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The challenge of online product returns

Why it is vital to make sure that internet-based sales are not being damaged by a poor returns process.

by Stuart Morgan

The reason why so many companies in the footwear supply chain have chosen to sell online becomes obvious when the modern lifestyle in many parts of the world is taken into consideration, with its excessive demands on the average person’s time. The world changed greatly after the arrival of the internet. As well as the incredible amount of knowledge on every subject under the sun available at the click of a mouse button, virtually anything can be bought online and shipped around the world.

However, as there are several factors that lead to a successful footwear sale – such as fit, comfort, styling, perceived quality and perceived value for money – shoes are one of the hardest things to market online.

Many companies – both traditional bricks-and-mortar organisations with high street stores and those that service their customer base purely as an online venture – have benefited from the growth in internet shopping in recent years. However, it is an unavoidable fact that the volume of returns by web shoppers is massive. One footwear supplier, for instance, sees around one in three pairs of shoes that it sells online returned – far more than for products sold in the company’s outlets. The cause of this problem is straightforward – shoppers cannot hold the shoe before buying it.

“You just don’t get to try any of the shoes on, so how do you know they’re going to fit or not?” is a common complaint. “It’s not as if you can try them on ‘virtually’. Even if you’re always a size eight, not all size eight shoes are comfortable, and it’s hard to know unless you can try them on.”

Clearly then, when a customer is making an online purchase, it is impossible to assess a product for comfort or to be able to feel or smell the material. Even accurately judging the colour (perhaps in order to match a new dress) is virtually unachievable when considering the limits of the average home computer screen.

Multiple purchases

It is a fact that many internet shoppers engage in ‘bracketing’ – the action of buying several pairs of shoes with the full intention of returning items that do not meet their expectations. How does this impact retailers?

The effects of bracketing include more than simply the inconvenience of having to receive returned items. Every pair of shoes sent back will require inspection, restocking and possibly refurbishment, all of which are likely to incur expense.

Olha Romaniuk |

Many internet shoppers buy several pairs of shoes with the full intention of returning items that do not meet their expectations

Retailers may decide to increase what they charge to offset the costs caused by the practice of bracketing. Of course, these decisions could potentially drive some purchasers into a competitor’s arms. It is therefore vital that retailers are able to manage bracketed purchases while balancing customer satisfaction with the sustainability of their operations. As a knock-on effect, retailers may feel that they have no choice but to tighten up their return policies.

Retail strategies

To cut back on the quantity of returns they have been experiencing, some footwear retailers have been providing as much information as possible about a shoe and the materials it contains. To allow prospective customers to see just what they are buying, a number of internet vendors are making use of 360-degree views, which a shopper can spin around to see the shoe from every angle. While more detailed information and clearer views of the product may help to cut out some returns, these provisions still do not avoid the already-mentioned problems of a consumer not being able to  try on a shoe for good fit or even accurately judge its colour.

Inevitably, then, there will be returns from online shoe sales. How, then, can such a process be made easy?

A variety of policies

Surfing the internet shows the different ways online retailers deal with footwear returns. Some offer completely free returns if the shoes are returned in an ‘unworn’ condition within a certain time (the period varies greatly – between 10 and 365 days), although international customers normally have to pay for the returns in any case. Other companies charge shoppers for return postage as a matter of course – whether via a national postal service or a courier company. If retailers have stores, some allow goods purchased online to be returned in store for a full refund, others accept the returns in-store but make a charge, and yet others will not accept back anything bought via the internet into their high-street outlets.

Ease of return

While at the outset, the delivery charge can be a deciding factor when it comes to choosing which website from which to buy, another major aspect is how easy it is to return unwanted items.

Problems can arise with the returns policy for online purchases, so it is vital that this information is made as clear as possible. Easy-to-follow steps for customers to work with are needed, especially if there is no store to take unwanted items to. Consumers who find returning unwanted shoes to be a painless process are more likely to buy from that retailer again, as well as tell their friends about their pleasant shopping experience with the company.


Easy-to-follow steps for product returns are needed, especially if unwanted items cannot be taken into a physical store

With this in mind, and so much competition existing between footwear retailers today, making product returns as easy as possible might be viewed in the bigger picture as an opportunity to turn a negative proposition into a future sales opportunity. Some companies have decided that keeping costs down by tough returns policies might reduce costs, but they could be unwittingly affecting their share of the market. If the economics of providing easy returns works for a footwear retailer, the policy could feasibly become part of the company’s marketing budget.

Formulating an easy and efficient returns policy which at the same time is cost-effective for the company selling footwear to the end user is a challenge that needs to be overcome. There are many options on the table, so it is worthwhile regularly reviewing the returns policy being used to ensure it is the best one for your company in the current business climate.

Publishing Data

This article was originally published on page 22 of the November 2023 issue of SATRA Bulletin.

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