We often talk about ways to get returns back faster, but not everyone may understand why that’s important. Here’s a quick primer on why speed of returns matters, as well as how you can accelerate yours through convenient return solutions.
The primary reason it’s important to get returns back quickly has to do with resale value. Every day that a returned item remains out of inventory — whether with the customer, in the mailstream, or awaiting processing in your warehouse — decreases the likelihood that you’ll be able to resell it at full price. If you sell seasonal items including fashion, trend items, consumables, or any other items with a shorter shelf life, getting returns back quickly is especially critical, though this is still true for evergreen items.
It can take nearly a month from the time a consumer decides to return the item to when it is back on the shelf (whether that’s physical or digital). Demand for that item, especially near the end of a season, may be reduced, which often means it’s on its way to being marked down — and the longer or later it goes, the higher the discount. Not only does this cut into your margins, but it also increases the likelihood that the items will ultimately end up being written off and disposed of, which is costly and wasteful. Speeding up returns helps minimize landfill waste and improves your company’s overall sustainability in addition to ensuring you get the highest value from the product.
Every day that a returned item remains out of inventory decreases the likelihood that you’ll be able to resell it at full price.
There are also opportunity costs of returned inventory being out of the system: did you miss a sale because that particular size or style wasn’t available? Did you have to reorder more inventory to backfill the gaps left by items that haven’t yet been returned to you? There’s also a risk that you’ll end up with excess inventory you’ll struggle to sell, paid for by dollars that could have been spent on other opportunities in your business.
In addition to the impact on the retailer’s inventory positions and margins, slower returns often lead to slower refunds, which impact customer satisfaction. It’s common for ecommerce retailers to peg their refund processing times to their receipt of the return — for example, within 5-7 business days of receiving the items. Although some retailers (like Lululemon) offer instant refunds when the return package is dropped in the mailstream, faster returns generally equal faster refunds for customers, and customers who get their money back more quickly tend to be happier.
Now that we understand why it’s important to speed up returns, here are a few strategies to consider to make it happen:
If the return process is more convenient for a customer, it’s more likely they’ll complete their return more quickly — but convenience means different things to different people, so providing an array of options is important. Encouraging consumers to return online purchases to your stores is a great option, but if your locations aren’t convenient for them (or you have a limited footprint or no stores at all), enabling drop-offs at neighborhood locations or having returns picked up from their homes are important. Offering printerless or boxless returns using a mobile QR code also reduces those points of friction.
Take a look at your current return window and compare it to the benchmarks found in Narvar’s 2021 Returns Benchmark Report. Overall, 39% of retailers offer a return window of 30 days, though the report also breaks it down by category and company size if you want to get more granular with your comparison. If your window is substantially longer than average—or if you haven’t actually established a limit—setting a shorter period can help you mitigate the financial impact of outstanding returns.
Get creative about encouraging customers to ship returns back more quickly. For example, can you offer free return shipping to customers who return their items within a shorter window, compared to your overall return policy? Saks Fifth Avenue, for example, offers free return shipping only if the item is mailed back within 14 days of the ship date. Beyond that they’ll still accept the return, but the customer will pay a $9.95 return shipping fee.
Can you speed up refund processing for returns sent within a certain amount of time? With in-store returns, for example, the item is able to be inspected and reinserted into inventory almost immediately while the consumer gets the satisfaction of an immediate refund. Explore ways to replicate this experience for ecommerce orders by offering an instant refund as soon as the return is scanned by the carrier rather than waiting for it to be received at the warehouse, but only for loyal VIP customers.
Of course, as you’re taking steps to improve return processing speed, it’s also worth making sure you’ve done everything possible to reduce returns and optimize your operations in the first place. Check out Narvar’s webinar on creating a winning approach to returns, as well as our other resources on the topic.
Andria is Global Director of Marketing & Communications at Narvar. She grew up in entertainment at iconic brands like EMI & MTV before pivoting to ecommerce, most recently at Walmart.com.