Returning on-line purchases not always easy

By Lauren Zumbach - Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — Buying something online takes a single click. Returning it? That’s not so seamless.

A growing number of online retailers, from e-commerce giant Amazon to small apparel and footwear brands, are teaming up with bricks-and-mortar chains to try to make returns less of a hassle _ or at least no worse than a return to a traditional store.

“If people can’t see it or touch it (when they first buy it), they want the option to return it,” said Scott Rankin, principal at KPMG Strategy in the retail sector, of online purchases. “Sometimes, they want to do it in a physical store because it’s just easier.”

With the holidays fast approaching, in-store returns programs are about to undergo a major test. U.S. consumers are expected to spend nearly $144 billion online this holiday season, up 14.1% from last year, according to Adobe Analytics.

But after a flood of packages lands at shoppers’ doorsteps, millions of unwanted items get sent right back. Delivery company UPS said it expects to handle a record-breaking number of returns this holiday season, with more than 1 million return packages expected to be shipped each day in December, peaking at an estimated 1.9 million packages on Jan. 2.

Customers can return many items bought on Amazon at any Kohl’s store after the retailers expanded a test of the returns service, initially offered at 100 Kohl’s stores, earlier this year. Delivery companies UPS and FedEx are partnering with chains like CVS and Walgreens to give shoppers more places to pick up and drop off packages. Even some smaller online brands now offer in-store returns through Happy Returns, a California-based company that lets shoppers return items from more than 300 online brands at more than 700 locations nationwide, mostly in malls and national chains like Paper Source and CostPlus World Market.

Companies like women’s apparel brand Revolve and footwear brand Rothy’s tout easy returns on their websites. In-person returns with Happy Returns, Revolve’s website says, require “No receipt, return label or shipping box necessary! You just provide your email address or order number and your refund will be initiated immediately.”

For stores accepting other brands’ returns, it can be a way to get new customers in the door. Online retailers, meanwhile, know hassle-free returns can make customers more confident about clicking “buy.”

Companies like Amazon already have been giving customers options when it comes to sending back unwanted items, ranging from a traditional visit to the post office to dropping off a boxed-up return at one of its delivery and pickup lockers. But the most seamless options, which let shoppers skip steps like printing labels or packing up boxes, weren’t as widely available prior to partnerships with national retail chains.

In-person returns generally mean quicker refunds, which seems to be the biggest attraction for shoppers, said Happy Returns co-founder and CEO David Sobie. But they also like being able to skip the “arts and crafts project” of prepping items for shipment, he said. Happy Returns gives customers refunds on the spot _ no box required.

“For a number of years it was all about delivery and getting things fast and free, and now that focus has shifted to returns,” he said.

Consumers can still be reluctant to buy items sight unseen, especially goods like apparel and footwear, where fit is key. More than half of consumers have opted not to purchase an item because the return policy wasn’t flexible enough, according to a survey by Optoro, a company that works with retailers to process returns.

Dealing with returns isn’t cheap for online brands, so they don’t want to encourage customers to purchase items they’re unlikely to keep. But most companies understand some customers just won’t buy unless they know sending an item back will be simple, Rankin said.

Stores choosing to accept other brands’ returns see it as a way to get more customers in the door. Kohl’s CEO Michelle Gass said during a call with investors on Tuesday that the Amazon partnership seemed to be attracting new, younger shoppers. At Paper Source, most of the people returning online purchases through Happy Returns are first-time customers, said Jenica Myszkowski, the company’s chief operating officer.

Even consumers who already shopped at a retailer might make an extra visit for a return, like Kimberly Hewlett, 29, who made a three-mile trip to a Chicago Kohl’s to return an air filter she bought on Amazon.

“It’s just easier, and you get a coupon,” she said.

By Lauren Zumbach

Chicago Tribune

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