The Hidden Cost of Returnshttps://consultasg.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/12/amazon-returns.jpg1440428ASGASG//consultasg.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/asg_195_WIP-web.png
We have all done it. Find the perfect item, order a size up or down, maybe a different color, and keep the one we want…right? Well, we’re paying for it.
From clothing to cameras, mattresses to mowers, the retail industry is inundated with returns—over $100 billion of them each year. It’s a conundrum. Consumers buy with the guarantee of free returns, and they return about 20% of all purchases.
But those free returns aren’t free.
They cost retailers enough to often cut into profitability. So, while retailers offer free returns to remain competitive, the hidden costs are adding up. Those “hidden” costs then are added back to the cost of the product raising prices.
“Shoppers are making buying decisions based on retailers’ return policies, according to a new consumer research study. Free returns are important to shoppers when making an online purchase, and a majority of consumers check a retailer’s return policy before deciding to buy.” – Forbes
How can retailers manage these hidden costs without losing loyal customers? And what are the hidden costs that retailers need to better manage?
When it comes to the cost of returns, it’s more than just the cost of the refund for the returned merchandise that retailers are absorbing. Other hidden costs must be factored in that impact both the retailer and the consumer.
It’s more than just the cost of shipping that costs the retailer; it’s the labor involved in managing the entire carrier network. Most retailers offer a variety of shipping options for returns, including specified drop-off points that don’t require the customer to even package the return.
Flex Logistics points out that, “the transport costs not only include the transport from the collection point to the warehouse, but also the trips to and from the repair center (if necessary) and the movements to recycle, reuse or dispose of the shipment’s original packaging.”
Retailers must determine the value of the return to determine if it’s worth the cost of shipping it back. Some items (seasonal, low-margin items, and items that can’t be resold) cost more to return than to have the customer keep or dispose of them. For items that can be returned, a third-party logistics partner can help manage and control costs.
“For low-retail-price-point, low-margin merchandise, and many food/perishable product companies, many companies find it is cheaper or feasible to tell the customer to keep the product than to take the product back as a return. Also, consider the customer’s time, frustration, and the shipping cost as well as your center’s return processing expenses.” F. Curtis Barry & Company
The labor spent on customer service teams responding to complaints and issuing return authorizations adds to the profit loss. These costs are exacerbated when customers are forced to follow up multiple times for a refund due to lost merchandise, poor inventory management, or slow response times. Customer service costs are increased when the service team has to manually review return policies on a customer-by-customer basis, chase down returns by coordinating with the shippers and manage refunds.
Retailers can start to reduce costs by automating the returns process. If the retailer’s policy is to allow returns, then the more of that process that can be automated, the better. Retailers use everything from AI and automated return systems that allow the customer to use a QR code to drop off an item at a specified location without having to contact customer service, which reduces the cost of after-purchase customer service.
It’s a tricky balance because how the return is handled can often determine whether the customer returns.
Warehousing & Refurbishing
The cost of storage is high but having to receive returned merchandise can add significantly to that cost. Leasing space, employing people to manage deliveries, ascertaining the product’s condition, and potentially refurbishing the product for resale all add costs that eat directly into profitability.
Technology is a critical factor in reducing return costs. It provides visibility throughout the entire return process, from managing refunds to collating information about what products are returned and why, so that retailers can make decisions about merchandise. Some technology can even help retailers manage returned inventory to fill backorders and new orders. Third-party partners can help manage the overall returns program to reduce costs further.
Retailers Aren’t the Only Ones Bearing the Hidden Costs of Returns
The $100 billion in retail returns annually isn’t just costing retailers. There’s a sustainability factor at play, too, when calculating the impact of more trucks on the road and more merchandise heading to landfills. While brick and mortar receive fewer returns and can restock more of the items that come back, it is still costly. But online orders result in an approximately 25% return rate, and that’s taking a heavy toll—not just on profitability, but also on the environment.
“All of that unwanted stuff piles up. Some of it will be diverted into a global shadow industry of bulk resellers, some of it will be stripped for valuable parts, and some of it will go directly into an incinerator or a landfill …. We can dispense now with a common myth of modern shopping: The stuff you return probably isn’t restocked and sent back out to another hopeful owner.” – Atlantic
An estimated 6 billion pounds of landfill waste and 16 million metric tons of carbon emissions are generated by returns each year, according to Tobin Moore, CEO of returns solution provider Optoro, in an interview with CNBC.
CEO of returns solution provider Optoro, in an interview with CNBC.
As more brick-and-mortar retailers offer online shopping and free returns and shipping to compete with their ecommerce competitors, their return costs are quickly rising. “While traditional retailers have been retooling and upgrading to capture more online sales, back in the shipping department an unintended consequence has been piling up—mountains of returns. And worse.” – Forbes
Maximizing Efficiency in Returns Management
If the customer’s needs aren’t met, the biggest loss to retailers is the return customer. Customers who must jump through hoops to complete returns or who wait a long time for a refund get frustrated. The next time the customer chooses to shop, they will likely choose a competitor.
The first step in making retail return management more efficient and cost-effective is to employ data analytics to understand what is being returned, how often, and for what reasons.
A return policy should be designed with the customer experience at the forefront. Retailers don’t accept returns for any other reason than to improve customer service, increase customer retention, and amplify customer loyalty. To make the return management program as effective and cost-efficient (and sustainable) as possible, retailers will need to invest heavily in technology that can automate and track returns, minimize the labor impact, and maximize the repurposing and valuation of the merchandise being returned.
There are no perfect solutions; customers want to have the option to return what they buy, whether they’re in the store or on the website. If the retailer doesn’t offer that option, they may simply lose the sale. So, the key must be to ensure that return management is as much a priority as every other component of your retail strategy.