’ you’re presented with this fantastic display of detailed yet clearly laid out information.

Returns are free with prepaid address labels provided, you can arrange for a free courier service if the item is too large (maximum dimensions are then given for each postal option), multiple options for postage (including in-store and Collect+) are clearly stated and the process plainly described for each.

Refunds are also processed within 10 days of receipt, which is a bit quicker than other examples. 

The only negatives are that this masterclass of a returns policy isn’t more clearly highlighted on the homepage and the fact that it takes some digging around until you find out how long you have to return an item (a generous 90 days in fact).

Argos

On the Argos homepage there isn’t a direct ‘returns and refunds’ link. Instead you have to click on ‘Customer Services’ at the bottom of the page to be taken to this help page, where we find it hidden in the last menu...

Here you can see that Argos offers in-store refunds or exchanges, a free home collection service for bulkier items and a 30-day window for returns. Although it's not the most dynamically displayed information.

What isn't clear is whether you can return an item by post or not. The only clue is at the bottom where it states that ‘If you have an Internet order query, please Email Customer services or call us’. Argos apparently has a great offline returns policy, but a rather murky online one.

For more on customer service from the blog, check out these guides to guest checkout best practice and how 20 UK retailers use social customer service.

Christopher Ratcliff

Published 14 October, 2014 by Christopher Ratcliff

Christopher Ratcliff is the editor of Methods Unsound. He was the Deputy Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via Google+ and LinkedIn

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