Taking the Right Stance on Returns

The great returns tsunami in digital commerce isn’t just bad for business—it’s bad for the planet. Here’s how to turn it around.

Last month many of us celebrated the holidays with gift exchanges—and many of us, let’s be honest, didn’t love every last little thing we received. So when the calendar turned to 2022, we began the process of returning those items that were a less-than-perfect fit. Was it a bit of a hassle? Yes. Was there a cost involved? Sometimes. But returns have a negative impact that is less-often discussed but far more important than just an addition to our to-do list or a slight ding on our bank balance. They levy a huge tax on Mother Earth, and it’s a tax that we—both as consumers and as digital commerce professionals—can no longer afford to ignore.

Michael Kahn (MK)
Global CEO at Astound Commerce

In case you’re in doubt about the huge and growing space that returns occupy in the digital commerce landscape, consider that UPS just reported the largest single day of returns in its history, with 1.9 million returned packages processed in its systems on January 2, and a 23 percent year-over-over increase in the number of returns for that full first week of the month. The pandemic hasn’t helped, as the massive shift to online shopping and a trend toward relaxed returns policies including expanded returns windows have contributed to the rate of returns doubling overall in 2021, and returns of online purchases in particular rising 46 percent. In terms of the environmental impact, the transportation of returns emitted an estimated 16 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2021, and it would take the planting of 1.5 billion trees to offset the annual impact of ecommerce returns in the US alone.

So why do returns happen in the first place? Astound Commerce’s own research shows that dissatisfaction in product quality is the most common reason for returning an item, with 39 percent of respondents we surveyed citing this as a factor. But that’s followed closely by fit, at 36 percent, and size at 30 percent. That means that more than two-thirds of what’s driving the great returns tsunami are things that a better user experience can help with. In that same Astound survey, when asked what online brands can do before the point of purchase to help mitigate the need for returns, 55 percent of respondents selected more-detailed product information and imagery, while 40 percent cited product ratings and reviews. 

Adding those features to your site will also address another emerging consumer behavior, exacerbated by the pandemic and related lockdown orders. Many shoppers have become accustomed to buying multiple versions, in varying colors and sizes, of one item—knowing they have the option to return much of what they're buying. To squash that habit, brands must communicate to the consumer the ripple effect of those decisions—and to gently remind them of all the ways the brand has empowered them to select a product they’ll love and choose to keep. Fit-finder tools and virtual try-on content driven by augmented reality technologies, for example, can help retailers considerably reduce size- and fit-related returns. They also benefit the bottom line, with Shopify reporting that products sold through the use of such technologies have a 94 percent higher conversion rate than products sold without them. 

Of course, you can't tell consumers how to be greener unless you’re also telling consumers how you yourself as a brand are being greener. Making customers aware of your sustainability efforts not only acts as a powerful lever to alter brand perception and tap into customer values, but also has a positive impact on consumer mindsets by raising awareness of sustainable practices. So prominently surface your corporate responsibility and sustainability stance and credentials in your main navigation onsite, demonstrating this as a core business value. Incentivize greener consumer behaviors, such as combining multiple orders or returns in one shipment or offering a corporate donation to an environmental charity for certain purchases. Make sure your sustainability messaging conveys the full breadth of sustainability efforts being undertaken across your whole business. 

When you do all of this and empower your customers to make informed choices that are more socially responsible, you create a virtuous circle that’s every bit as good for the planet as it is for your bottom line.


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