Tame The Post-Holiday Blues By Prioritizing Returns

Smart executives love customer complaints. Not only are they a form of free market research, but a customer who complains is providing an opportunity for service recovery -- and service recovery done right can generate some of the strongest brand advocates around. That’s much better than the alternative, which involves festering dissatisfaction and a lost customer who is willing to tell anybody who will listen precisely why she hates you. Social media has provided the perfect platform for telling just those kinds of stories, with captive audiences that eat it up.

The right return strategy can do a great deal to keep those tales at bay. Returns are fantastic barometers of customer satisfaction but are still all too often viewed as necessary evils of conducting business. Treated as second class citizens the moment they enter a store, customers making returns almost always face longer and slower moving lines than those making purchases. Even the very supply chains that process these returns are often mere afterthoughts that ride alongside forward logistics. Returns are the bane of retail.

None of this sits well with today’s omnichannel consumers, who expect the same level of service at every touchpoint. They demand the ability to shop anywhere, experience consistency across every channel, and return merchandise with no hassles. This is amplified for apparel retailers, especially those that rely heavily on e-commerce; the only way customers will make the leap of faith it requires to purchase apparel without physically touching it first is if they know they can easily return it if necessary.

The retailers that will thrive in the long-term are those that prioritize returns at the same level as sales. Doing so, however, often requires making significant changes to thinking and processes that were never set up with returns in mind. Luckily, the integrated technology that has streamlined omnichannel sales is typically equipped with the same functionalities to manage returns, for those inclined to implement them properly and use them to their fullest potential.

Reconcile returns directly against purchases
The primary advantage of omnichannel retail is that purchases can be made using any channel. Similarly, returns should be enabled on any channel, which will often lead to situations where these transactions are not occurring in the same space. In our increasingly paperless world, customers no longer keep up with receipts and expect retailers to be able to locate purchases by name, credit card number, or loyalty membership information. Regardless of what channel is used to process a return, the retailer should be able to locate the original purchase information and add the return to the existing record instead of creating a brand new one.

Processing returns using the original purchase data makes the experience smoother for consumers while also eliminating errors in bookkeeping. It ensures that the actual price paid is used to calculate refunds or store credit and also curbs the problem of “over returning,” an increasingly popular form of theft where criminals attempt to obtain refunds for items that were never purchased.

Learn what return data is telling you
Retailers have been looking at returns data to track problematic merchandise for decades, but granular analysis of omnichannel returns by channel can reveal robust business intelligence. For example, an item that exhibits higher return rates when fulfilled through e-commerce than point of sale may indicate a problem with how the merchandise is displayed online. It could also indicate a packaging problem that causes damage in transit, or an item that ranks high in the buyer’s remorse department. Whatever the cause, returns data can raise red flags where further investigation reveals fixable problems.

The same data can also help identify problem customers. “Serial returners” have been known to retailers for some time, but data helps uncover them quickly, especially in the omnichannel space where they have more places to hide. The same technology that identifies abusive returners can also flag their accounts so that future return attempts are automatically denied or require additional documentation.

Return forms ease e-commerce anxiety
Despite the great strides e-commerce has made since its inception, the human fear of possible dissatisfaction with a product that can’t be physically touched before it is purchased is still quite real. As annoying as it is to wait in point of sale return lines, many customers fear e-commerce returns even more. Do I have to ship it back using the same box? Do I have to pay for my own shipping? Is that line at the post office going to be even more frustrating than the one at the store?

Including a pre-printed return label in each order removes a great deal of this anxiety. When customers know that all they have to do is stick a label on a box and leave it out for the mail carrier to pick up, they are much more likely to take a risk on an online purchase. Additionally, bar codes included on these return labels make processing them faster and easier for staff once received, cutting down on restocking time. For high fashion items, every hour saved on processing a return reduces the risk that the item will fall out of season and style before it can be sold again.

Streamlined return policies and processes are vital aspects of retail strategy, and only those who master it are likely to thrive in the omnichannel universe. Optimized return processes go a long way toward generating lucrative customer goodwill and loyalty while also helping retailers to cut associated costs and provide insight into buyer behavior and product viability. Technology enabled returns make it simple to design and implement processes that drive conversions and build knowledge. 

Ian Goldman, president and CEO of Celerant Technology, is an expert software engineer and entrepreneurial enthusiast with an extensive knowledge of point of sale systems, CRM, and inventory management.
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