Many happy returns? Not for much longer as retailers clamp down

Retailers estimate that 10 per cent of items sold online and 9 per cent of all items sold in-store are returned by customers. Photograph: PA
Retailers estimate that 10 per cent of items sold online and 9 per cent of all items sold in-store are returned by customers. Photograph: PA
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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 per cent of items sold online and 9 per cent of all items sold in-store are returned by customers.

A fifth of retailers say they’ve taken steps to make their returns policy more stringent in the past year, with a similar proportion, 19 per cent, 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 ten retailers 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 ten say it’s because too many customers are over-ordering items, knowing they will return the majority. Three in ten claim shoppers are using items and returning them. Many customers – 29 per cent in the survey – admit to deliberately ordering items they know they will send back. This rises to 48 per cent of millennials aged 25-34.

How is this affecting customers?

Consumers are feeling the impact of retailers becoming more strict. One in seven 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 per cent) of consumers say they would be less likely to shop at a retailer if they made their returns policy stricter.

Nearly half (49 per cent) of consumers say a retailer’s returns policy influences where they shop, and nearly a fifth will only choose retailers that offer free returns. Six in ten retailers in the Barclaycard survey say they currently offer free returns.

What else is influencing our returns habits? Although consumers want the convenience of easy returns, just 46 per cent of people are concerned about the environmental impact of over-ordering and returning goods, with one in ten 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 complaints website Resolver.

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