January is returns season and shoppers are testing options to assess the efficiency.

It’s post-Christmas and online shopping has been rampant in our household. That also means we have some returns ahead of us, so as the expression goes there is no time like the present.

A little bit of background on the state of returns is always welcome. For perspective, in 2020, consumers returned an estimated $428 billion in merchandise to retailers or approximately 10.6% of total U.S. retail sales, according to the National Retail Federation and Appriss Retail.

Our Digital Commerce360/Bizrate Insights September 2021 holiday survey of 1,000 online shoppers provided insights as to how shoppers selected retailers based on returns policies. 39% suggested that free return shipping was a factor while 27% said the flexibility of return policies mattered when choosing to shop with an online retailer.

Convenience is a main focus. As I began the process of deciding how to return some of my purchases, there were a number of choices. Of course, there was the option of shipping back the product, which usually includes a trip to UPS, FedEx or the post office. I typically don’t opt for that choice as it takes more time to receive the credit and too much time to get the job done. Shoppers know the drill so I’m not going to focus on that choice.

Amazon.com Inc. shoppers have a host of return choices ranging from Whole Foods to Kohl’s Corp. as well as drop off centers conveniently located in neighborhoods. Convenience is the driving force behind how shoppers make these returns. It’s difficult to gauge Amazon’s return volume, but in the past I have tried all of their options and generally speaking they were fast and friendly. So let’s test the others.


Have curbside returns come of age?

When retailers test new processes, there is usually a learning curve. I was excited to see that a few retailers where I needed to make returns had curbside returns available. As someone who truly appreciates curbside, I opted to try out the service and here’s what I found out.

I placed a curbside pickup order at Dick’s Sporting Goods, No. 29 in the Digital Commerce 360 Top 1000. DicksSportingGoods.com advises customers to call upon arrival and to have the items placed in the trunk of the vehicle for a contactless return.

First, I picked up an order curbside but after a quick look wanted to return immediately and asked the associate if I could return it. She initially advised me that returns needed to be handled inside the store. She then graciously called another associate, as I waited curbside, who attempted to tell her how to process the return. She took my package into the store and came back within three minutes after completing the return and provided me with a receipt. She informed me that there was a return button on her company-owned tablet. In five minutes, I was on my way and headed to my next retail return adventure.


Nordstrom’s curbside return process, No. 20 in the Digital Commerce 360 Top 1000, proved to be a bit more complicated. I completed the equivalent of a return ticket online and then pulled up into Nordstrom’s curbside pickup location at a suburban mall. I followed similar steps to those that I would for a typical curbside pickup, including noting my parking space number and car type. Nordstrom’s “We’re on our way” return message included a request that I put the return items in the trunk and to leave it open.


I arrived at 11:00 a.m. and after 12 minutes, I became impatient and called the number listed. To my delight, someone in the in-store pickup department responded. She apologized profusely on the phone and a minute later I noticed her wandering around the parking lot looking for me. Once found, she took my package but did not give me any proof of receipt and instead told me I would receive an emailed receipt. I left feeling uncomfortable not knowing whether my credit would go through. But by the time I arrived at the next store on my list, I received the email confirming the credit to my Nordstrom account and all was well again. The emailed return receipt was processed 90 minutes later so I was in good shape.

It was nice to be able to complete multiple returns and pickups using curbside. I appreciated that clarity I’ve come to expect from Nordstrom, like the clearly noted phone number and prompt response from a sales associate. I’m glad these are services that will now be part of the omnichannel lexicon. However, there is work to be done to train associates, such as how to use the company app to process a curbside return from the parking lot at Dick’s.


Happy Returns is a painless process

For an order I made at Levis.com, I could make the return at a store that used the Happy Returns service. Happy Returns are kiosks that a number of retail chains or shipping carriers have in their stores. When a shopper goes to make a return from a merchant, she receives a QR code and instructions on where she can drop off her return.

While locations include nearby FedEx locations, shoppers may want to take advantage of stores such as Ulta, where shoppers also receive a $5 off coupon, or Paper Source, where the retailer kicks in a $10 coupon. One interesting aspect was that as a Levi’s Red Tab member, my Happy Returns return was free—everyone else pays $7.50—once again reinforcing the value of free loyalty memberships. Levi’s is No. 181 in the Digital Commerce 360 Top 1000.


After Christmas, I headed to Ulta in late December to make a return using Happy Returns. I noticed a sign by the front door that had been there during a prior visit. Instead of the expected lock box to drop off my return item—similar to Amazon—I instead found myself directed to the standard checkout line where the cashier took out her iPad and scanned the QR code on my phone. The in-store return process took 5 minutes and she said I should receive a refund immediately via email.  I give it a positive grade as I did receive the credit within 24 hours, as promised.

Initially, I thought I did not receive the Ulta $5 coupon I expected after completing my return transaction online (prior to visiting the store) and the associate was not familiar with this offer. As it turns out, I hadn’t read the Happy Returns email closely and now see that it was shown at the bottom of that email communication. At first glance, it appeared I needed to use the coupon when making the return, but in reading the fine print I actually have seven days from that returns transaction to use the coupon.


happy returns_general happy returns_levis

Return to Target finds new POS system with a twist

Over the course of the holidays, I had made multiple trips to Target Corp., No. 6 in the Digital Commerce 360 Top 1000, for both in-store pickup and curbside. After deciding the product I purchased was not right for me, an in-store Target associate walked me through the return process via the Target app. Ultimately, once I provided the initial information via the app, I was prompted to provide my credit card for processing purposes.


At that point, the system asked me to answer a question about why I was making the return. I asked the associate if the system was new and she said it was a brand-new point of sale system (POS), which is the software operating system used to manage in-store transactions.

The opening question asked, “Why is it defective?” which seemed odd, given that the circumstances were not always negative and it didn’t really make sense when the answer I would select was “changed mind.” The choices for why I was making this return mirrored what shoppers might see on the back of a paper order form. The Target return reasons included everything from “doesn’t fit, arrived late, wrong item, poor quality, arrived damaged, changed mind, empty package or defective.” The entire process took less than a minute.

This experience is a reminder that for retailers “information is power” and capturing such customer insights on these returns ensures they can modify products and processes to better meet customer needs.

Like everything in ecommerce, returns are an evolution. Processes continue to improve and customer choices inform retailers about more convenient solutions. They are a work-in-progress and it is certainly worth it for retailers to invest the time and resources needed to offer these services. If there is one thing we have learned, shoppers will find their favorites but still demand choices.