A fashion retailer in Northern Ireland with a large online business has said he’s now spending up to four hours a day processing returns.
And another boutique said it had developed its system so that customers who had ordered an item in different sizes could be contacted before dispatch to check if they needed more information on sizing.
Retailers are finding more and more of their time is swallowed up by having to process returns. ReBound, a returns specialist for big retailers, has estimated that one in three fashion items bought online are sent back.
When shopping online, people are inclined to buy significantly more items to try on at home than when in a physical shop.
And while some retailers offer free returns, the cost pressure for bigger companies like Next has meant that that there are more often charges for sending an item back.
Jonathan McCann, co-owner of Jonzara womenswear, said the process had to be carefully managed so that a business did not end up with thousands of pounds’ worth of stock in limbo while shoppers made up their minds.
The company now has a website along with two physical shops in Lisburn and Newtownards.
Mr McCann, who set up Jonzara with his sister Sarah, said: “Unfortunately, returns are part of the beast.
"When it comes to long-distance selling, you can’t touch and feel like you can in a shop, so fashion is a higher return area.
"It’s something you need to manage really carefully as a business, as otherwise, it’s a lot of stock tied up in transit or in other people’s homes.
“You need to give as much product information as you can to reduce the returns to begin with. But unfortunately, people do buy in multiple sizes or don’t keep it all.”
He added: “It’s a large part of our day spent processing returns, and you need to make sure that the stuff is in good condition and it's ready for resale and repacking as obviously it needs to be ready for the next customer.
"The percentage return rate in fashion is quite high and we would spend three to four hours in a day, processing refunds. That’s weighed against how many hours staff spend sending things out.”
He said its return rate was around 25% but for retail giants like Amazon or Zalando, about 50% of its fashion items could be expected to boomerang.
Mr McCann said the company had a 28 day return policy. “Some firms have a lot longer but the problem with that is a lot then goes into wastage because it’s so late going back, or it’s old by the time it’s returned.
"We work really hard to get the stock out on the same day or day after, so that a customer has a bit of time to decide, then we can get it back quickly and back into our stock to resell.”
The company uses an ecommerce trading platform from IRP Commerce. Its chief commercial officer, Philip Macartney, said: “Refunds are part and parcel of the online selling process. Our merchants are well aware that keeping customers satisfied helps towards retaining their trust long-term.
“At IRP, we focus on the customer lifetime value as a key metric for success. We advise merchants to minimise potential refund headaches by really understanding the data around each customer.
"Our trading data identifies products with high return rates, we can utilise this data to ensure these products have high-quality images, descriptions and size guides, so that the customer can get the correct product first time around.”
Laura-Anne Hann, the e-commerce manager at Walk In Wardrobe, a boutique based in Banbridge with a large online business, said returns were a big part of its day-to-day activity.
“It’s been quite positive, we’ve made lots of strides with our systems to speed things up.
"The online side has grown massively, especially since the pandemic – it’s where our growth has been.
“Nine out of 10 of our orders are now made online. But pre-Covid, our returns rate was about 35% for online orders, and now it’s 25%. That’s still significant but it’s below the average for fashion online.
"We’ve done things like invest in a photographer to improve the quality of our photographs. Last year, we also launched a fit quiz generator, which gives you a personalised sizing recommendation, and we’ve found customers are 54% more likely to buy after they’ve used that.”
She said the business had also worked on building up a relationship with customers. “If we see that a customer has ordered two very different sizes, we can phone them up to give them advice on the sizing of the item, rather than sending two out.
"We don’t begrudge customers having to return things but we do everything possible to give them the best experience and reduce returns all round, and make sure it’s not a headache for everyone.”