Tackling the serial returner – time to ban them?

I think like most online and brick and mortar stores, we’ve noticed an increasing challenge with serial returners. We sell high-end fashion and designer clothing and while our returns rate remains low, particularly compared to industry standards, it’s an issue which has become gradually more problematic for us over time – and one I predict will continue to snowball in future.

In my view, there are a few contributing factors behind the rise of the serial returner. Firstly, it is to be expected that customers need to see goods in real life and try them for size where applicable; but generous return policies, the introduction of try before you buy (TBYB) as well as split payment options have helped to shape serial return habits.

Social media has also had a direct impact on returns, particularly for the luxury sector. Some consumers, mostly a millennial audience, intentionally buy luxury items, for example, high-end clothes, simply to capture them for their Instagram feed, before returning the products.

While the above example is an issue that may need addressing, I have less of an issue with shoppers buying multiples of items and returning some, as long as they do keep one or two items, and are genuinely ‘trying before they buy’, as this is a replication of the in-store experience. Those that have an issue with serial returners are misunderstanding a basic truth of retail, which is to provide as much convenience to your customer as possible.

That’s not to suggest retailers should accept serial return habits completely. Brands must consider returns strategies which work best for them, and that help offset problematic shoppers. At Garment Quarter we offer free returns as long as the item is returned within seven days. This approach works for us, as it means customers don’t sit on a product, and it allows us to receive returns back into rotation much sooner.

Amazon’s decision to ban serial returners seems an odd commercial decision to make when they could realistically absorb the cost. In my opinion, the move is not customer-focused and appears contradictory to the recent rollout of a TBYB offer to its Prime membership.

Amazon is a service retailer that has built its reputation on speed, price, convenience, and delivery – with this decision I question whether they are losing track of what made them the behemoth they are today – a total customer-focused approach. It remains to be seen whether this will cause a negative backlash, and how that impacts sales.

At Garment Quarter we wouldn’t follow this approach – at least not today, though I do understand Amazon’s decision. We’ve had a few isolated cases of chronic returners, and if this group were to become more prominent and start damaging our bottom line significantly, we would need to readdress, perhaps introducing subscription-based models, where customers pay a yearly one-off fee to cover the cost of returns.

The last word on Amazon and it’s ‘serial returner ban’ – if this proves to be a successful strategy, other short-term focussed retailers may follow suit. It may help businesses protect the bottom line initially, but could have a damaging effect on customer loyalty. Serious consideration is needed to understand if the payoff is really worth it.

By John Reid of Garment Quarter, a luxury fashion brand

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