Staples to accept returns from other stores

Oct 12, 2020

Staples in January will begin accepting returns from a few other retailers at more than 1,000 U.S. stores to become the latest chain to turn their stores into drop-off points.

The service is a result of a partnership with Optoro, which manages returns for Best Buy, Target, Bed Bath & Beyond, IKEA, American Eagle, B.J.’s and Under Armour as well as Staples and hundreds of smaller online sites. Staples will be the first retailer to accept returns through a new program, Express Returns.

Under the program, consumers looking to return a product purchased from a retailer using the Optoro platform may find an option to make the return at a nearby Staples. A QR code is sent to their mobile phone to be scanned by a Staples associate. The code enables the shopper to skip the line for a quick refund while supporting a contactless experience for store associates. There is no need for the customer to print a label or package the return.

Return drop-off services have slowly rolled out in recent years.

Happy Returns, which handles returns for a number of online stores, has Happy Return Bars set up in more than 500 U.S locations, including Paper Source, Cost Plus World Market, buybuyBaby and Bed Bath & Beyond.

Narvar, which helps manage returns for Urban Outfitters, Levi’s and others, last year introduced drop-off points at more than 8,000 Walgreens U.S. locations and select Nordstrom stores.

However, Kohl’s, which began accepting Amazon returns at all its stores in June 2019 after a pilot that began in 2017, appears to be the only retailer aggressively promoting the service as a convenience to consumers on its website.

Holiday returns are expected to reach another record as accelerated e-commerce growth is forecast to continue due to the pandemic and return rates are found to be three to five times higher for online purchases than store-bought ones. Beyond convenience for shoppers, returns specialists tout their services as cost-effective and eco-friendly solutions for retailers.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Does accepting in-store returns from purchases for other retailers make sense for Staples? Why has Kohl’s seemingly been the only retailer to fully embrace the opportunity for third-party in-store returns?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"Anything that is customer-centric should be looked at as a positive. Offering this as a service does not hurt Staples’ value proposition to its customers."
"This is a very clever idea for Staples as it will drive traffic to their stores. It is then up to them to make sure they turn that traffic into business."
"I posit this is more of a win for Optoro, as it dramatically expands their footprint of returns-processing locations."

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30 Comments on "Staples to accept returns from other stores"

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David Naumann
David Naumann
Marketing Strategy Lead - Retail, Travel & Distribution, Verizon
1 year 10 months ago

Accepting returns for other retailers is a way to drive traffic to your stores. It may bring retailers new customers that don’t typically shop at their brand. It is surprising that more retailers haven’t followed Kohl’s lead. The challenge will be to balance how much time it takes associates to handle returns from another chain when they could have been doing value added activities for Staples. There is definitely a cost associated with providing this service and the hope is that it will pay off in incremental store revenues.

Neil Saunders

Being a “returns location” inevitably helps to drive footfall to stores. However, while providing this service can generate some income in and of itself, the real challenge is in converting the additional customer traffic to buy products. Kohl’s has this problem: accepting Amazon returns has brought more people into shops, but it has not consistently resulted in elevated sales. All that said, I don’t think this is harmful and, in a sense, it is in keeping with Staples’ proposition as a store that offers a range of services to businesses and individuals.

David Leibowitz

The partnership with Kohl’s was a win-win. Amazon was less reliant on UPS for returns processing, and Kohl’s offered something that UPS/USPS cannot — a channel to sell Amazon products. For Kohl’s, it generates much needed foot traffic. And every customer who hands over a return receives a coupon day pass. I can see this making sense for Staples in much the same way. Accepting returns from other retailers is the new “accepting coupons for competitors.” If it generates in-store traffic, then it’s a win.

Stephen Rector

Anything that is customer-centric should be looked at as a positive. Offering this as a service does not hurt Staples’ value proposition to its customers.

