Returns are an issue for every retailer, and some sectors more than others.

They could be viewed as bothersome, but the returns process does offer an opportunity to showcase your excellent customer service and can have a positive impact of future retention rates, if done well. 

There is much you can do to reduce returns rates, providing better imagery and information on product pages, but even the best site will experience returns. 

So then it comes down to how you handle the returns process, and the better you handle this, the better your retention rates. 

Here are 14 tips to help you to avoid annoying your customers...

Make your returns 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:

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

Make your returns policy easy to see

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% certain about a product. 

Therefore, a prominent link to the returns policy on product pages can offer customers reassurance that they can return an item easily if they find it's not right for them, and push them towards the purchase. 


Don't charge for returns

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

I bought a £40 lampshade from one retailer a year ago, and had to pay a hefty £10 return fee when I found it didn't fit. I appreciate the retailer has costs to cover, but this charge put me off looking for another on that site, and would make me think twice about ordering from them again. 

Also, as Zappos has found, 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 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 instructions in packaging

This is about not annoying customers too much. I get the sense with some retailers that they think making returns harder will reduce overall rates, and help increase profits. 

If this is the case, it's short-sighted thinking. It simply means that customers will get so annoyed that they are unlikely to shop with you again. Even worse, they may tell their friends about it, online and offline. 

Make it easy for customers. Provide clear instructions and even include a returns envelope to make sure no mistakes are made with the address. 

If you offer free returns, shout about it

Offering free returns is great, but you should, as with free delivery, shout about it so that customers know about this when they buy:

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. Thus, when it arrives, and isn't as expected, it has to go back. 

Retailers can address this issue on product pages, by ensuring that customers get as much visual information as possible. 

Simply Group found that using 360 views and instructional videos of its ski products not only increased conversions, but also reduced returns rates, as customers were able to see exactly how each product worked. 

Product info video

Provide detailed product information

As above, if customers are armed with all the information they need, they are less likely to return items. So, for items like computers, sites should be clear about the specs, as well as the accessories and leads which are required. 

Combining this detail with excellent imagery and video can reduce the need for returns. 

User reviews

Of course, user reviews are great for boosting sales, but they can also help to reduce returns rates. 

They can allow customers to avoid potential issues with products, or to find the product that is best suited to its intended use. 

Kiddicare is a great example of this. It gets plenty of detail from it user reviews, such as pros and cons, the type of person using it, and best uses. 

Here, in a search for car seats for babies, customers can use feedback to find the best car seat for newborns, for everyday use, for grandparents, and so on: 

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 try before they buy. 

One such example, the Shoefitr app, helped an online footwear retailer to reduce fit-related returns by 23%. Others are variable in quality, but anything which can help customers to find the right fit, or to find outfits that match has the potential to reduce returns. 

It's not just fashion either, MyDeco's 3D room planner tool helps shoppers to try out room looks before buying furniture: 

Offer free home trials

Glasses Direct offers shoppers the option of a free home trial. Customers can select up to four pairs of glasses and try them on at home before making a selection. 

This neatly gets around one of the major problems of buying glasses online, and the fact that Glasses Direct trusts the customer enough to send frames out creates a great first impression. 

Don't quibble over returns

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

If a particular customer does this again and again, this can be dealt with on an individual basis, but it's best not to be too strict when customers are returning items. 

If retailers do drag their heels on returns, it can be infuriating. I once returned a stairgate which didn't fit to Toys R Us. The member of staff initially refused to accept the return since the box had been opened, and then begrudgingly offered a refund of one third of its value. 

As a result, none of my kids' Christmas and birthday presents are bought in that store, and the company has lost sales far greater than the value of that item. 

Again, Lovehoney is a great example of this. All manner of returned items, which may or may not have been used, are refunded without question. Many have to be thrown away, for obvious reasons. 

It takes the view, that for long term customer retention, it's better not to argue with customers over this. 

