Here come the returns

This peak, home pickup is the #1 returns option for COVID-weary consumers, yet half don’t know which carriers offer it for free.

Whelp, there goes any hope of 2021 being a ‘normal’ year. So…(changes subject) how about online returns, then?

With historic ecommerce order volumes over peak season, we expect an unprecedented number of those items to come back as returns over the next 2 months. Our latest BOXpoll survey found that 26% of consumers plan to return purchases & gifts after the 2020 holiday. This means that, while the volume of returns coming back to warehouses may be unprecedented due to higher, pandemic-driven online purchasing, the proportion of consumers returning overall is not significantly higher. Normalcy…is that you?

In the days following Christmas, we asked consumers if they expected to make any returns/exchanges and, if so, how much and when.

  • About half are not wasting any time, and say they returned or exchanged purchases/gifts by the end of December (13%)
  • Parents and are those earning 100K+ are 2-3x more likely to return early

How much is coming back?

  • Consumers expect to return/exchange an average of 20% of items they purchased or received over the holidays, with the following groups indexing higher:
    • Younger consumers (in the 18-34 range) are not only more likely to return things but are also more likely to return more things (Gen Z 25% of purchases/gifts, Millennials 24%, and Baby Boomers 10%).
    • Men (23%) expect to return more than women (17%)—and urban dwellers are nearly 2x as likely as those living in rural areas (27% vs. 14%).   
    • Not surprisingly, those likely to be returning more are also those with the most under their Christmas trees - higher income (24% vs. 19%) higher education (25% vs. 18%), and parents (24% vs. 17%).

In true 2021 fashion, consumers are already pessimistic about post-holiday returns experiences

Even with vaccine distribution beginning, the continuing impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are bound to disrupt how consumers approach the process of returning online purchases and gifts. Retailers, bracing for the predicted wave, deluge, flood, tsunami (why are returns always associated with water?) of returns, were already looking for ways to make it easier for shoppers to buy and return items, but still, consumers are expecting the worst.

  • More than 1 in 4 consumers expect that the post-holiday returns process will be worse compared to during peak season—though nearly the same proportion expect things to get better (led by the rosier outlook of lower-income consumers).
    • Gen Z is particularly pessimistic with 36% expecting a turn for the worse while Millennials are a bit more positive, with 40% expecting retailers to get their collective act together post-peak.
  • Half of consumers (50%) report that they are concerned about being refunded in a timely manner for online purchases. 
    • Rest easy, boomers: at 63%, Baby Boomers are most unconcerned about refunds. 
    • Mo’ money, mo’ worries…about timely refunds:  60% of those earning over $100k are concerned, compared to approximately 50% among those making less.

Not surprisingly given 9 months of pandemic conditioning, home pickup has been further cemented as the #1 most preferred return option according to consumers.

  • Across generations, consumers report that home pick-up (41%) is their preferred way of returning something
    • Less appealing by comparison is returning to a retailer’s store (24%), going to a carrier location (21%), and dropping off at a returns desk or kiosk at a mall or store (14%).
Consumers prefer home pickup of returns - percentages chart

Does this count as misinformation? Half (48%) of consumers—and notably 64% of Baby Boomers who've presumably been around the block longer—don’t know which carriers (including Amazon) charge for home pickup. 

  • Pro tip: the US Postal Service does not charge for residential pickups as a standard policy.
  • Those who did know (or thought they knew) selected all major carriers roughly equally, with UPS and FedEx at 24% each, Amazon (20%), and USPS (19%) roughly tied of respondents saying they charge for home pickup. 
  • Let’s stereotype, shall we? Half of Gen Z confidently thought they knew for sure Amazon charged for home pickup (answer: it depends on where you live and the product you’re returning).

The archenemy of home pickup? Printers. Also: apartments.

  • Nearly 1 in 3 (31%) say they live in a location that prevents them from having packages picked up by a carrier due to limitations like lack of drop-off area (8%), no apartment doorman (7%), or other location where package can’t be left out (16%).
    • 11% of both Gen Z and Millennials live in an apartment complex that does not allow for pick-up
  • 39% of consumers report that they have a printer and find returns to be an easy process. 
    • However, 6 in 10 consumers either don’t own a printer or are unlikely to use it to print shipping labels 
      • 8% say they have a printer but it’s not convenient.
      • 1 in 4 (25%) have a printer but never use it to print labels.
      • 28% don’t have a printer at all
        • Gen Z (40%) and Millennials (31%) are least likely to own a printer.
        • Gen Z are even less likely to own a printer now vs. 6 months ago (30% vs. 40%).
  • This creates a quandary for retailers looking to balance a convenient returns process with just the right amount of friction to avoid unnecessarily driving up the cost of returns. 
    • So, if a returns drop off is the only option for some consumers, which drop off is best?
    • When asked to rank drop-off locations, consumers were most likely to choose the Post Office as the #1 preferred location (33%), followed by retail Stores (21%) and then UPS (19%), FedEx (13%), Parcel locker (8%) and Shopping mall kiosks (5%).
    • Consumers living in rural areas, as well as those earning less than $50K, are particularly partial to the post office compared to their respective counterparts.  
      • 44% of rural dwellers say the post office is their top choice to do a return vs. 31% of suburban and 28% of urban shoppers. 
      • 39% of lower-income consumers (those earning less than $50K) say they prefer the post office vs. 31% earning $50-100K and 18% earning $100K+.
Printing labels at home - percentages chart

Because of course ‘free’ is king: the majority (58%) of consumers said that free returns is the #1 way to make returns more convenient

  • Return label being included came in 2nd, with 45% of adults. Printers strike again!
  • Quick refunds and clear instructions provided by the retailer round out the top consumer preferences. 
    • Gen Z prefers a quick refund to the return label being included (42% vs. 34%), Millennials don’t care (35% vs. 36%), while Gen X and Baby Boomers want the return label included more than they do a quick refund (44% vs. 36% and 56% vs. 34%, respectively). 

COVID-19 continues to add new wrinkles to an already complicated process for both consumers and retailers. Stay tuned (whatever that means, boomer) for more returns-related insights in our next edition of BOXpoll findings.

BOXpoll™ 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 December 2020.© Copyright Pitney Bowes Inc.

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