How retailers can keep growing returns costs in check

This images show someone returning a package.

While most retailers have recently recorded a decline in returns, the cost burden is still big, and many retailers are increasingly looking for ways to reverse course even further.

It’s retail’s unavoidable story, especially e-commerce: For each percentage of growth in sales comes more returned items from customers. It’s the double-edged sword that keeps getting sharper, year after year.

And while to some, the 2023 holiday retail season may seem already far away in the rear-view mirror, the true picture of the most recent season of holiday returns is only now becoming clear. The end of January marks the unofficial close of the preceding holiday retail season with the final act of returns. 

The National Retail Federation (NRF) expected holiday returns for 2023 in the U.S. to total around $148 billion compared to $171 billion for the 2022 holiday season, $151 billion during the 2021 holiday season, $101 billion in 2020, and about the same $100 billion for the 2019 holiday season.

While the rate of holiday returns year-to-year may be on the decline for the first year since the pandemic, these numbers fail to tell the whole story. In 2019, before COVID-19 upended consumer buying habits, retail returns for the entire year stood around $309 billion, or 8.1% of total retail sales. They peaked in 2022, more than double that 2019 figure, at $816 billion for the year or 16.5% of sales. In 2023, the total returns declined for the first time in years, at $732 billion or 14.5% of total retail sales.

So, while most retailers have recently recorded a decline in returns, the cost burden is still big, and many retailers are increasingly looking for ways to reverse course even further.

How pandemic changed returns game

It’s hard to believe that it’s been a little over four years since the pandemic changed things forever. Back then, lockdowns and distancing turned ecommerce into the next best option to in-person shopping. From there things took off. According to the NRF, before the pandemic retail growth in 2019 the year-over-year growth in e-commerce was at 3.5%; then in 2020 it jumped to 7.6%, then to 14.4% in 2021, and back to 7% in 2022. Growth in 2023 was expected to drop again to somewhere between 4% and 6%.

COVID’s enduring change to retail is reflected the most on the e-commerce side. It drove millions of consumers to online shopping, who would have otherwise hit up bricks and mortar shops. And while the rate of year-to-year growth may be slowing, there’s a huge new contingent of loyal e-commerce shoppers that won’t give up the new-found ease of digital shopping any time soon.

E-commerce has always been saddled by the returns problem. The more people shop virtually, the more likely they are to return items they couldn’t try on or “test” out before making the purchase. With the new pandemic “crop” of e-commerce consumers, returns will only become more problematic for those retailers that fail to optimize this side of their business.

It’s no longer a seasonal chore where the biggest hit comes during the holidays. Today, for a thriving e-commerce business, returns must be viewed as a year-round, always-on business strategy.

High costs = more restrictive policies

In 2022, for every $1 billion in sales the average retailer lost $165 million in returns, a number that gets bigger and bigger with each passing year. The pandemic saw a lot of returns policies eased, but as the emergency faded, retailers have increasingly looked for more ways to reduce their burden.

The expenses associated with accepting a returned item can oftentimes exceed the item’s resale potential, with shipping costs eating up a huge chunk of that value. Add on top of that the cost of manpower for processing and other key actions within the returns pipeline, it’s no wonder retailers are looking for better options.

Some have implemented fees for returning items while 58% of retailers went to “returnless” or “keep it” returns protocols in 2023. Others are offering store credit in lieu of refunds and some are encouraging shoppers to bring unwanted items back to the physical store. It’s a tricky balance, keeping customer loyalty front and center while putting stronger policies in place to right size the business. Thankfully in the world of retail, customer loyalty isn’t exclusive of a restrictive returns policy.

So how do we balance these business needs while maintaining strong customer relationships?

Maximizing returns at crunch time

For all the tips that can be covered in this context, one thing stands out: Getting returned merchandise through the system quickly and back to stock for potential resale is paramount. For this reason, returns need to be treated with the same urgency as outbound orders.

Focusing on “forward fulfillment” is the key to achieving this velocity, especially when it comes to the annual crush of holiday returns. This means having a strong third-party logistics (3PL) partner that can help manage returned goods, redirecting them to a new destination for processing, repackaging, and resale. Streamlining the returns process in this way, reducing transportation costs, and speeding up the return-to-market cycle, is the end game. Certainly, retailers can achieve this on their own, but a strong 3PL eliminates the hassle and gets it there quicker.

There are other things retailers can do, too: 

  • Be prepared: Preparation is key for success during the hefty return season after the holidays. Planning for an influx is critically important. This means having a clear and efficient returns process, which includes a dedicated team to handle returns, a clear returns policy, and a streamlined system for processing returns. 
  • Analyze the data: It’s essential to understand why the product is being returned in the first place. Analyze the data on returns to identify patterns and trends. This can help businesses understand the reasons for returns and take additional steps to address them. 
  • Communicate with customers: Communication is key when it comes to handling returns. Shoppers expect transparency during the returns process and to be kept informed. Communication builds trust and loyalty, giving customers confidence that your business will take good care of them. Having the proper tools and a robust returns plan will alleviate future problems. Make sure customers know what to expect.
  • Automate where possible: Automation helps streamline the returns process and can reduce the burden on staff. Simple tools can include using barcode scanning or RFID technology to track returns, automated emails or SMS texts to keep customers informed, and analytics tools to identify return trends and patterns. 
  • Look for opportunities: Businesses constantly evolve to improve the customer experience. In December 2023, DoorDash and Uber announced a new service: a return Package Pickup service that lets a driver pick up one to five packages from the customer’s doorstep and drop them off at a FedEx, UPS, or USPS location for them. Ensure your customer knows every convenience imaginable to guarantee you’re providing the best customer service possible. 

While returns remain a significant challenge for online shoppers and stores alike, they can also be an opportunity with the right approach that addresses returns all year round. By being prepared, analyzing the data, communicating with customers, looking for opportunities, and automating where possible, online retailers and stores can handle returns efficiently. More importantly, focus on the relationship you’re building with your warehouse fulfillment center or 3PL. They’re your secret weapon in handling returns easily while building customer trust and loyalty. 

In just a few short months, the ramp up to the 2024 holiday season will begin. Now is the time to review your returns protocols, take a deep dive into the 2023 season’s data, and build a more efficient system for the season ahead.

By Tom Behnke

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