‘Free returns’ are actually costing us quite a lot
Here’s what you should think about before filling out the returns form
We are in the midst of the giving season, and thanks to lockdown regulations and laziness, many people are turning to online shopping to get their gifts. The choice, convenience and speed that shopping online offers has made it a tough competitor to brick and mortar shops.
Many of the larger companies are offering free returns, which is likely incentivising people to buy items that they don’t need with the security that they can return them at a later date if things don’t work out. One survey found that 51% of shoppers consciously overbuy with the plan to return the unwanted items; people order the same item in different sizes or colors so that they can choose what they want in the comfort of their home. This practice is so popular that it has earned a name — bracketing.
Returning online purchases has become so common that the United Parcel Service has unceremoniously named January 2nd “National Returns Day” in the US. Return rates are higher for online purchases versus those made in shops, a number that will most likely continue to grow as more people shop online.
What’s the problem?
A lot of people think that whatever they return goes right back on the shelf, but in reality the average item goes through a lot of steps before being listed for resale. A returned product has its own journey that includes increasing its carbon footprint, and may ultimately lead to the landfill. ‘Free returns’ hide the true cost of processing time and money that is put on a company when an item is returned to them, and it can cost double for a product to return into the supply chair than it did its first time round.
In the US, 5 billion pounds of landfill waste and 15 million tonnes of carbon emissions are created from returned products annually, according to Optoro, a logistics company that focuses on return. In 2016, it was estimated that returns cost UK retailers £60bn per year and a third of that is generated by online shopping.
The large cost and time that is spent on a return item is down to the inefficient returns system. Depending on the size of the retailer and their own internal policies, returned items can spend quite a lot of time (months even) awaiting their fate on the shelf of a warehouse. Some of those items will be donated, destroyed or selected to be restocked, at which point they will need to be dry-cleaned or steamed and repackaged before returning in-store or online. Restocked items have often spent so much time away that they become out of season and are sold at a discount, leaving the retailer to make less money from the product. Some items are sold to wholesalers or liquidators, and middle men who try to resell them, which involves transporting the items and a higher carbon footprint.
Sometimes items are destroyed without attempting to resell them. Luxury and designer brands often destroy unwanted items, with the claim that it is in protection of their intellectual property and brand values. Burberry has admitted that it burns unwanted stock, and works with specialist incinerators to harness the energy from the process. Even if the methods used are energy-efficient, items that are still in good condition to be used are destroyed to avoid them emerging on the market at knockdown prices to be worn by the ‘wrong people’.
What can we do about it?
Some companies are trying to reduce the waste and impact of their return processes. Improving the returns system starts before an item is even purchased, by offering clearer descriptions of products, and more accurate sizing guides. Fit analysis technology like TrueFit provides online customers with size suggestions based on what they indicate their height and weight is.
Some retailers even allow shoppers to speaker with fitting assistants via an online call before making a purchase. Virtual reality technology is also being used by some furniture companies to allow customers to better envisage a product in their home. Efforts to minimize packaging and using energy-efficient warehouses and transport options are also key in helping to reduce the negative environmental impact of products.
Although there is much that could be improved by retailers, customers have their own part to play. Sometimes returning an item is inevitable, but there are precautions and measures we can all take which will cost our planet a little less.
- Consider whether you need to buy it
If we’re honest, some items are bought just because, and impulse buying can result in a lot of unnecessary returns. If you’re unsure of sizing, reading reviews can often be more helpful than using the traditional sizing chart, however newer interactive sizing guides can also be reliable.
If the thought “well I can always just return it” crosses your mind, then maybe you don’t actually want or need the item. If you do need it, you can always consider buying second hand or upcycled items.
2. Think of the last mile
Where you have the option, choose to pick up your parcel from a shop, delivery service or locker using ‘click & collect’ and help to cut out the last-mile of emissions. Some retailers use electric trucks, bikes, and even drones for the last leg of their delivery, which are more environmentally-friendly options if click & collect is not accessible for you.
3. Return your items packageless
There are retailers that allow box-free, label-less returns and exchanges in-store; all you have to do is present the receipt with the item. This is a great option for reducing plastic, fuel and cardboard use — particularly if you’re already in the area or using public transport to get there.
4. Resell your return items yourself
If you bought something that isn’t working for you, perhaps it will work for someone else. Instead of returning the item, you could try selling it so that your product has a better chance of finding a new home faster. Cutting out all the handling and packaging that the returns process includes will also cut the carbon emissions added on to that product’s life.
5. Hold the brands you love (and don’t love) accountable
Customers hold a lot of power and telling a retailer about something they could be doing better can bring about some much needed change. If you find your item has excessive packaging, or you think items could be bundled together instead of coming in separate parcels, let them know!
Supporting brands that are already doing good work (ie using ethical and sustainable practices that benefit both people and the planet) is a way to put your money where your mouth is. If brands you like aren’t quite where they should be, it doesn’t hurt to tell them that, and hopefully they will listen.