Like religion and politics, our feelings on when and why to return things we’ve bought are often deeply personal. Once in-store, our responses run the gamut from awkward, hand-wringing pleas to angrily and implacably demanding our money back.
Of course, what the process looks like depends on the retailer in question, why we’re complaining, and how much of the debacle is, in fact, our fault. Either way, that confrontation is generally something we’d rather avoid.
It’s a different matter online. Without the inconvenience of paying the store a visit, or the uncertainty of a personal challenge, we have far less compunction sending back anything we deem even remotely sub-par (the biggest hurdle is repacking, and remembering which piece of cardboard went where).
Since catalogue and telephone shopping first became commonplace, returns have been the bete noire of distance sellers – and their role has only become more pronounced since the Consumer Rights Act was reformed in 2015. Whereas physical stores aren’t required by law to have a returns policy at all (other than a responsibility to replace faulty goods), online sales are at the mercy of a cancellation period which ends 14 days after the goods are received.
Simply put, if you haven’t seen it in the flesh before you buy, you can just change your mind.
It’s a costly business. Globaldata predicts that online returns in the UK will hit a total of £5.6b by 2023, while Barclaycard has found that a new breed of serial returners are costing the retail industry £7b, creating what it describes as a “phantom economy” for online retailers. The latter found that while the average British shopper spends £313 on online shopping each year, they return just under half of that value.
And although the clothing market is probably suffering the worst of these excesses (try before you buy, anyone?), returns are becoming a bigger headache for the furniture sector as the adoption of online purchasing creeps inexorably higher.
While Amazon has a lot to answer for, the boxed mattress disruptors blew any established returns culture out the water when they introduced 100-night free trials and no-quibble returns in a bid to align themselves with the FMCG markets. In taking this path, they set the returns policy bar – and consumer expectation – extremely high.
The long-term sustainability of these policies is debatable, but, as parcelLab CEO Tobias Buxhoidt states in this article, “a fair and generous returns policy isn’t a one-way street” – generosity and convenience go a long way towards securing customer loyalty, online and/or off.
Perhaps it's time more of us acknowledged that this consumer behaviour is here to stay, and that it should be facilitated, not resisted.