Office supply retailer Staples announced it will accept returns from to-be-announced merchants that use return service vendor’s Optoro’s service.

Office supply retailer Staples Inc. plans to deploy a new online returns service chainwide to its 1,075 stores in January 2021, says Craig Grayson, vice president of print and marketing services at Staples.

The goal is to have the program, called the Express Returns Network, available at all its stores when shoppers are at their peak of making holiday returns, he says. Staples will run a small pilot of the program at a handful of stores before the chainwide rollout, he says. As more shoppers buy online, returns increase, Grayson says. With the holidays, he is expecting more consumers to buy online, causing returns to also increase.

The program works with return service vendor Optoro Inc. Staples employees that work in its Print & Ship section of the store will accept returns from retailers that have signed up for the program through Optoro, however, the vendor has yet to announce if any brands have signed up for Optoro to process their returns at another merchant’s location, including Staples. Some of Optoro’s clients include Best Buy Co. Inc. (No. 10 in the 2020 Digital Commerce 360 Top 1000), Target Corp. (No. 12), American Eagle Outfitters Inc. (No. 48) and Under Armour Inc. (No. 88). Beyond Staples, Optoro also hopes other retailers will house return drop-off locations at their retail chains, an Optoro spokeswoman says.

Craig Grayson, vice president of print and marketing services at Staples.

Craig Grayson, vice president of print and marketing services at Staples.

Retailers’ from which Staples will accept returns is still to be determined, Grayson says, but it will have parameters in place for what it will take. For example, apparel would be a likely choice, whereas something bulky like furniture, would not be a good candidate for the program.

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At Staples, the services fit in well with its already-in-place shipping center that it offers for its small-business and entrepreneurial customers, Grayson says. Consolidating trips and offering a return service is relevant even more today considering how the coronavirus pandemic has changed shopper habits, Grayson says.

“Many folks who would use the corporate mailroom or stop off at a shipping provider on the way to the office to make a return—that doesn’t happen today,” he says. “The fact that we have (roughly) 1,100 stores nationwide, in most local dense markets, it’s a great opportunity and a great convenience to provide.”

When a shopper initiates a return online through the retailer, she will receive a QR code she can show on her smartphone to Staples and instructions on where the drop-off location is within the store. At Staples, the shopper goes to its Print & Ship section in the store, shows the associate the QR code, the associate scans it and takes the merchandise. The shopper then immediately receives a refund. There is no additional fee for the consumer to make the return in this way.

Optoro sends shoppers a QR code to make the return at a Staples store.

Optoro sends shoppers a QR code to make the return at a Staples store.

Staples holds onto the returned products and ships them all back to an Optoro facility on a weekly basis. There, Optoro handles returning the merchandise to the retailer. If consumers use the service at a high rate, Staples can increase the frequency of sending the returned merchandise back to Optoro.

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This is similar to how partnerships work with returns service vendor Happy Returns, which houses returns kiosks at retail chains, like Paper Source or Cost Plus World Market. Happy Returns accepts returns from merchants in its network, often brands with few or no stores, like apparel brands Rothy’s (No. 196) or Draper James (No. 1659 in the 2020 Digital Commerce 360 Next 1000.

With both of these services, web-only merchants receive the benefit of shoppers who prefer to make a return in a store and don’t want to package an item and go to the post office or a shipper carrier’s store themselves. Store-based merchants may be attractive to housing a return center as a way to increase foot traffic to the stores, and possibly from new shoppers.

In a Digital Commerce 360 and Bizrate Insights survey of 1,052 online shoppers in March, 19% of shoppers say they find it frustrating when they can’t return an online purchase to a store.

Retail chain Kohl’s Corp.’s (No. 21) was among the first large-scale rollouts of this, as it accepted returns for Amazon.com Inc. orders. The retailer routinely reports that accepting Amazon returns has increased foot traffic to Kohl’s stores from new shoppers. After a pilot period, Kohl’s expanded the Amazon returns service to all its stores, and this continued partnership is proof there is customer demand for in-store returns, Grayson says.

“Kohl’s proves the point that people want that convenience in their local store, for physical returns,” Grayson says.

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For Staples, Grayson also hopes the added services will attract more and new consumers into its stores, but it is not looking for an exact increase. It’s first focusing on offering the additional service to shoppers instead of focusing on the “short-term additional transaction,” he says about incremental purchases.

“Will those customers, likely at some point, drop the item off and shop the rest of the store? Absolutely. If that happens, then that’s fantastic,” Grayson says.

Staples is No. 8 in the 2020 Digital Commerce 360 Top 1000.

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