The Black Friday Weekend Returns Review
A mix of different factors made this Black Friday one of the toughest to predict in recent memory. The eCommerce explosion that began in 2020, driver shortages, Brexit-inspired supply chain disruptions, and even another possible Covid wave all resulted in this year’s peak season being far from straightforward to plan for.
On Black Friday Eve, retailers and carrier services were no doubt like a kid before Christmas, excited for what the next few days had in store. But also wary of the potential chaos like a parent hosting the big family dinner.
Our returns portal elves dove into the data behind past Black Friday weekends, provided fresh insight from this year’s shopping holiday, and outlined top tips for adapting your returns policy for the remainder of peak season.
The eCommerce explosion
With shutters on the high street forced down multiple times over the last two years, consumers were compelled to shop online, originally through necessity but now by habit. With so much shopping already done online, and retailers offering year-round discounts to shift unsold stock from lockdown-closed stores, there was the potential it would negate the need for another eCommerce explosion on Black Friday weekend.
However, from the numbers available to us, the simpler conclusion to draw was indeed the right one. The new norm of higher eCommerce sales played a role in making Black Friday Weekend 2021 a blockbuster. There was a 129% increase in the volume of returned goods this year compared to Black Friday of 2019. Returns are a natural by-product of online sales; you cannot have one without the other. Judging size, fit, colour, and style is a lot harder to do via a computer screen compared to trying it on in a fitting room. So, with eCommerce levels continuing to soar post-lockdown, it is no surprise that customers were returning products by the truckload in the days since Black Friday.
Additionally, consumers both new to and experienced in online shopping are more willing than ever to process returns. As retailers battled for online supremacy, the returns experience was, and still is for many, an area that needed improving to retain customers and win new ones. 79% of consumers check the returns policy before purchasing with 59% boycotting the retailer permanently after a poor returns experience. So, with returns vital for success, online retailers have ensured the process has become a lot smoother, and by extension, consumers are now savvier and more energised to process their returns if the product they receive is not quite right. Any stigmas, guilt, or barriers for returning have been eroded. This willingness to return is highlighted well by one consumer returning 6p worth of socks this Black Friday.
We would suggest setting value limits for your returns, especially if you offer free returns to your customers. It can cost more to bring back some items than the value you would recoup from reselling them. Whilst letting the customer keep hold of these items is the most cost-effective approach, we suggest greener-thinking retailers to utilise our partnerships with companies capable of recycling the goods or charities.
The value of goods returned
There was a 74% increase in the value of returned goods vs the same Black Friday period in 2019, a testament to the sheer rise in returns since 2019. But as previously mentioned, with return volumes at 129%, the value of returns has not quite kept pace. As emphasised in a previous ZigZag blog post, loungewear was a big winner of lockdown. “Research by data insight company Kantar stated that loungewear grew by an astounding 146% year on year to £122m over the summer of 2020.” Expensive clothing tends to be the items you wear in public, to social gatherings such as events and parties. There is also likely to be fewer people shopping around for new suits and business attire with so much of today’s world working from home.
Whilst winter coats dominated the most expensive returned items – with the most expensive at £2,800 – there’s also a case for fewer coats being bought this season as people are generally staying home far more than they were two years ago. The London Underground has never been more bearable! Out-of-season stock from closed stores during 2020’s lockdown may also have been sold at greater discounts this Black Friday Weekend, leading to the difference between the increase in value and volume of goods.
The most popular returns
Jeans were the most frequently returned products after this year’s Black Friday Weekend. A little unexpected weight gain after a tricky couple of years exercising properly in lockdown perhaps played a role, but jeans are notoriously difficult to purchase online regardless. Jeans and other apparel associated with social occasions have only recently started to be purchased at pre-pandemic levels, so judging your size for tight-fitting jeans would naturally be more difficult than tracksuits or leggings – which are more forgiving…
A returns portal, such as the one offered by ZigZag Global, digitises reverse logistics and thus collects a substantial amount of data that offers incredibly useful insight. Retailers can use returns data to educate the customer in real time while they’re purchasing, reminding them that they have returned products of this size in the past. Retailers can also see problem products that are being returned a lot through the admin portal. Advice on reducing the volume of returns that applies year-round is to use clear product images on your website, thorough product descriptions, and sizing guides wherever possible.
The impact of a longer peak season.
Black Friday Weekend starts earlier than ever. Retailers kickstart Black Friday and Christmas promotions long before the fourth Friday in November, perhaps with the intention of smoothing out the Black Friday sales and returns peaks for the benefit of their supply chains. Even the 2021 John Lewis advert was nearly two weeks earlier than last year! Alas, we saw strong return numbers throughout November, culminating in a huge volume of returns the week starting with Cyber Monday.
The fact that 83% of those under the age of 45 aim to have the majority of their Christmas shopping done by 1st December shows there is a real desire to get the shopping done before the first door of the advent calendar is cracked open. The earlier start to peak did not weaken the Black Friday weekend sales and subsequent returns online. Instead, many were taking advantage of longer discount windows with most processing their returns within seven days of purchasing (as much as 95% of consumers according to ZigZag’s recent Retail Returns Study) and were not done shopping by Friday 26th November.
Starting peak earlier is not, on its own, going to flatten sales and return peaks and put less stress on your supply chain. We recommend also lengthening the returns policy window over Christmas to provide comfort and convenience to your customers. Additionally, instant refund options such as gift cards can help stagger return spikes at your warehouses and distribution centres.
No guesses for the UK city with the highest volume of Black Friday Weekend returns. London was of course a clear winner (or loser depending on how you look at it) with customers from the Capital processing returns faster than ever this year. With the population of London totalling closer to 9 million before you include the commuters, it was no surprise parcels of returns were collected or dropped off in their hundreds of thousands in the city. Birmingham and Manchester were also big returning cities in the UK.
However, when looking at returns per capita, Liverpool came out on top. A citizen of Liverpool or Nottingham is three times more likely to have made a Black Friday return than a Londoner. We do not want to suggest that Liverpudlians are pickier / more demanding of their online orders than Londoners, so instead we will say they are more proactive and organised to get their returns done quickly. On the other hand, Bradford was the easiest city to please in the UK this Black Friday. The city boasted the lowest returns per capita of any UK city above 200,000 in population.
An LE postcode was the busiest processing returns after Black Friday. The street in Leicester sent back over 100 items last week, as neighbours battled it out in a Deliver Drivers edition of ‘Guess Who?’. Students at the University of Warwick may not have featured on this year’s University Challenge quiz show but were leading the race for the UK’s top returners this Black Friday.
We recommend taking note of some of your return hotspots. You may have a carrier service delivering your products damaged or too late for the item to be used in the fashion they were purchased for (i.e. an event or as a gift). There is also a possibility that product descriptions may be poorly translated or less accurate when read with a different regional dialect. Time to investigate!
Consumers are on the ball this year
Monday is typically the day with the highest returns. Consumers all over the UK wake up to the harsh reality of a Monday morning commute or Zoom call and feel invigorated with productivity. Or the more likely scenario is that they recognise Monday is pain, so why not throw in the extra to-do list task of processing an online return. Traditionally, the Tuesday after Cyber Monday is often one of the few weeks of the year where more returns are sent back than the Monday. This was the case for 2019 and 2020. This year, however, people continued to shop on Cyber Monday on their phones whilst juggling their returns parcel on the way to the Post Office.
Discover more peak insights!
If you are interested in finding out more on consumer returns preferences and habits during peak season as well as some top retailer tips for navigating this busy time of year, take a look at our Preparing for Peak Returns eBook >>