Returns will be plentiful as online shopping hit new heights. CBRE, in partnership with Optoro, who is in the business of processing returns, projects that shoppers will return $41.6 billion worth of holiday merchandise purchased in November and December.

Dear retailer: All I want post-Christmas is a simple return with a little extra time.

U.S. shoppers spent more online during this year’s holiday shopping season, hitting record highs. Mastercard reported that ecommerce sales rose 18.8% year over year and comprised 14.6% of total retail sales.

Returns will be plentiful as online shopping hit new heights. CBRE, in partnership with Optoro, who is in the business of processing returns, projects that shoppers will return $41.6 billion worth of holiday merchandise purchased in November and December.

United Parcel Service expects returned packages to hit a record high after this year’s holiday shopping season. It anticipates it will process 1.9 million returns on Jan. 2, up 26% from a year earlier and a seventh consecutive annual record.

Though these return numbers are significant, 2019 Digital Commerce 360/Bizrate Insights research of 1,338 online shoppers revealed that 88% of shoppers return less than 10% of all products they purchase in a year.

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We asked these same shoppers what is important when making returns of online orders, their frustrations and preferences to make this process go smoother.

Shoppers want to spend little or no money to return products and free return shipping is most important when making returns of orders placed online. The ease of shipping products back to retailers ranks No. 2 in importance, thus it must be simple to return products, and retailers must do it with ease both online and in store.

There are many frustrations that come with returning products purchased online, and they start with money-related concerns:
• Having to pay for return shipping (61%)
• Having to pay restocking fees (56%)
• Dislike high fees associated with return shipping (53%)

Trying to figure out the rules of the road for retailers, shoppers can become exasperated, with one in three online shoppers being forced to reach out to retailers for even routine questions.

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When we asked about the top three reasons for returning online purchases, size was the No. 1 reason online shoppers return purchases (55%). Quality of the product and not meeting expectations followed close behind as the No. 2 reason for 53% of online shoppers. Piggybacking on this were the 45% of online shoppers who return products that arrive damaged. I’m more inclined to agree with the 37% who said it didn’t work for them or look good. Lastly, 23% said the product didn’t match the picture, so retailers should be sure to provide adequate imagery for all products on their ecommerce sites.

Read the fine print

Understanding returns policies impacts retailer selection and subsequently retention, so a quick check of policies can be helpful. Easy-to-find policies are advisable with reinforcement recommended via email, on the site and in customer service pages.

Retailers should take notice as returns always impact where I purchase. I keep in the back of my mind those who make it easy to do business with them on the front and back-end. The most challenging part of returns is often reading the fine print. When asked about frustrations with making returns, 31% of online shoppers said the policies were too restrictive.

Samy’s Camera is an excellent example of a retailer who goes the extra mile giving shoppers until Feb, 1 to make those returns.

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Ideally, return policies should be accessible, clear and easy to understand; based on my look at 18 retailers, I often found that to be more the exception than the rule. My favorite retailers are those that offer “satisfaction guaranteed,” as they take the worry out of any purchase.

Neiman Marcus combines these two approaches giving its luxury customers plenty of time to take care of returns.

My last exercise of the year included looking at four elements of the return process that have significant impact on the ease, convenience and cost of returns.

Completing the Return: Key Findings

One in three retailers had a holiday return policy. For research purposes, I looked at the number of incremental days they extended return privileges beyond their year-round policy. Best Buy was on the low end, commensurate with its more restrictive policies, adding 14 days to its standard fare, while Nike allowed 60 days and was most generous. Amazon and Walmart were similar, as was Neiman Marcus. Kohl’s was generally consistent with the rest of the year but added additional time (30 days) to accommodate electronics buyers. My feeling is that for those who already offered at least 90 days, there was no reason to extend their policy in any way and they didn’t –that represented seven merchants, with satisfaction guaranteed seen on three others’ sites. Half had free return shipping, which was higher than I expected but in keeping with customer preferences.

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Getting it done usually involved one of three options, including shipping it back, going to the store or dropping it at Amazon.

Though it is easier than it was in past years to send items back, you still have to print out the label and send out the package — and if it involves the post office, that adds another dimension. UPS returns are much simpler, and I’ve flagged down a driver, swung by a local store or dropped in one of the convenient boxes.

Amazon may be best positioned once again as they allow their shoppers to make returns at more than 18,000 drop-off locations across the country, for free. Of course, there are exceptions. By extending their holiday returns by 30 days until Jan. 31, they’ve given their shoppers added time to ponder their purchases. Rarely have I encountered a problem and the parking in my neighborhood has been set for me to pull up, put on the flashers and run in with just enough time to avoid having to pay the meter. Online shoppers like to receive a credit in a timely manner and Amazon takes it to new levels almost receiving it instantaneously, another strategic advantage in their arsenal.

The store return is more efficient, at least most of the time, and I prefer going to the store, particularly post-Christmas. The immediate credit to my credit card and the chance to pick up something on sale serves the shopper well. The downside of store returns is typically logistics-oriented and can be having to pay for parking. When purchases are low-priced, this can make it a challenging value proposition.

Additionally, returner beware as having a copy of your order, the credit card that was charged and being patient enough to wait in line can also be a factor.

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What I don’t like is systems that don’t talk to one another. I recently made a return to the New Balance store. They suggested that the item I had purchased would be sent back, as it was not part of their assortment. I didn’t receive a formal return receipt from the register but instead was handed a 2×3 slip of paper with a tracking number. I was skeptical at best and continued to monitor my credit card statement. It took more than two weeks to get a credit, and I was nervous until it came.

Today’s experiences will inform tomorrow’s purchases

When it comes to returns, shoppers need patience. Retailers need customer-centric policies that they promote onsite, via email and as part of the packages they ship. No matter the circumstances, doing right by the customer can go a long way towards future business.  Holiday shoppers surveyed suggest that for half of online shoppers’ holiday shopping experiences will have at least some impact on future behavior.

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