For years, online shopping has given us the ability to order clothes, try them on at home, and return the ones we don’t like. In fact, we’ve gotten used to it – many shoppers even order the same outfit in different sizes so they can check out the best fit from the comfort of their own home.
And the more we buy online, the more we return.
Tech company ReBOUND works with big brands such as John Lewis and JD, and its data shows that UK fashion return volumes are currently 55% higher than they were at this point in 2021.
But the free postage many of us expect when we return our stuff could all change, with top brands warning they are no longer sustainable.
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Boohoo and ASOS recently warned of an increase in the number of items returned by shoppers. There are reports that Boohoo may start charging for accepting returns.
Of course, anyone shopping online with Zara will have noticed that they now charge customers £1.95 to return the clothes, a price which is deducted from their refund (although shoppers can still return to store for free).
And where big retailers go, others often follow. Sam Carew from Elliot Footwear says: “If big companies like Boohoo and ASOS feel the pinch, there will likely be a change in the way returns are handled.
“It could also lead to more thoughtful shopping if customers need to consider return costs.”
Who returns what?
Alexandra Dobra-Kiel, head of behavioral research and insight at Behave, explains that people return items for different reasons.
“First you have the ‘planned or unethical return’, she says, ‘customers who intentionally plan unethical returns, then you have the ‘impatient return’, customers who view returns as a good decision, and ‘reluctant returns’, customers who feel embarrassed or guilty about making returns.
“The impatient returner and the reluctant returner are the most likely to be influenced to reduce the number of returns they make.”
The thing is, online returns are a huge headache for businesses. They have to manage them, evaluate them, transport them, often pay the return costs and make no profit from them. They also increase the environmental impact of companies, which most are now on a mission to reduce.
But above all, processing them is a costly and logistical challenge.
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Marianne Morrison, founder of inclusive fashion brand Bubu, says: “On average, all online retailers see 35-40% of their apparel sales return.
“When you combine that with the increased cost of postage – usually [customers get] free postage above a certain basket value – and return postage if offered by a retailer, combined with the cost of handling or disposing of an item on return, this is a real financial problem that all fashion retailers face.
Buyers are in a cost of living crisis, but businesses are also feeling the pinch. Their energy bills, labor costs and material costs are also increasing and they also need to cut costs.
Julian Skelly, head of retail for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at digital transformation consultancy Publicis Sapient, says returns can be so costly that they prevent retailers from making a profit.
“Online shopping quickly becomes unprofitable if retailers allow uncontrolled returns. A pattern of customer behavior has developed where customers order more than they need (multiple sizes, variations, etc.), expecting to select one and return the rest.
“The freedom to do so removes a major barrier to buying, but it means retailers routinely pay delivery and collection costs, making selling unprofitable.”
Returns also mean that a significant amount of quality checks and verifications are required. Marianne Morrison of Bubu adds: “We were surprised at how some items were returned to us.
“We once had a dress returned dirty and very visibly worn, and when we refused a refund, the customer proceeded to threaten us with leaving a bad review. This is an extreme but real example based on the challenges that online businesses face.
Changing our habits
Retailers don’t want us to stop shopping or switch to a competitor, so many think they need to offer an easy return policy. But as it becomes less affordable, many are looking for ways to cut down on that wasted time and effort.
Marianna Morrison says: “The cost of living crisis is causing people to order less than before, to be more selective in what they need or want, to order two or three pieces for an event rather than five or six before .
“We know that when a customer orders a large number of dresses and sizes, we can expect a return of at least 50% of their order.”
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Bubu combats this by ensuring its website displays accurate images of every item, helping shoppers understand what is best for them, and only offering free returns if a customer exchanges their item for another. rather than if he just doesn’t want it.
Julian Skelly thinks some retailers may just start charging for returns, but others may choose to start treating their customers differently based on how they shop. Regular returns might be asked to pay a return postage, while more cautious buyers might be rewarded with free returns.
Alexandra Dobra-Kiel thinks retailers should work harder on their messaging. If the products are clearly labeled and described, there will be less “impatient returns”, for example.
She adds: “And to target reluctant returns, retailers should tap into the moral satisfaction of shoppers – communicating to this group the environmental consequences of returns. Over time, this category will recognize and reward the enduring values of these online retailers and may also inspire other consumers to reduce the number of returns they make, as sustainable customer behaviors are influenced by consumer expectations. society at large.
Whatever happens, one thing seems certain. The era of stacking them, trying them at home and sending them back may just be the latest casualty of the economic crisis.