Should retailers offer long or short return policies?

When a parcel arrives at a door, a returns window opens.
May 8
Should retailers offer long or short return policies?

Over the last decade, retailers have experimented with the length of the returns window. They tend to get longer over peak season and shorten as the January wave of returns begins. Much to the delight of consumers, there has been a slight trend of retailers beginning to permanently lengthen the returns window. This was largely started during the pandemic and was compounded by the string of consecutive logistical issues such as Brexit, strikes, the Suez Canal block of 2021, and the ongoing Red Sea Crisis.

Through 2020 to now, ZigZag has recommended that retailers extend their returns policy to offset logistical uncertainty, reduce customer frustration, and keep up with the overall boom in eCommerce with longer returns windows. Advice echoed by many industry experts. Increasing the returns policy window provides retailers and carriers alike with some breathing room.

Increasing the returns window was most certainly the best option for retailers during the pandemic due to possible delays as well as drop-off and collection limitations. However, is it this still the case? ZigZag unpacks the returns window discussion.

What returns period are retailers obligated to offer?

Whilst advertising a returns policy is not a requirement for an eCommerce business, shoppers do have rights. Regardless of what retailers offer on their website, the Consumer Rights Act 2015 and the Consumer Contracts Regulations protect shoppers and provide a minimum returns window.

All consumers can cancel an order for a full refund 14 days from the day they receive the goods (not the order date). However, the refund only applies to the value spent on the product, and not delivery costs. The consumer then has 14 days after the point of notifying the retail of their intent to return, to get the goods back. For faulty goods, the law is similar, and allows consumers 30 days to return for a full refund.

Although not obligated to highlight a consumer’s rights for making a return they are bound to honour it by law. That means to avoid causing distrust amongst savvy, informed customers (a consumer profile rapidly expanding with online comparison websites and cost-of-living caused financial worries) retailers should at minimum advertise their consumers rights correctly.

Returns are quickly becoming the most important aspect of customer experience. 84% of consumers will check the returns policy before purchasing, so not having one is eCommerce suicide.

The case for offering a short returns window

One of the most obvious reasons a retailer may want to keep a short returns window is to get goods back on the shelves faster. This rings especially true for the increasing amount of apparel brands that are starting to adopt the fast fashion business model which focusses on maintaining low production costs, high volumes, and short seasons.

Fast fashion items can be outdated in style within six weeks. This means for primarily fast fashion brands they need goods returned quickly so they have the best chance for resale at the highest price. Another selling point for shorter return windows is that it helps retailers better manage their stock. The sooner they know whether the product will be returned, sooner they can relay that information back down the supply chain, allowing them to make more informed decisions on production levels.

Less time for the fraudsters

Short return windows protect against intentional fraud. A 2019 survey from Checkpoint Systems revealed that around 20% of online customers will purchase a fashion item, wear it, and return it for a full refund. Furthermore, According to the National Retail Federation, scams like wardrobing are estimated to cost the US retail industry around $13 billion lost in sales every year. The ethically questionable process, coined as “wardrobing”, costs UK retailers £1.5bn. Whilst a data-analytics-driven platform such as ZigZag’s returns management solution is the best way of identifying serial returners and customers engaging in “wardrobing”, the next best solution is to reduce the returns window. Often a customer will wardrobe as a way of getting an outfit for a specific event or even a holiday, a shorter returns window makes planning for this more difficult.

Case for offering a mid-range 30-60 day returns window

Going above and beyond

According to the ZigZag Retail Returns Report, 53% of people won’t continue with their shop if they don’t like the returns policy. When coupled with the estimate that 92% people will shop again with that retailer if returns are easy (Invesprco) it shows the importance of making your returns policy attractive. Of course, giving shoppers more time to make a return is part of that process.

