Returns for online orders increased as much as 70% in the week between Christmas and New Years compared with averages earlier in the year. Experts point to first-time online shoppers and consumers bracketing their purchases as reasons for the increase.

Retailers experienced a 41% increase in returns of online orders for the 2020 holiday season, according to aggregate data from hundreds of online retailers that use returns platform Loop Returns. This data measures holiday data from more than 1 million returns from Nov. 30, 2020, through Jan. 20, 2021 and compares it with the same period a year earlier.

The largest period for returns was the week between Christmas Day and New Years Day, in which consumers initiating returns increased 70% on average per day compared with the daily average for Sept. 24-Nov. 29, according to Loop Returns.

 

While there is always a spike in returns right after the holidays, the increase is even more pronounced for this past holiday season as more consumers shopped online for gifts because of the pandemic, says Loop Returns CEO Jonathan Poma.

Another reason for the increase in returns in 2020 could be an increase in “bracketing,” which is buying multiple versions of the same item—often apparel—trying it out at home and then returning the ones that don’t work, according to a recent survey of 1,161 U.S. consumers who had returned at least one online purchase between April-September, 2020. Fulfillment software vendor Narvar Inc. conducted the survey in September 2020.

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Consumers’ bracketing increased by 22 percentage points between 2017 and 2020.


Younger and more affluent consumers are more likely to bracket, with 70% of consumers 30 years old and younger say they bracket, and 66% of shoppers with a household income over $100,000 say they bracket.

Bracketing could be common because so many online apparel retailers offer free shipping and free return shipping. Within the Digital Commerce 360 Top 1000, 75.4% of Top 1000 apparel merchants offer free shipping in some capacity, such as with a minimum purchase, and 39.9% offer free return shipping, according to Digital Commerce 360 data.

The most common reasons consumers say they bracket now more than previously include:

  • 41% have gained (22%) or lost weight (19%) and don’t know their correct clothing size
  • 31% say they typically try things on in store but couldn’t because of the pandemic
  • 21% are purchasing from new, unfamiliar retailers

Of shoppers who don’t buy multiples, 48% say they don’t because they find it wasteful, 45% say returns are a hassle and 40% cite financial reasons.

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A return experience—good or bad—can make a lasting impact on a consumer and her future purchases, according to Narvar. The survey found that 76% of first-time customers to a brand who returned an order and say their return experience was “easy” or “very easy” say they would shop with that retailer again. What’s more, 33% of repeat shoppers who say their return experience was “difficult” or “very difficult” say they would not shop with the retailer again.

Shoppers whose last return was “very easy” gave the following reasons:

  • 46% say they were able to drop the return off at a convenient location
  • 43% say they were informed when the refund was processed
  • 38% say they got an instant refund
  • 32% say they received an updated status of the return

In the past year, more consumers have taken advantage of “alternative” drop-off locations, such as at a locker or pharmacy rather than at a shipping carrier such as a UPS or FedEx store. In the survey, 22% say the last return method they used for an online order was at an alternative drop-off location, up from 13% in the 2019 survey. 7% of consumers say they returned an order to a different retail store (such as Kohl’s Corp. store for Amazon.com orders) up from 3% in 2019. Additionally, 63% of consumers say they replaced the item they returned—with 40% replacing it from the same retailer and 23% from a different retailer. 37% say they did not replace the item.

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