Why shoppers are being sent packing over returns culture
After a shopping spree it's usually easy to send back unwanted items. Vicky Shaw finds out how retailers are getting stricter on buyers who stretch the rules
As shoppers, we appreciate the convenience of sending something back if it isn't quite right. But with some people stretching the rules, retailers have been clamping down on their returns policies lately and becoming more strict about customer behaviour that isn't acceptable.
Some have been sending warning emails to customers about their behaviour. There are a lot of items being sent back - retailers estimate that 10% of items sold online and 9% of all items sold in-store are returned by customers.
A fifth (20%) of retailers say they've taken steps to make their returns policy more stringent in the past year, with a similar proportion, 19%, planning to do so in the next 12 months - according to a survey by Barclaycard.
Here's a look at why retailers' policies are changing and what it means for customers...
Why have some retailers toughened up their returns policies?
Three in 10 retailers (28%) in Barclaycard's survey say they are dissatisfied with the quantity of items returned by customers. And among businesses that have tightened up their policies, four in 10 (41%) say it's because too many customers are over-ordering items, knowing they will return the majority. Three in 10 (31%) claim shoppers are using items and returning them.
Many customers admit to deliberately ordering items they know they will send back. Three in 10 (29%) shoppers order items they intend to return - rising to nearly half (48%) of millennials aged 25-34.
And how is this affecting customers?
Consumers are feeling the impact of retailers becoming more strict. One in seven (14%) say they've had their knuckles rapped for their returns behaviour - such as being sent warning emails by retailers. Those returning too many items, sending back purchases that have been used, returning goods without the right packaging, or missing the returns deadline have fallen foul of the rules.
How do returns policies influence where we shop?
The returns culture means many people have come to think of being able to send items back, for free, as a standard part of their shopping experience - otherwise they'll go elsewhere. Stores will need to be mindful of these expectations, as over a third (36%) of consumers say they would be less likely to shop at a retailer if they made their returns policy stricter.
Nearly half (49%) of consumers say a retailer's returns policy influences where they shop, and nearly a fifth (18%) will only choose retailers that offer free returns. Six in 10 (61%) retailers in the Barclaycard survey say they do currently offer free returns.
What else is influencing our returns habits?
Although consumers want the convenience of easy returns, just under half (46%) of people are concerned about the environmental impact of over-ordering and returning goods, with one in 10 (11%) having actively reduced the amount they order and return because of this.
So where do you stand if you're not happy with a purchase?
As well as complaining to the retailer directly, other organisations may help, such as Citizens Advice, Which?, or free-to-use complaints website Resolver.
Martyn James, consumer rights expert at Resolver, says the huge growth in online shopping means it's seen complaints jump.
"With retailers locked in to a never-ending cost-cutting battle with competitors and the industry losing millions through delivery costs, it's inevitable that retailers are introducing new restrictions on customers who they feel are misusing their services," he says.
"However, they can't change their obligations under law. The rules state if you order goods online you have 14 days to return them. The retailer then has 14 days maximum to refund you."
You may also be able to get your money back if the goods later turn out to be faulty. Bear in mind as well that there may be exceptions and shopping rights online are different to those in store.
And what if you are upset that your favourite retailer has had enough of your behaviour over returns?
James says that while retailers can legitimately clamp down on those they feel are abusing the system, he also expects stores to adapt to our new way of purchasing. After all, retailers still want to attract customers.
"Expect to see department stores on the high street evolving in to 'experience sites', where you can go and try on goods in-store you've ordered online, get a meal or a glass of wine and mooch about some pop-up stalls," he adds.