Time to benchmark

If you are unsure of the best approach when it comes to refining your returns policy, the best place to start is to examine what your key competitors are offering in your core markets. Perhaps consider other retailers that you admire, even if they are not in the same vertical, to see what you might emulate. A few years ago ASOS, for example, extended their policy to 45 days but now offer credit rather than cash on returns over 30 days. If your competition is offering a short returns window, the 30-60-day option would work as a differentiator and can be marketed against.

Why would you want to panic your customers?

It can be argued that a short returns window may panic shoppers into returning too soon. The minimum returns period is just 14 days (for a consumer to notify a retailer of their intent) which, for salaried employees, may not even span over a paycheck. It is estimated that 34% of Britons and 78% of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck. Longer returns periods make it easier for consumers to justify items they are on the fence about, and the longer the window the more chance of them sticking with it in this scenario.

Case for offering a longer 60+ returns window

Returns are a commercial weapon

Positioning your returns policy as one of the most generous amongst your competitors has some obvious benefits. A far longer than necessary returns window signals to consumers that the retailer values customer satisfaction. Wunderman’s “Wantedness” study found that “The majority [79%] of consumers said that brands have to actually demonstrate that they understand and care about me before they are going to consider purchasing.” With consumerism emerging from a cost-of-living crisis and social injustices coming to a head, the way brands treat their customers could become an increasingly important factor in winning and retaining customers. A longer returns window is definitely a good starting place for a company trying to put its customer first.

Can I speak to the manager please?

One of ZigZag’s top fashion brands, New Look, was able to reduce their customer service enquiries by 20% when they switched to our returns management solution. This was achieved as customers received their refunds faster and were able to track their returns on their journey back to the retailer, eliminating the popular “Where’s my refund” and “Where’s my return” enquiries. Increasing your returns policy window would result in fewer consumers returning close to the deadline or panicking whether it made it back in time. A longer returns policy ultimately should lead to a reduction in customer service complaints, and thus a reduction in costs.

Kindness not just at Christmas

An extended returns window is considered best practice around peak season or during sales. It reduces the strain on a retailer’s warehouses and the overall logistics network. With a short window, there will be massive spikes in returns volumes a week or two after sales which could cause bottlenecks and delays in warehouse sorting processes. These delays are often passed on to customers through withheld refunds or out of stock signs on your website. Not ideal for winning or retaining customers.

Most retailers increase their returns policy window for peak season as a marketing tool. Superdry’s returns policy gave consumers nearly four months to make a return, John Lewis a 90-day window, and The North Face 60 days. TK Maxx offer shoppers a gift receipt with purchases that extends the returns window over the Christmas period. Whilst it might be wise to leave some room in a returns window throughout the year so that the retailer can increase it for Christmas, and thus market it as a selling point, it could also be looked at favourably if the retailer offered it year-round.

So, what’s the perfect length for a returns policy?

The real question is this: does lengthening the returns window generate more sales than it loses in the cost of additional returns?

It is worth testing your returns policy to find the sweet spot. Although some fraud could be prevented with shorter windows, the minimal legal requirement is long enough for most to continue unencumbered by tight deadlines. Importantly, when retailers plot the returns per customer against net sales, they often find most valuable customers will still return frequently. So, changes that shorten returns windows may have a noticeable impact on your VIP customers. Discouraging 20% of fraudulent customers may not be worth losing 10% of your VIP customers. It is always beneficial to survey your shoppers in each market or talk to your best customers directly and see what improvements they think you should make.

On average, 95% of returns are made within 7 days anyway according to our own ZigZag research. It is widely accepted in the online retail industry that a more generous returns policy encourages shoppers to make a purchase. Crucially, it is also reported that this doesn’t necessarily lead to more returns.

At ZigZag, we suggest using a longer returns period. It encourages spending more than it does additional returning, eases the burden on customer services, increases customer satisfaction and loyalty, and keeps you competitive. A returns management system with an exchanges function, like ZigZag, will combat the drawbacks of getting goods back on the shelves faster and managing stock efficiently.