Ryan Grogman

Staples has been looking to expand beyond just an office supply and printing solutions organization for the past several years, and the partnership with Optoro appears to be the next step in their roadmap. Their Staples Connect format suffered the unfortunate timing of launching just as the COVID-19 outbreak hit the U.S., but it showed their commitment to be an overall solutions-oriented destination for businesses and individuals. Staples needs foot traffic for their physical store approach to make both sense and money, and with the large number of retailers which Optoro supports, this partnership should indeed drive consumers to their locations where they’ll hopefully make some home and home office purchases while processing their returns. Even though Kohl’s has been one of the larger retailer which has embraced this concept, I would not be surprised to see others join the fray, such as convenience locations that have already dipped their toes in pickup lockers or struggling mall tenants that may use this as a last gasp for foot traffic.

Dave Bruno

Traffic, traffic, traffic. ‘Nough said…

Gary Sankary

This is interesting. Most retailers negotiate some fashion of return allowances from their vendors to eliminate the cost of handling the reverse logistics for these items. But turning your store into the “return” desk for other retailers? I’m not sure this is such a great idea. There’s an assumption here that Staples will convert some transactions into sales.
I just don’t know that someone returning jeans from Target or a pair of headphones from Best Buy, would decide they needed office products. I’m not sure that it’s good for the brand either to be the one-stop shop for returns.

Bob Amster

The important things Staples must do are as follows: Drive traffic through a store whose products can easily be purchased online, and make sure that the service of processing returns is a break-even proposition at worst. If processing other companies’ returns is going to cost Staples out of pocket, most likely it will not work.

Jeff Sward

I completely understand this at the initial “great idea!” level. I’m having a very difficult time understanding the mechanics and the math. It sounds like a lot of extra handling is involved. How does that get paid for? Even if the retailer accepting the return gets a little extra business out of the transaction, is the margin on that business capable of covering the incremental expense? If I can return my Bed, Bath & Beyond purchase at some other location, does that make me more or less loyal to Bed Bath & Beyond?

Mark Ryski

I agree Jeff. It all makes perfect sense, until you start to consider the real cost/benefit of acting as a returns depot for others. Not only is there a cost of processing the returns, but what about the lost opportunity cost of not serving actual Staples customers because staff are preoccupied with returns processing? No doubt this effort will increase store traffic, but more traffic has only nominal value unless it can be converted into a sale.

Georganne Bender

It makes sense because this program will bring more people to Staples who may not have visited otherwise. The Kohl’s deal works because there are no physical Amazon locations to return goods. There are, however, likely to be nearby Target stores, Bed Bath & Beyond, American Eagle, etc. Why choose Staples over the actual retailer?

The issue is whether those people returning items at Staples will stop to shop while they are there. Perhaps a bounce back coupon or other enticement to bring them back to shop will help.

Shep Hyken

Anytime you can get someone into your store, for whatever reason, that is an opportunity to make another sale. It’s that simple!

Jeff Weidauer

This should drive more traffic to Staples stores, but the long-term benefit will require solid execution (making returns easy) and giving consumers a reason to go beyond just dropping something off.

Cathy Hotka

One takeaway from the Store Operations Council meeting last week was reduced customer dwell time in stores. It is smart of Staples to give potential customers another reason to enter.

Andrew Blatherwick

This is a very clever idea for Staples as it will drive traffic to their stores. It is then up to them to make sure they turn that traffic into business. Because Staples does not have a Christmas season peak, it makes perfect sense. They can handle returns when other retailers are at peak and they are at their quieter time. Their stores at Christmas are not heavily stocked so they have room to be able to handle the returned good. They are driving traffic to their stores when they traditionally would find it hard to do so giving them a new opportunity for business.

Great thinking offering customers service and convenience and the retailers all gain as well.

Gene Detroyer

Do anything to get a potential shopper in the store.

Steve Montgomery

Done properly, accepting returns for other retailers can be a positive for Staples. That means the process is easy for the consumer at home and in the store. Staples does not have control of the at home experience but is responsible for what happens at their store.

