Strategies to reduce ecommerce return rates

Arrived late… wrong item... too small… Regardless of the reason for return, ecommerce return rates rose dramatically in 2020, especially fashion and apparel return rates. Once a return is initiated, you need to focus on two things: how to make the process as frictionless as possible, and how to prevent it from happening again.

See the most recent ecommerce return statistics and learn what you can do to reverse your own average return rates.

Thu Jun 17 13:32:52 EDT 2021
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Ecommerce return rates and the post-purchase experience 

Ecommerce sales increased 44% year-over-year in 20201, an astonishing rate that represents the highest annual U.S. ecommerce growth in at least 20 years. Unfortunately, ecommerce return rates more than doubled in 2020 from 20192. Considering that around 50% of consumers return clothes they’ve bought online3, there’s little doubt fashion and apparel return rates are impacting these numbers.

Those increased return rates can have big impacts on retailers, and it's not just from a financial and operational perspective.  A Pitney Bowes study4 found that 90% of online shoppers in the US will take action in response to a frustrating post-purchase experience, with a whopping 30% of millennials venting on social media or via online reviews, meaning that your brand image could be at stake as well!

Need further proof that ecommerce return statistics are closely linked with the overall customer experience? Consider this: 80% of consumers Pitney Bowes surveyed4 ranked the returns experience as equally important to the unboxing experience, which means they care as much about the ease of returning an item as they do about receiving it in the first place.  

Given all those statistics, it’s clear that a positive returns experience is critical, but so is remaining profitable. The best course of action to satisfy both consumers and your bottom line is to reduce the average return rate of your ecommerce business as proactively as possible.

The power of product descriptions 

Not what I expected. Product defective.

There’s only so much you can do to set customer expectations. But if you want to reduce your ecommerce return rates, you should be doing everything you can, including:

  • Ensuring all product information and product images are accurate, clear and thorough. Many products are returned simply because customers don’t understand how to use them. How-to videos can address this problem.
  • Offering tools that allow customers to compare similar items by features and price, zoom in to see a product’s details, or even try a product on virtually are all great strategies for encouraging customers to get a better sense of what they’re buying.
  • Encouraging honest reviews and featuring product testimonials. Reviewers share invaluable expectation-setting information like sizing and user tips. In addition, reviewers often share their return and exchange experiences. 

Unforced errors of fulfillment

Wrong item. Damaged item. Item arrived too late.

Fickle customers may be beyond your control, but you can improve your ecommerce return statistics by eliminating unforced errors. Picking and fulfillment mistakes erode customer trust, consume busy customer service departments and, if you’re lucky, result in another unnecessary return.

How can a return be considered lucky? Federal Trade Commission rules make it illegal to bill a customer for something they didn't order. That means customers have no legal obligation to return that item, even if a refund has been issued.

Third-party fulfillment and/or returns services can offer the quality control needed to reduce ecommerce returns rates. In addition to advanced order picking methods, the best of these services can support your inventory from multiple locations, which lowers fulfillment costs and reduces shipping time.

The golden post-order/pre-shipment window 

Edit my order. Cancel my order.

A customer’s misbegotten order doesn’t have to become another ecommerce return statistic. Offering customers a clear and easy way to back out of an order might seem counterintuitive, but imagine their sense of relief when they realize they can quickly rectify a mistake on an order before it ships.

Placing an “Edit” or “Cancel” button on your order confirmation page signals to a customer that you care about their satisfaction, not just about making a sale. Take it a step further with a confirmation email that details the items purchased, including quantities, delivery address and estimated shipping time.

Giving customers the chance to amend an order reduces ecommerce return rates and enhances the post-purchase experience.

Too small. Too large. Wrong color.

Fashion and apparel ecommerce return rates represent a class of their own. Not only do these categories account for the largest percentage of returns, those returns are often premeditated due to bracketing and wardrobing.

Bracketing is the practice where customers buy multiple sizes or styles with the intent of returning whatever doesn’t fit or please. Wardrobing is where a customer wears an item once, maybe for a special occasion or event, and then returns it. The latter is fraud, the former is becoming more accepted and has even given rise to online ‘try-it-at-home” programs.

There are a several online practices that can reduce fashion and apparel return rates, ranging from ideas described in “The power of product descriptions” above to analyzing your returns data and updating your website accordingly. For example, if multiple consumers are returning a specific item and using “too small” as the reason, add a note on the product’s detail page that the “item runs small.”

It’s all about balance

There is a delicate balance between keeping customers happy with flexible returns policies and keeping your bottom line healthy. With some careful planning and a strong partner you can create a returns program that satisfies both. Utilizing some (or all) of the strategies above and working with a knowledgeable partner for returns can help ensure that the returns you can't avoid are faster and more convenient for your customers while being more efficient for your teams.