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Warehouse worker processing and restocking returns

Why We're Seeing a 30% Increase in Adoption of Digital Return Methods

Consumers are demanding convenience and choice from the retailers they frequent. Gone are the days where they’ll call up a support center to initiate a return or dig through the recycling bin for the right-size box for an ill-fitting purchase. 

Enter: digital return methods. Thanks to digital-friendly return offerings, the return process is now easier for customers, from requesting a return to getting that order back into the mailstream en route to the retailer. 

The proof is in the pudding: we saw a 30% YOY increase in adoption of digital return methods, specifically printerless and boxless returns, according to Narvar data

What is a digital return?

Digital returns bring much of the returns process online—from requesting and processing the return via a returns portal to directing customers to drop off their items at a designated return point, without the hassle of repacking the item and/or printing a return label (with boxless and paperless returns). Digital returns have spiked in popularity due to their convenience: they save consumers time, are cost-effective, and alleviate common consumer complaints, like lack of printer access or available packaging.

In addition to customer convenience, here’s why more consumers are opting for digital return methods.

Digital returns benefit retailers and customers

The three main arguments in favor of digital returns are cost, sustainability, and customer satisfaction.

First, digital returns are cost effective. Retailers save as much as 10-15 cents per package just on printing costs by eliminating return shipping labels and instructions from packages. These cost savings incentivize retailers to surface digital return methods prominently in their list of return methods offered.  

They’re also more environmentally-friendly. 

Digital return methods decrease the amount of paper and packaging included in the outbound order, which reduces the waste produced. Additionally, by leaving the package at a local drop-off location, the shipping carriers are able to better optimize their routes and haul multiple packages back to the retailer’s warehouse or distribution center at the same time. 

Finally, digital returns give customers a simplified process for returning unwanted items, and improve customer satisfaction. 

Traditional returns by mail require a customer to call support to request a return merchandise authorization (RMA) code, print a return label and packing slip, rebox the item, and connect with a courier. While that may sound straightforward, many consumers want the convenience of initiating a return online, avoiding a long phone call. Plus, they may not have easy access to a printer, and they may have discarded the original box or run out of packaging tape. 

Even if a customer has shipping supplies at home, boxing returns can be a hassle. Customers returning multiple items from different transactions by mail have to match the correct packing slip with the correct merchandise in the correct box.  

Digital returns make it easy to drop off items while running errands, and require nothing more than a smartphone. (According to the Pew Research Center, 85% of Americans now have smartphones, while Deloitte estimates that only 62% own printers.)

Digital returns on the rise

Like we mentioned above, Narvar reported a 30% increase in the adoption of digital returns during the 2021 holiday season. 

Not only have digital returns become more popular, they’re also increasing the overall speed of returns, according to David Morin, Sr. Director of Retail and Client Strategy at Narvar. The average time between initiating a return online and physically returning the item consistently hovered around the five-day mark in both 2019 and 2020. That time decreased by 20% to four days over the 2021 holiday season.

“We suspect consumers are responding to the convenience and choice of return methods that have become readily available,” Morin said.

The longer customers keep an item they plan to return, the greater the odds the retailer will have to resell that item at a discount, or take a loss entirely. The bottom line is faster returns mean better margins for retailers.

As customers embrace new ways to make returns, it’s incumbent upon retailers to provide a variety of options to meet that demand. Whether that means adding VIP return perks like free scheduled return pick-up or joining a digital return network, easy returns have become the expectation, not the exception.

The data above is featured in our report, “A Look Back at the 2021 Holiday Season.” Download now for more insights into the trends we’ll see remain prevalent this year. 

Michelle McNamara

As a senior content manager at Narvar, Michelle has a finger on the pulse of the ecommerce industry. She's spent close to a decade helping online retailers make sense of their post-purchase processes.

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