In the store, done right means having a separate area that is easy to find. The location should be staffed full time by employees who have been trained to handle the return process. Generally third-party returns locations are in or towards the rear of the store making customers walk by other products on the way. This setup should result in additional sales for Staples.

Evan Snively
Evan Snively
Director of Planning & Loyalty, Moosylvania
1 year 10 months ago

I agree with many of the other BrainTrust members who point to the customer-centric nature of this as good. However there is a longer term concern I have with regards to removing too much friction when it comes to returns.

It is my opinion that some level of commitment is necessary for healthy consumption behavior. If there is little risk from clicking a button at your home and being able to return any item around the corner, there is an environmental toll from shipping/restocking (especially on goods that might not have been purchased, or more thorough research would have been done prior to purchase).

I don’t feel like this Staples initiative is hitting that point yet, but it is just something that needs to be included in the equation moving forward.

Peter Charness

While I agree that anything that drives traffic into a store is good, I’m still left wondering what the conversion rate is of the “returners” into buyers. Has anyone seen any statistics from, say, Kohl’s for their Amazon returns business?

Joel Rubinson

This is a natural step in the evolution of retail customer service. It is good for the retailer who gets unexpected footfall and good for the customer. Win all around.

Kenneth Leung

Being a returns location and leveraging store footprint that is already committed is fine, I think the key is who Optoro is processing returns for and whether those customers have upsell opportunities for Staples. Given that everyone is working from a home office these days, there may be a better chance that someone coming in for returns may pick up office supplies rather than a new t-shirt. Since there is already a Staples/Optoro business relationship, it isn’t a bad extension to try.

Cynthia Holcomb

Staples and Kohl’s share a commonality. They are both big stores with lower foot traffic relative to their competitors. This is a good idea on behalf of both retailers to bring new consumers into their stores, and at the same get back on the radar of the shopping public.

Brandon Rael

The rules of the reverse logistics game have changed, and retailers such as Staples and Kohl’s have taken the wise and timely strategy to take third party in-store returns. What may have been viewed as a losing sum game, is actually a prudent approach to attracting additional foot traffic to your stores.

A key to success is the location of a dedicated returns area, that will strategically require the consumer to navigate through the store, and there will be the potential for some impulse shopping opportunities. In our digital-first world, the consumer is clearly in charge of their shopping journey. Moves such as this will incentivize the consumer to visit your store, and then the magic has a chance to happen.

Ricardo Belmar
Relying on platforms like Optoro makes this much more palatable for the retailer and adds a value-centric service for their customers. The result? More for traffic to the retailers’ stores, but that leaves the question of conversion. Kohl’s wants us to believe they’re achieving that, but their sales numbers make that difficult to accept. In the end, if you want to convert a customer that enters your store with zero intent to purchase and only intended to return merchandise, then you need to have something in your store that they want/need or you won’t see that conversion. Those rules of retail haven’t changed! You can incentivize them at the returns counter with a discount or other incentive, but that only goes so far if the customer isn’t interested in the merchandise. Still, this is a win for Staples customers and a potential win (in terms of sales uplift) for Staples itself, at a relatively low cost. The primary cost to Staples is in the time spent by store associates serving these customers that could have… Read more »
Jeff Hall

I posit this is more of a win for Optoro, as it dramatically expands their footprint of returns-processing locations. The assumption of increased foot traffic translating into a meaningful sales lift for Staples will be more difficult to realize. The Staples retail environment isn’t particularly experiential and by and large, their merchandise offering can be purchased just about anywhere. Connecting the dots of an in-store return transaction then becoming a compulsive product purchase is a bit of a stretch.

1 year 10 months ago

While driving store traffic in this way has some benefits for both retailers and consumers who are seeking ease of returns, it ignores the primary challenge of returns, which is that they have become out of control for many retailers to manage and reduce.

Returns need to be viewed for what they are: A drain on retailers’ bottom lines as well as harmful to our planet. If we seek to build sustainable businesses and a sustainable environment, we need to optimize returns logistics by reducing returns overall.