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Eoin Cambay

How do shoppers feel about returns?

There are some returns that fashion retailers are going to find very difficult to stop. For example, a Barclaycard survey in 2018 found that nearly one in 10 UK shoppers (9%) admitted to buying clothing purely for the purpose of taking a photo for social media. After posting the picture online, they posted the garment back to the retailer. It’s the sort of behaviour that has contributed to the end of free returns.

And there are some returns that retailers can do something about – those for reasons of ‘wrong size’, for a start. There’s a vicious circle with ‘wrong size’ returns. When shoppers choose the wrong size and need to return the article, it leaves residual doubt in the shopper’s mind. Next time, it’s more tempting than it was before to engage in bracketing: choosing the size the shopper thinks is right, as well as one size up and one size down. Or, if a shopper feels they’re on the cusp of two sizes, they might choose just the two. Regardless: at least half and possibly two-thirds of the order is coming back. Margins erode fast.

But returns do other, potentially lasting damage too. While serial returners are likely immune to negative emotions about their behaviour, most online shoppers just want to buy, and keep, clothes that fit. They are not buying in the hope that returns are free, or even just that a return will be easy. How does this majority of fashion shoppers feel when they do need to return something?

Emotions associated with returns

Emotions typically depend on factors such as the reason for the return, the retailer's policies, and their previous experiences with returns. They include:

  • Frustration: if the item doesn't fit or meet the shopper's expectations, they may feel frustrated with the product and/or the retailer.
  • Disappointment: if the shopper was excited about the item and had high expectations for it, they may feel disappointed that it didn't work out.
  • Embarrassment: as anonymous as online shopping is, some shoppers may nonetheless feel embarrassed or self-conscious about returning an item of clothing because it didn't fit, especially if they had high hopes for the item. While unlikely to be a common reaction, it’s definitely not an emotion a retailer wants to cause in its customers.
  • Anxiety: some shoppers may feel anxious about the returns process itself, especially if they've had negative experiences with returns in the past or if the retailer has achieved a reputation for being difficult to deal with. Over 20 per cent of shoppers claim they have kept an item that they were unhappy with because of the effort required to return it over the last 12 months, according to research from Klarna.
  • Uncertainty: if a shopper is returning an item because they received it as a gift or because they're not sure what they want, they may feel uncertainty about what they'll receive in exchange or whether they'll be able to find something else they like. Even if it wasn’t a gift, who reads all the small print of a returns policy (if you can find it)?
  • Satisfaction: It’s true that, if a retailer has successfully implemented a seamless and hassle-free return process, a shopper may feel satisfied with the experience and more likely to shop with that retailer again in the future. Conversely, research by Klarna suggests that 84 per cent of online shoppers would refuse to use a retailer again after a bad returns experience.

Prevention is better than the cure

Of these six reactions, five are clearly negative – and retailers are in the business of delighting customers, not of annoying them. A two-pronged, prevention-then-remediation strategy is the obvious solution.

First, do everything possible to prevent the need for returns. Great photography and detailed, accurate descriptions on product pages go a long way to replacing the bricks-and-mortar experience of picking up, touching and feeling garments; even today, this is not always the case. Simultaneously, deploy an AI fitting room like Swan to help shoppers choose the size that fits them just the way they want it to, without them having to buy multiple sizes. Swan fulfils the same function online as changing rooms do offline.

Second, and glib as it sounds, ensure that returns policies and processes result in a positive customer experience. Then, even if a return is, ultimately needed, shoppers will notice that the retailer did all it could, during the purchase and during the returns process. And this should go some way to alleviating some of the negative emotions that shoppers feel when returning items.

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