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13 Best Practices for Handling Web Returns

by Justin Palmer - December 28th, 2007

Christmas is over, and now the fun begins…. the Handling the returns. As anyone whose ever sent a product back to an online retailer knows, the process is almost as fun as going to the dentist.

Some research suggests that even the thought of sending back a return is enough to keep people from buying. As such, it makes sense that an easy, hassle free return procedure will ensure that customers order again. In this post, I’ll share some best practices for handling return I’ve learned from dealing with internet retailers in the past.

  1. Answer the Basics: Clearly explaining the process is the obvious first step in handling a return. Chinook Webs has a great example of an effective return policy that answers what, when, where, and how. For example, what products can be returned? How long do customers have to return them? Where do they back the merchandise?
  2. Keep Customers Updated: When you receive a return shipment, email the customer. When you begin processing a return, email the customer. When you refund their money or send out the exchange merchandise, email the customer. Constant progress updates will keep customers from contacting you about the status. In addition, they will appreciate the thoughtfulness.
  3. Find out Why: A “no questions asked” return policy is great marketing, but tells you little about what’s causing customers to return products. Find a non-pushy way of asking them why they’re returning the merchandise. This can be a simple question on the return form or an email survey sent out after the transaction. Emphasize the information will be used to improve your products.
  4. Include Instructions with every shipment: Don’t send customers on a wild goose chase to find out how to return a product. Include instructions along with every packing list sent.
  5. Give them a Return Address Label: A peel off address label simplifies the question of “where do I send it?” and prevents shipping errors.
  6. Give them a Return Shipping Label: Better yet, send out a return merchandise label from your shipping carrier. Explain to the customer they will be billed for using it. Some companies email customers a printable pdf of the shipping label to simplify the process for them.
  7. Pay for Return Shipping: Even better, if you can afford it, pay the return shipping for them. Zappos pioneered this strategy, creating thousands of loyal customers because of it. It’s a gesture that’s not expected by most customers, but will strongly differentiate you from your competitors.
  8. Know your Metrics: What percent of your orders end up being returned? What’s the most most common reason people return merchandise? By tracking your return metrics, you’ll find areas that need improvement.
  9. Brag about your Easy Return Policy: It pays to boast about your hassle free return policy early and often. During checkout, I believe this is one of the most frequently asked questions and stumbling blocks. Linking to your return policy during checkout will assure customers you stand behind the product.
  10. Post your Restrictions: To prevent surprises, make sure you post your return restrictions, including re-stocking fees, the length of time merchandise can be sent back, and whether or not shipping costs will be refunded.
  11. Streamline the RMA: If your company a return merchandise authorization in order to process a return, don’t make it unnecessarily complicated. For example, if the merchandise is inexpensive or defective, don’t require a manual review in order to get an RMA. Every day that your customers have to wait creates less chance they will order again.
  12. Rules are Meant to Be Broken: Occasionally, customers will send back merchandise that technically doesn’t qualify for a return. In these situations, let your customers know you are making a special exception for them. Is it really worth damaging a customer relationship because the customer returns it after 15 days, rather than 14?
  13. Multi-Channel Returns: If your business has physical store locations, allow customers to return online orders in-store.

In my opinion, very few online retailers look at web returns as an opportunity. Because most customers expect the process to be arduous, web returns make an incredible opportunity to exceed expectations.

Have anything else to add or want to share a positive or negative experience regarding web returns? Be sure to drop a comment. Like the tips listed above? Get 3 of your own…

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One Response to “13 Best Practices for Handling Web Returns” by Justin Palmer

  1. Linda Bustos Says:

    Great post, Justin. This can be a toughie for consumer and retailer because of the time lag and the shipping costs. It’s so much easier to walk into a store and get an immediate exchange or credit (did I say easier? LOL).

    Perhaps a bigger problem for retailers is return fraud. The NRF expects it to be about $3.7 Billion this year! Costco estimates about $100 million a year in fraudulent returns, mostly from people returning older tech gadgets for new models under it’s no-questions-asked policy. Of course that was in phyisical and online locations, it could be that there were far less online returns because of shipping costs.

    I love the buy online return in store policy. American Apparel recently opened up in town and I keep buying the same sweat pants off their web site. Nowhere do they show a return-in-store policy on the web.


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