Offering a positive returns experience for retail consumers

By Peter Ballard, co-founder of Foolproof, a Zensar company and VP Head of Marketing (EMEA) at Zensar Technologies

Returns are a well-known pain point for retailers. Today returns are being exasperated by online purchases where vetting product quality is notoriously difficult. This means people are buying multiple items of similar descriptions to check the quality before returning those which aren’t up to scratch. Although this may seem like an inconvenience to retailers and perhaps even something they want to discourage, it’s important to address this in the design of customer experiences with so many of us buying from the comfort of our own home.

The data paints the returns picture

Last month, we conducted a piece of consumer research* which found that almost half of the UK (48%) were looking to return an unwanted Christmas gift. The prediction, based on the average cost of the gift being £20.48, is that retailers will be facing another blow of over £500,000,000 in returns.

Even with shops likely to reopen in April, in the UK, this potentially troubling trend of heightened returns could continue, as consumers, with newfound confidence in the convenience of online shopping for themselves and others, double down on online spending.

How returns create brand value

Returns include costs – from people and logistics, to the risk of not being able to shift a returned item. This means returns have an image problem, they’re always seen as a cost and not an opportunity to create value. To move towards seeing returns as a valued service, retail brands must create knock-out experiences which delight rather than disappoint customers.

In short, the returns experience must be treated equally as any other element of a customer-centred conversion journey. Great returns are a form of customer care and a source of brand value.

Sometimes in experience design we talk about the ‘peak end point’, think about that if you offer a low ‘end point’ i.e. a poor returns experience it will colour your customers’ perception of your brand overall.

An example of a positive returns experience

Before diving into our recommendations about improving returns experiences to make them a vehicle for positive brand experience, I thought it would be helpful to analyse a market-leading example. This comes from ASOS.

ASOS provides an empowering, informative, trustworthy and efficient end-to-end return’s service. Importantly, customers can return their parcels quickly and easily to their choice of return point, without needing a printer at home.

When an item is delivered, the customer receives an email confirmation. At the bottom of the email is information containing the return cut-off date for that purchase, three-step instructions of how to process a return on their app and a link to the My Orders section where customers can start a return’s process.

ASOS ensures email correspondences are regular and transparent, building trust and making the customer feel empowered to make their own decision about returns, as well as being updated on the stage their return is at.

ASOS has also done away with providing physical return forms, and items can be sent back in the original packaging. All customers have to do is select the item(s) they wish to return via the My Orders section of the app/desktop and select a reason why. This seamless process reduces waste, time and the chance of human error due to illegible handwriting.

After this section is complete, the customer can choose how they want to send the item(s) back. Most methods allow the customer to visit a Post Office or other drop-off point with an email ASOS has sent containing a QR code. This is then scanned at a drop off point and the customer receives a returns label.

For those unable to leave the house, there is an option for customers to choose a home collection, but this method requires a printer – something ASOS could work to remove in light of the pandemic.

Shortly after the QR code is scanned at the drop off point, the customer receives an email thanking them for dropping off their return. The customer also receives emails when the parcel arrives back at the depot, if there are any problems with the return and when the refund is issued. Refunds are processed quickly via their original payment method.

The returns process at ASOS stands out for its clear signposting, transparency to the customer and overall efficiency. Throughout, customer choices are made clear and decisions are supported in a positive way.

How to start on improving the returns experience

There are many ways retailers can improve their returns experience for their customers. Here are five simple tips which can help you get started today.

1. Create more engaging and descriptive content

One way to think differently about returns is by investing in more engaging product descriptions and supporting content including dynamic customer reviews, and video merchandising upfront to reassure people that items are up to scratch. This would reduce the number of returns and potentially promote higher conversions before the returns journey is ever entered.

2. Run a service blueprint mapping exercise

A returns experience includes countless touchpoints, both customer-facing and business-facing. However, many brands’ offerings are unlikely to have been designed under lockdown conditions, or under the strain of the heightened volume we’re seeing. By mapping touchpoints using a service blueprint, you can build a picture of all the points of your returns journey. Crucially, you can also begin to understand what’s different from what was expected to happen in the process based on new conditions.

A few considerations based on the current situation are as follows:

  • People are taking longer to return their items as they’re generally leaving their homes less for non-essential trips.
  • In the warehouse restrictions around the proximity of people to each other are reducing productivity leading to a longer lead-time to process a return.
  • People want items to be picked up directly from their homes.
  • Printing a form is not as readily or easily available as it once was because people might not have printers, paper or ink at home and can’t just go out to get some. 

3. Investing in enhancing process and technology

Technological infrastructure has seen big investment over the last twelve months – this minimised down time after initial teething issues due to increased traffic and orders and helped the at-home consumer, purchase online. This comes in the form of more cloud-based technologies, enhancing outdated core systems or revisiting digital experiences to help serve people quickly. 

However, I believe that any technology investment made to meet demand is a prerequisite for investment in the infrastructure underpinning returns. Without it, your returns process could crumble. I suggest creating returns excellence centres, where returns from across your company are routed to. This creates operational efficiencies and treats returns with the care and diligence they need to get right whilst taking the pressure off your fulfilment centres.

4. Making the returns journey clear

Clear information and step by step guidance is needed to prevent customers from becoming exasperated. Clearly conveying information in simple and concise terms when explaining how returns work and how long it will take to get their money back or a replacement item to them is crucial. Today, the best place to do this is online whilst cascading help and advice around returns throughout the end-to-end purchase journey and into after care. 

It’s also worth ensuring that how you describe your returns process reflects what actually happens. For example, if you ask someone to fill out a return form online, place their item in the post and state that the money will be credited to their account within three working days, you need to guarantee that happens. If it doesn’t, you need to revisit your communications or look to enhance your processes to ensure it does. Setting expectations and meeting them is crucial to designing better returns.

5. Make returns as easy as possible, and widely available

A great returns experience does as much as it can to help the returner. Whether that’s reducing effort, simplifying processes or putting more effort back onto the brand rather than the individual. This means complex processes aren’t the need of the hour, whether that’s lots of steps, requiring particular equipment or making people leave their homes multiple times. 

Easy returns considerations include:

  • Using the same packaging the item is sent in as the packaging for the return.
  • Offering multiple ways for people to drop off an item for return i.e., a network of shops, or collective drop off points.
  • Fast, free, no hassle, returns pickup from people’s doors.

This offers lots of ways to return with ease which cater to a range of different customer needs.

Summing up

The bottom line is that returns aren’t being considered with the same rigour as fulfilment by many retailers. Even retailers with strong returns experiences are likely to suffer without deeper consideration or investment. Retailers must remember that returns experiences create brand value in the same way as any other element of a purchase journey. Especially today when it’s easier than ever for people to shop elsewhere online.

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