Every return must be checked to ensure it’s the right item and that the condition meets a brand’s requirements for resale.

Brian Birch, NetRush chief operating officer

Brian Birch, NetRush chief operating officer

On the operations floor, we know we have the last say on quality, safety, and appearance of products being shipped to customers. But the challenge doesn’t end there. Stats compiled by invespcro.com showed that 30% of US products bought online are returned, compared to the 8.89 returned to brick-and-mortar stores. Convert that number into shipping and transport, and consider the logistical responsibility placed on operations teams.

Supply chains have to build capabilities to meet the evolving requirements of e-commerce customers. They are the producers of that one moment when customers make a connection with products for which brand owners have spent significant upstream resources. To put this another way—that team relegated to a distant warehouse outpost with fluorescent lights, recycled air, and surrounded by cycle time data, pareto charts, histograms, and equipped with tape guns and box cutters—that’s the new customer experience team.

The most critical decision point in a return process is whether or not to put an item back into inventory.

In supply chain operations, sometimes we are pushing up against monumental legacy constraints: the standard shipping label is 9×6 inches so only boxes that size or larger can be efficiently processed in a world where smaller, flatter, lighter is the goal (we are finding ways despite this).  However, customers know when packages are overboxed and full of air. But sometimes we have the opportunity to change customer experience in new and innovative ways. Processing e-commerce returns is one of those significant opportunities.

The most critical decision point in a return process is whether or not to put an item back into inventory. For health and personal care products, including anything consumable, the decision for should be easy enough—never return units back to inventory even if the box is unopened or the product looks untouched.

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Hard goods present a different challenge. Apparel and footwear provides the best of all worlds for problem solvers: high return rates and a highly demanding customer expectation that products arrives in pristine condition.

Currently, return rates for apparel and footwear are high because that is the best way to mimic the fitting room experience of trying on multiple items and sizes and choosing only one, or none. There are some promising technologies on the horizon to help e-commerce customers with sizing and fit, but for now and into the foreseeable future we need to address this.

Here’s what’s innovative: Think of buying a pair of new shoes at a local store. Because there is some degree of variation in size from brand to brand, you might end up trying a few pairs before swiping your credit card. Or you might go into the dressing room with five shirts, knowing that you plan to leave with only one. How much quality control goes into repackaging the shoes, shirts, or jeans that get tried on before going back to the shelves? We’re not suggesting the answer is none—only that a solid returns process has to be clearly defined that includes:

  1. A visual aid (what brand new soles, logos, and stitching look like on a brand new product)
  2. Having examples on hand that you can do a direct comparison, to know that it’s the right item and that it’s in the brand’s desired condition
  3. A final stop and checkpoint before any product is reinjected or repurposed

At NetRush we have to always be ready to kick out any product from our system if it does not meet strict criteria. We put control in the hands of brand owners when we inspect every returned item using criteria that maximizes customer experience. We know that when we operate by those standards, our e-commerce returns process should far exceed quality controls used in any channel.

NetRush helps brands manage sales on the Amazon Marketplace.

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