This year has been the Super Bowl of returns, says Sender Shamiss, CEO of goTRG, a company that helps process returns for retailers. Normally, the flow of products back to businesses ebbs and flows throughout the year. However, he says, “This year, it just never stopped.”
With shipping companies already struggling to deliver a crush of gift orders for the holidays, a flood of returns could pose a reverse logistical nightmare. Once carriers return items to warehouses, products must be inspected, sanitized and then restocked for sale, if appropriate. To relieve some of the pressure off return facilities, stores are making changes to their return policies this year.
“A lot of retailers are extending their returns windows in order to spread out the foot traffic related to returns,” says Jim Hull, senior director of industry strategy, retail, at Blue Yonder, a digital supply chain platform. In many cases, that gives consumers until the end of January to decide whether to return an item. The extended time not only helps with social distancing in stores but may also slow the flow of packages heading back to warehouses through the mail.
In addition to adopting longer return windows, retailers are getting more creative about how to accept returns, such as using curbside or at-home pickups. “Customers have a lot more options,” says Pramod Iyer, assistant director of marketing at Middle Tennessee State University.
To make the returns process smooth and minimize contact with others, consider using one or more of the following strategies:
- Return through the mail to avoid contact.
- Select the right time to return in store.
- Use curbside returns when available.
Return Through the Mail to Avoid Contact
For those who want to minimize their risk of COVID-19, shipping returns back to retailers is the safest method.
“Almost all national retailers will accept returns online for purchases bought in store,” says Sarah Engel, chief marketing officer for January Digital, a digital consultancy. To facilitate these returns, Engel recommends everyone include a gift receipt with presents. It’s also helpful to keep the original packaging.
Since every store handles its returns differently, check with the retailer’s website for details on their process. Some will provide a postage paid label, while others may require the consumer to absorb shipping costs. Depending on the item, you may need prior authorization for a return and be assessed a restocking fee. When in doubt, call or chat with a customer service representative for assistance.
Select the Right Time to Return in Store
Given the logistics of returning items through the mail, returning in person may be easier for both you and the retailer. “If you can, get to a store to return (gifts),” Shamiss says.
In-person returns may be more likely to be accepted without a receipt, and stores may provide multiple reimbursement options such as cash, store credit or a product exchange. With an in-person return, the process can be done in a single day, and there is no risk of packages being delayed or misdirected in the mail.
Heading to the store for returns does come with the risk of standing in a crowded line, but Iyer says stores have not seen the same traffic this year as in the past. To minimize the chance of finding yourself in a busy store, wait until January to make your returns. “Ideally, if the customer wants to be safe, go on the second or third week of January or on a weekday,” Iyer suggests.
Use Curbside Returns When Available
Since the spring, retailers have worked to develop ways to create nearly contactless experiences for shoppers. “Many major brands have figured out curbside pickup,” Engel says. Now, some are expanding to offer curbside returns as well.
Nordstrom and Dick’s Sporting Goods are two examples of stores offering this option. Consumers typically initiate the return online at home and then drive to the store with the item. An associate retrieves it from the vehicle and then processes the return inside. Only certain items and purchases, such as those made with a debit or credit card, may be eligible for this type of return.
“Not many retailers offer this today, but from a customer service standpoint, it feels like the next evolution,” Hull says. However, only time will tell if more stores will embrace this option even after the COVID-19 pandemic ends.