Free returns can be just as important as free shipping when weighing one’s selection of potential retailers.

Free shipping gets the lion’s share of attention among online shoppers, but I would suggest that free returns can be just as important when weighing one’s selection of potential retailers. This is true, now more than ever, as the vast majority of large retailers offer free shipping, making that a non-factor in many decisions.


Lauren Freedman, president, the e-tailing group

Circumstances most often dictate what is convenient, and if you are anything like me, those are likely to be a moving target. As a time-starved mother, I fall prone to ordering multiple sizes and multiple items to ensure I cover my bases, making returns all but inevitable. Thus, the role of convenient and free returns to all channels is almost non-negotiable in my book. As I like to say, returns should be free and flexible, just in case I’ve changed my mind. I can then make the choice if I want to flag down a UPS driver, run to the FedEx store or pull up in the 15-minute, flashing-light parking space and run into an Amazon’s Return Center.

When Internet Retailer and Bizrate Insights surveyed 1,105 shoppers, findings revealed that 80% of shoppers return 5% or less of the products they purchase online. While this is small percentage, it is still a significant amount of transactions and often a burden on buyers. Keeping it simple on the returns front makes buying virtually risk-free.

Retailer selection

The issue of returns was on my mind as last week’s “must-have” item was Dr. Martens’ Women’s Jadon 8-Eye Platform Bootie. I followed my usual protocol to see where I might purchase it online. I often begin with a brand’s online store as they tend to have the broadest and most interesting assortment, along with a more inspiring shopping experience. From there, I did a Google search and came up with three other stores. I added Zappos, based on my many positive past experiences ,and its ability to deliver overnight gratis for VIP shoppers, as well as its returns’ efficiency. When I started looking at this boot, all store prices were within $1 of the $170 price listed on Dr. Martens’ site.


There was a bit of lag time from my initial review to when I could present the options to my daughter. As I went back to the sites, it turned out that Bloomingdale’s was having a 25% Loyalist sale for its preferred shoppers, making for substantial savings. As I like to say, all things being equal, “Game Over.” This level of savings would convince me to buy, even if all of their policies were not favorable on the returns front. As it turns out, Bloomingdale’s polices were quite favorable—it offered free returns and a 365-day return window. Of course, there is always one other dynamic in the shoe business, like any other size-related categories, and that’s being in stock when you need it. This was only an issue for Shopbop, so it was immediately out of contention.

3 must-ask questions

While on most purchases price is top-of-mind, I never fail to look at a store’s return policies, knowing I will likely have to make one or more. I pride myself on either knowing the retailer’s policies or will check if I’m not 100% certain that the product meets my returns’ preferences. I did my homework and that meant evaluating three important questions.

  1. How long do I have to return the product?
  2. Can I go to the store to return products?
  3. Is the return shipping free?

While I typically would not go to this much trouble, charting my options made this choice easier. The big challenge is that it was not always easy to find the policies and clicking through to the fine print is highly recommended.

Retailer Returns Analysis


Most retailers offer a link to returns from the homepage, which makes finding the details easier. It’s important to read these details in order to understand any exceptions, as one might see with Shopbop. A 15-day window can sometimes be tight, though mandated for the free online returns. Our survey respondents shared a similar reaction as only four in 10 shoppers reported being highly satisfied with return policies and their accessibility.

No. 1: How long do I have to return the product?


Though I tend to return my purchases quickly, I prefer a little wiggle room to coincide with life’s ebbs and flows. Many retailers have a 30-day return policy. While that typically is sufficient, I always welcome the flexibility of department store return policies like Bloomingdale’s where I have 365 days, just in case. To me, 30 days, no questions asked, is the minimum constraint a retailer should put on a consumer to make the first cut for purchase consideration. ShopBop’s 15-day rule would not warrant consideration in my book under this approach.

No. 2: Can I go to the store to return products?

Online shoppers overwhelmingly prefer to return purchases to the physical store, and I concur. It is essentially free, with time being the biggest variable. Some days we have more time than others, and returns to the store is the right choice. I can quickly go to the store and peruse new products or frequent other stores in the mall or in the neighborhood to cover other tasks on my to-do list. And if a retailer is lucky, I sometimes make an additional purchase or two.


We also learned in our research that for those retailers that have both a physical store and online presence, almost half of online shoppers, 47%, prefer to return goods to a physical store. 26% had no preference, but for the remaining 27%, who like to ship it back to the retailer, they will likely think twice if that is their preference and it is not made available. Just 60% of Internet Retailer’s Top 1000 store-based retailers allow online purchases to be returned at stores, so there is certainly opportunity to make this a standard as shoppers may think twice before making a purchase on the website.

No. 3: Is the return shipping free?

When asked about the different aspects of the returns experience, free return shipping ranked No. 1 in importance among 93% of online shoppers surveyed. For those retailers who don’t extend this offer, they will likely be eliminated from my shopping prospects. The only likely exception is proprietary product or product that might be otherwise difficult to find. Rewards programs like Urban Outfitters’ may have a slight edge as well since they often offer this as a fringe benefit. A bonus for me is being able to process the return online as it’s a significant time-saver. It was good news that the five candidates I was considering had adopted this time-savings tool.

A quick look at the Top 1000 finds that 11% of online retailers offer free return shipping, which seems low given consumer sentiment.


Return know-how will serve you well

Time and money are two critical variables for all aspects of online shopping. Knowing how a retailer handles returns should not be an afterthought. They are just as important as how easily the purchase can be consummated and can otherwise cause great frustration post-purchase. Returns can be sticky for shoppers, so being cognizant of return channels, any time constraints and associated costs will ensure that frustrations are minimal and that both ends of the shopper experience are positive.




To see complete results of the Internet Retailer/Bizrate Insights consumer survey on shipping and return preferences, check out the 2018 Click, Ship, Return Report, available as part of one of Digital Commerce 360’s premium membership plans, or available for single-copy purchase for $299.