January Returns Rush – the forgotten challenge for retailers

Paul Galpin, Managing Director, P2P Mailing, outlines the importance of developing an effective returns platform that helps to maintain customer relationships beyond the festive period. The Christmas season, though highly profitable, can also present a challenge for retailers. Many e-commerce businesses anticipate the seasonal spike in demand by focusing time and money on providing customers with efficient and flexible delivery options. And yet the same level of preparation isn’t always present for the inevitable January returns rush, when consumers can’t wait to send back their unwanted seasonal spoils. 

The festive season is one of the most lucrative times of the year for retailers. Indeed, this month a number of high profile names, including Morrisons and M&S, announced strong Christmas trading figures.  However, with more and more customers opting to purchase their goods online, the pressure is on to maintain high mailing and delivery standards – particularly in light of returns.   According to research from Go Compare, an estimated £355m worth of unwanted Christmas gifts are set to be returned this year.   Yet the process remains a cause of frustration for many customers.

Getting the returns process right is crucial to customer satisfaction. Research by Harris Interactive shows that 85% of customers say they will stop buying from a retailer if the returns process is a hassle and, conversely, 95% will use the same catalogue or internet retailer again if the process is convenient.

Compounding this, the proliferation  of social media channels in recent  years means that if customers are not satisfied, they are able to broadcast their complaints to a wide- even global – audience.  This risks isolating online retailers from swathes of potential customers that they haven’t yet engaged with. To avoid these unwanted outcomes, a secure and efficient returns process is crucial.

In order to implement an effective, customer friendly returns process, retailers must accept that the January returns rush is inevitable- and plan for it accordingly. It’s also important to make their returns policy clear to customers from the outset and carefully ensure that they are compliant with the regulations, which differ across countries. Customers should be able to navigate the whole procedure simply and swiftly, and systems should be thoroughly tested before being rolled out to the market.  By its very nature, online shopping requires a high level of trust between the consumer and the vendor, with money usually exchanged before goods are received and the consumer lacking the opportunity to try on or examine the product before making their purchases.  There will inevitably be times when the product doesn’t fulfil the customer’s expectations and is sent back – and a good returns process can go a long way towards minimising the frustrations associated with this, potentially turning new customers into repeat customers.
It’s also important that retailers offer flexibility when it comes to returns. It’s no longer sufficient to offer a sole, standard returns service.   In order to appeal to as diverse a customer base as possible, offering other options such as trackable returns should be considered.  In a recent study by computer hardware company MICROS, 53% of retailers surveyed offered a choice of methods for returning an unwanted item bought online.   These choices included return by post and returning to a retailer’s store.

One option for providing an effective returns solution is outsourcing the process.  This allows companies to focus more energy on producing a good online shopping experience for their customers. For small retailers especially, this may be an attractive option. There are real benefits to be derived for retailers partnering with an expert third party to manage the returns solution.  For example, the best providers are able to tailor the solution to fit the retailer, customising it to deal with national and regional differences where necessary and advising on the best   shipping and returns options for the volume of mail being processed.  This third-party expertise is particularly useful for any retailer looking to sell internationally, as it will help retailers navigate any potentially tricky import and duty.

The expert provider should also facilitate the integration of the returns process with existing IT systems and logistics providers to ensure minimal disruption and cost. Ideally, the returns process should be integrated into the website on a white label basis, so that as far as the customer is concerned, everything looks and feels the same.

Seasonal peaks place huge demands on online retailers’ mailing and delivery services. Companies that ignore the returns process do so at their peril, playing as they do a vital role in maintaining customer satisfaction levels. There are many considerations to take into account. These not only include current requirements, but also how the business might grow, and whether the returns process has the flexibility to handle that growth. This may include consideration of overseas expansion and how the company will manage cross-border returns and the ensuing complications. Expert providers can help to develop a flexible and efficient process which is tailored to the particular requirements of the business and equipped to deal with the challenges of the post-festive season and beyond.

About The Author

Ian Taylor

Ian Taylor is the Editor of Triangle’s Mail & Express Review Magazine and the www.postandparcel.info portal. Ian has been a business journalist for almost 30 years, editing and writing for a wide range of magazines and newspapers with a particular focus on the transport and logistics industries.

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