An evolving definition of returns convenience

Forged during the pandemic, consumers’ definition of ‘easy’ returns continues to shift

Retailers: welcome to the annual returns peak tsunami. With managing the costs and complexity of online returns top of mind in the industry, we took a look at how consumers are now thinking about their returns behaviors. What does a convenient returns experience look like in 2022?

Gimme my money

First, money—specifically, how fast a refund is going to hit a shopper’s account. While half of consumers are worried about timely refunds from online returns, that number has actually fallen slightly since the 2020 holiday season.

 

 

We anticipate this is driven by a segment of consumers who are more likely to return online purchases at a brick-and-mortar stores now, where they can expect a faster refund. (This was a much less popular option in 2020, before COVID-19 vaccines became widely available).

Convenience is in the eye of the beholder

Those who aren’t willing or able to return items at physical stores are generally left with two options: either drop the item off at a carrier location, or have a carrier pick up the return at home (for the purposes of this post, we aren’t including the option de rigueur of getting your refund without returning anything). Which of these options consumers prefer continues to be influenced by how they define convenience in the time of COVID.

Heading into 2022, our BOXpoll surveys show nearly half of consumers (46%) are likely to use home pickup, and only 30% who say they are unlikely. We found correlations between likelihood of using home pickup and population density, as well as parenthood and of course, COVID concern.

  • 56% of urban dwellers said they were likely to use home pickup, more than the 44% of suburbanites and 39% of rural dwellers. Urban residents cited not having to drive (and saving on gas) as top reasons to opt for home pickup. Suburban/rural consumers are generally less sensitive about getting out and about in the current pandemic environment.
  • 57% of respondents with children are likely to use home pickup (have you ever tried waiting in line with a kid?), versus 41% of non-parents.
  • Half (51%) of people concerned about COVID are likely to use home pickup, compared with just one-third (33%) of those who aren’t concerned.

Those who said they are likely to use home pickup for returns cited convenience and avoiding stores out of concern for COVID.

home pickup

Most who said that they are not likely to use home pickup for returns said they would either rather return it themselves or that they don’t trust at-home pickup. The phrase “porch piracy” made several guest appearances.

chart

We saw last year that half of consumers didn’t know the USPS offers free residential pickup. That hasn’t changed, given that this year, many respondents mentioned cost as a reason they weren’t likely to use home pickup (alternately, major carriers have trained consumers—via retailers—that home pickup was a luxury). This is a continued opportunity for retailers partnering with postal returns services to win that segment over by emphasizing free home pickup.

Do I look like a print shop?

Printers—required by many retailers to print shipping labels for home pickup—remain a point of friction for consumers. More than half of all consumers (59%) and more than two-thirds of Gen Z shoppers (71%) say they either don’t own a printer or prefer not to use it to print labels at home. (Have you seen the cost of printer ink?) This sentiment hasn’t changed since the 2020 holiday season, and it’s a big contributor to consumers’ number one complaint about returns: the label not being included in the shipping box.

printing machine

Pickup is a privilege

Where consumers live has a lot to do with which returns process they prefer. Half of all shoppers (53%) live in a location that makes home pickup easy, but there’s a stark generational divide. While about 60% of Baby Boomers and Gen Xers live in pickup-friendly location, that percentage drops into the 40s for Millennials and Gen Zers.

We know from our open-ended responses above that security is important: apartment dwellers say they are either unable to leave a package on their doorstep, or not comfortable with the idea.

Surprisingly, given the dispersion of consumers during the pandemic, the proportion who live in apartments or other places where home pickup is challenging (29%) remained comparable to last year (31%). This suggests 2021’s competitive housing market—with low interest rates, low inventory and high demand converging to create sky-high prices for both buyers and renters—kept many consumers from moving out of apartments and into larger homes.

 


Would if I could, but I can’t—yet

One stat we were surprised to see: about 50% of consumers who live in any given place that makes home pick-up impossible said they were likely to use it as a return option, suggesting that they would if they could. This bodes well for retailers pushing home pickup, as secure package lockers become available in more neighborhoods—not to mention the proportion of current apartment-dwellers who plan to move to single-family homes in the future.

When your most exciting outing of the week is a return drop-off

When it comes to drop-off returns, the Post Office continues to be the most-preferred location among consumers. It makes sense to see some slight movement in overall rankings since more consumers are open to returns drop off this year than last. Though many are still concerned about the pandemic (and currently, the Omicron variant), that concern isn’t keeping as many consumers out of brick-and-mortar locations.

 

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 January 2022.© Copyright Pitney Bowes Inc.