Ask for feedback when customers return products

This is simple, but makes sense. A quick question or two on the return slip can help retailers to uncover problems or trends in returns and enable them to address these issues.  

Provide multichannel returns

If you're a multichannel retailer, allowing people to return items bought online to local stores is a must. 

This is often due to the separation of web and offline channels, and there are organisational issues which many brands are now dealing with. 

I've had this experience in the past with Orange, as my father was unable to return a faulty phone ordered online to his local store

It seems that, while competitors like O2 allow multichannel returns, Orange has yet to change this policy, instead insisting that returns requests are routed through its telesales team. This is a mistake in my book. 

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. 

Snow Valley's 2011 Online Returns Report found that just half of the mulitchannel retailers it studied allowed in store returns for online purchases. 

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

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 17 May, 2012 by Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton is editor in chief at SaleCycle, and former editor at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or connect via Linkedin.

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Comments (7)

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Matt Clarke

Matt Clarke, Ecommerce Director at B2B

Really good post, Graham.

Handling returns promptly is another really important point for us. We use Google Analytics to track when returns are booked in and at each point in the returns process so we can keep an eye on things and identify bottlenecks.

If there's a bottleneck, it leads to an increase in call/email volumes, as customers will contact us if they're kept waiting too long.

The most common bottlenecks for us are either backlogs of returns to handle, in which case we get more staff on the job, or they're caused by suppliers who insist on testing expensive returned products before providing a replacement or covering the cost.

about 6 years ago

Sarah Clelland

Sarah Clelland, Marketing Manager at MICROS

Excellent post as usual, Graham. Our 2012 Online Returns & Refunds Report will be published in the first week of June - we put 229 UK online retailers to the test and although we found some horror stories, many retailers can handle returns of unwanted goods quickly and efficiently.

about 6 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at SaleCycle

@Matt @Sarah Thanks.

about 6 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

Hi Graham,

Cheers for that, perfect as I'm reviewing the delivery/returns policies and process for a Client.

I really like House of Fraser's way of getting the info across.,default,pg.html

There's a lot of info but the UI is really tidy and makes it easy to navigate without having laborious endless scrolling.

The Delivery tab has an easy to read table of costs as well.

Having reviewed about 20 competitors (inc multi-channel & pure play), it's clear there is no consistent service and presentation often makes the info confusing and mind boggling.

I think you're right that it's important to have this info on product pages as well - you often see a big exit from the product page before a basket is even created, so reassuring people that they can shop with confidence is a no brainer.


about 6 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at SaleCycle

@James Good example from HOF. I think it helps if you can explain the policy in a few paragraphs, and use of headings, bullets etc always helps.

3 was perhaps the worst. It's a real challenge to find returns information on the site, and the policy is complex - different instructions depending on whether you bought online, in store, or upgraded.

about 6 years ago

Albie Attias

Albie Attias, Ecommerce Director at King of Servers Ltd

Great post Graham. The 'keep customers informed' bit is especially important. Returns enquiries are the second most common type of enquiry our business encounters (after delivery queries) so we're building a fully automated returns system into our customer's My Account area that will allow them to log in at any time to view up to the minute information and status of an active return. This level of transparency is still sadly lacking from many etailers in my experience.

about 6 years ago


Mark Bolitho

Excellent post Graham, an important topic to delve in to.

Some types of business really struggle with this - furniture retail, for example.

Not quite as easy to simply re-package and return a sofa, so the retailer must take a slightly different approach, ultimately realising that offering a 'no hassle' returns policy could cost them dearly.

I spoke with a relatively small furniture retailer only yesterday that runs their own fleet of delivery vehicles nationwide. They'll sometimes travel the entire length of the country simply to look at an item in an to attempt to rectify the situation. If that's not possible they'll collect and deliver another.

Puts a big squeeze on margins, and the reason so many in the furniture sector eschew online.


about 6 years ago

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