After the blowout of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, returns are expected to peak today, as customers change their minds about the presents they have already bought. 

So, with returns volumes potentially rising this Christmas, how should retailers handle returns? 

Today has been dubbed, horribly, 'Boomerang Wednesday', and customers will look to return items in time to choose alternatives for Christmas. 

The stats, from CollectPlus, predict a 25% increase in returns volumes this week, compared with 2013. 

The survey also found that 27% of consumers are put off ordering something online in the first place because they do not want the hassle of returning it if it is not right.

This underlines the importance of returns policies, and the need to reassure customers before they make a purchase. 

Here are 15 tips to improve your returns policy...

Make your policy easy to understand

Whether they are checking before purchase, or finding out how to return an item they've just received, the policy should be clear and easy to understand. 

Compare and contrast these two returns pages. The first, from Sports Direct, seems designed to deter returns and contains lots of scary language about legal obligations:

Zapoos, on the other hand, explains its policy clearly:

Provide multichannel returns

If you have a high street/ offline presence, allowing customers to return items to stores is a must. For pure plays, there are options like CollectPlus and others. 

It's often more convenient for customers and they may well buy something else while they visit the store.

Also, in some cases, a little customer education on how products work may avoid the need for the return. 

Customers appreciate the flexibility and convenience of multichannel returns, and will be far more likely to shop with such a retailer in future. 

Make your returns policy easy to find

The returns policy is often a link in the footer, which is fine to a certain extent as people will expect to see it there. 

However, the returns policy can influence a purchase decision, particularly in cases where customers aren't 100% sure about a purchase. 

A prominent link to the returns policy on product pages, as in this example from Schuh can offer customers reassurance that they can return an item easily if they find it's not right for them, and work as a sales driver. 

 

Don't charge customers for returns

Yes, there are costs involved if you offer free returns, but these costs need to be weighed against the extra conversions it brings, and the potential boost to retention rates. 

This is behind the Zapoos strategy of free and easy returns

The company found that people who regularly return items can be some of your best customers. It says that clients buying its most expensive shoes have a 50% return rate. 

According to an old quote from Craig Adkins of Zappos:

Our best customers have the highest returns rates,but they are also the ones that spend the most money with us and are our most profitable customers. Zappos' modus operandi is not to give its purchasers the cheapest footwear on the block, but to give them the best service: hence, a 365-day returns policy, and free two-way shipping.

Include clear returns info in packaging

Some retailers may think that making returns harder will reduce overall rates, but this is a shortsighted view. 

The other possibility is that customers will get so annoyed that they won't shop with you again. 

It's about providing the best customer experience you can, so make it easy for them. 

Offer extended returns for Christmas

I leave it late, but more organised people will buy gifts well ahead of Christmas. Reassure them with extended returns polices, as River Island does: 

User reviews can help

Reviews from consumers are great for improving sales, but they can also help to reduce returns rates. 

By reading reviews, customers can decide if the product is right for them or avoid potential issues with products, 

Reviews that delve into the detail can be particularly helpful. Here, reviews for a digital camera clearly present pros and cons. Also, the types of reviewers, such a keen amateur, can be very useful. 

Fitting tools and virtual wardrobes 

This is something that has been adopted by fashion sites, as they attempt to get around the fact that customers cannot get touchy-feely with products. 

In one such example, the Shoefitr app helped an online footwear site to reduce fit-related returns by 23%

Warby Parker also has a fun ‘virtual try-on’ tool that uses the shopper’s webcam to superimpose glasses onto their face.

Here's our very own David Moth trying on some specs... 

There are more examples of virtual try before you buy here

Offer home trials

Glasses Direct offers shoppers the option of a free home trial if they're unsure about frames.

Customers can select up to four pairs of glasses and try them on at home before making a selection. 

This neatly avoids one of the major problems of buying glasses online

Don't be too strict over returns

Customers will return items for spurious reasons, or will call something a fault when in fact they have broken it. 

If one customer does this repeatedly, this can be dealt with on an individual basis, but it's best not to quibble too much when customers are returning items. 

If retailers drag their heels on returns, it can deter customers for life. They complain on social sites, leave bad reviews, tell their friends, and generally deter other customers. 

For long term customer retention, it's better not to argue too much with customers over returns 

Find out why customers return products

This is simple, but makes sense. A quick question or two on the return slip can help retailers to uncover problems and avoid future returns. 

If you offer free returns, make sure customers know

ASOS customers know that, if they think better of that Xmas jumper purchase, they can return it for free. Thanks to a clear message on the product page. 

Help shoppers with great product images and video

One reason for returned goods is that customers haven't been able to get a decent idea of the product before they place the order.

So they open the package, see the item or try it on before deciding it's not for them. 

Retailers can address this issue by ensuring that customers get as much visual information as possible about products.

Images are important here. In this example from Schuh, customers have eight different zoomable images, as well as a 360 view of the products.

Provide detailed product information

As above, if customers are armed with all the information they need, they are less likely to return items. Combining this detail with excellent imagery and video can reduce the need for returns. 

Here, Apple presents detailed information on its various MacBooks: 

Keep customers informed

Let them know when you've received the returned item, and when the refund is being processed. 

This will save customers from chasing this information through your customer services team, and they will appreciate the effort. 

Graham Charlton

Published 3 December, 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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