Sad returns: the challenge with in-person drop-off

Among pandemic-weary consumers, nearly half find the process annoying.

In the most recent findings from BOXpoll—our weekly consumer survey on current events, culture and ecommerce logistics—we’ve been exploring the attitudes and behaviors of consumers when comparing the two most ‘pandemic-resistant’ last mile options for ecommerce: home delivery and curbside pickup (update link to point to curbside article once published). Related to curbside pickup is in-person returns. In fact, in the 18 months leading up to the pandemic, we were tracking a continued and strengthening push toward in-person pickup and drop-off locations as magnets for retailer and carrier investments aimed at reducing the cost of residential delivery.  

Now, 10 months into the pandemic, many in-person pickup investments have pivoted toward contactless/curbside options. But we weren’t seeing in-person returns drop-off adopting the contactless/curbside model at the same rate. So we asked consumers how they felt about in-person returns—particularly when compared to an already-existing returns alternative, home pickup.

38% of consumers are holding back from making purchases where in-person drop-off is the only returns option offered. That sentiment hasn’t changed since April. 

Well over a third of shoppers (43%) admit they find in-person returns to be a negative or annoying experience compared to home pickup. Tellingly, home pickup is viewed as convenient by 64% of consumers, with 58% using the word “easy” to describe the process. In fact, fewer than 6% feel annoyed by home pickup of returns. 

We’d initially hypothesized that this wariness of in-person returns would have trended higher among certain age groups—not naming names, but we were thinking some generations might have a lower tolerance for being inconvenienced. Turns out, not so; all generations feel about the same: 

Consumers who find in-person returns annoying

  • Gen Z (born 1997-2012)                42%
  • Millennials (born 1981-1996)         45% 
  • Gen X (born 1965-1980)                43% 
  • Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964)   43% 

There was, however, a correlation between consumers’ intolerance of in-person returns and where they live. 52% of urban consumers found the in-person experience annoying, 11pp higher than rural consumers and 13pp higher than suburbanites.  


In-person returns and returning customers 

Consumers may be annoyed, to some degree, by design. Some retailers experiment with introducing nominal friction in the returns process in order to prevent costly abuse of return policies. What’s unclear is what impact, if any, do annoying returns processes impact consumers’ willingness to tap the buy button? 


We found that 38% of adults are holding back from making purchases when in-person drop-off is the only returns option offered. That rate is effectively unchanged since we asked consumers the same question in April 2020 (it’s now 1pp higher, but within our margin of error). More than half (52%) of Millennials are holding back from buying because of in-person returns. That’s an increase of 7pp since April. 

Consumers are also reacting to return policies 

Does a consumer-friendly and understandable return policy matter? That’s what we asked consumers as a follow up while exploring the in-person returns topic. Admittedly, we were floored by the response: more than half of consumers (54%) say they’re unlikely to purchase a product they want if the retailer has a poor or unclear return policy. The responses skew noticeably by age: 

  • Gen Z:         41% are unlikely to purchase 
  • Millennials:  41% 
  • Gen X:         54% 
  • Boomers:     67% 

We know from our decades-long experience in ecommerce returns that a primary value lever for consumers is how long it takes to issue a refund on a return—AKA time to credit—something many retailers’ returns policies struggle to define precisely. But as it turns out, time to credit is so important to some consumers that they’d be willing to pay a fee to get their refund instantly. 

BOXpollTM by Pitney Bowes, a weekly consumer survey on current events, culture,and ecommerce logistics. Conducted by Pitney Bowes with Morning Consult //2094 US consumers surveyed October 2020.© Copyright 2020 Pitney Bowes Inc.

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