What online tools best prevent returns?

Sources: Asos via Twitter/@afrixcan_delight; Twitter/@Chewy
Nov 12, 2021

Customer reviews are the number one method considered to be most effective by consumers in reducing online returns, but some emerging product display elements have potential, according to Narvar’s fifth annual report, “The State of Returns: Finding What Fits.”

Asked what tools helped prevent them from making a return when purchasing online, the survey of just over 1,000 adults found:

  • Reviews from other customers, 83 percent;
  • Sizing charts or measurements, 77 percent;
  • Product photos and description on the retailer’s site, 73 percent;
  • View on models of different shapes and sizes, 66 percent;
  • Suggested sizes based on other brands I wear, 64 percent;
  • Augmented reality (AR) to visualize on me or in my home, 58 percent.

None of the tools are proving to be the silver bullet.

Fit, size or color issues remain the biggest driver of returns, accounting for 42 percent in 2021. Relatedly, 13 percent of returns were traced to inaccurate product details.

Shoppers overwhelmingly rely on more traditional resources that tend to reduce returns: 88 percent use photos, descriptions, reviews and sizing guides. Yet the effectiveness of these methods seem mixed because accuracy often falls short.

Of the 42 percent of shoppers whose last return was due to fit issues, 88 percent did so despite using at least one of the return-prevention tools listed above to support their purchase.

Among the newer methods, 27 percent of respondents often use tools enabling viewing items on a variety of models. Asos, Aerie and Lululemon are among the few retailers showcasing the same items on models online across different heights, sizes and shapes.

Only 11 percent in the survey “often” use tools that suggest size based on other brands. Last fall, Keen said an AI-driven online tool that uses surveys and past purchases and returns to predict shoe sizes reduced fit- and size-related call volume by 50 percent.

Only seven percent of survey respondents “often” use augmented reality (AR) technologies. Although AR has been used to trial make-up on faces and furniture in homes, it’s still rarely used for online’s two biggest return categories: apparel and footwear. One recent application, Chewy’s “Fur-tual Boutique,” gave pet owners a chance to virtually try-on their pet’s Halloween costume.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What near and long-term solutions do you see to reducing returns in fit categories such as apparel and footwear? Do you see newer methods cited in the article complementing or replacing the traditional ones?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"Online returns are one reason stores will be with us forever."
"In the end, repeat purchase may be the best return prevention tool because consumers already know it works for them."
"I’m ready to see standardized sizing across brands. As of right now, a medium at one retailer could be an extra small at another."

Join the Discussion!

12 Comments on "What online tools best prevent returns?"

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Ken Morris

Online returns are one reason stores will be with us forever. The nuance of fit is a puzzle that is very hard to solve. COVID-19 buying habits where one buys a size range only to return two of the three items ordered doesn’t help. Customers like to see, touch, feel, smell and try on a garment. Other segments of retail can reduce returns but fashion is a challenge that won’t be solved any time soon.

Melissa Minkow
I’m ready to see standardized sizing across brands. As of right now, a medium at one retailer could be an extra small at another. Until sizing is standardized, comparing sizes across brands to inform sizing decisions will be unhelpful. AR will also eventually play a larger role in return reductions, but it has to be implemented in a convenient and easy to understand way for shoppers. Retailers need to introduce AR versus launching it without explanation. Lowe’s just announced the incorporation of AR in its app to aid in home improvement projects that require dimensions, and they’ve made it intuitive for users to leverage. “Spatial commerce” certainly applies to the challenges with apparel trial as well. The overlooked problem with apparel when it comes to sizing is that just because something technically fits, doesn’t mean it’s flattering or falls the way the shopper wants. The more accurate the shopper’s tools are in portraying the way the item will sit on them, the more helpful they actually are. There’s a lot that’s subjective when it comes… Read more »
Liza Amlani
Sizing along with misrepresentation (think Zara models styled online vs. what we see in the store) is the biggest problem in fashion today. Sizing offering and representation is a deeper question to answer that is deeply rooted in inclusivity – are retailers and brands truly representing their customer? Sadly, standardized sizing across brands is something we will not see in our lifetime. It would involve standardizing fit blocks and fit models when creating product. We need retailers to close the feedback loop on returns due to size challenges and actually revisit their fit blocks to determine if the initial fit block needs to be adjusted. As for inclusivity and representation – marketing, models, store sales staff are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to diversity. Fitting product into these buckets is one thing. Reimagining product to be more inclusive is the game changer. Working with factories and product development to include extended sizing in size offerings is imperative. There is a lot of work to do in sizing but we do need… Read more »
Katie Thomas

I completely agree. Even the models on websites are still — models, and the clothes are clearly positioned in a way to look good. Now how they will actually look on consumers’ bodies? Beyond sizing, actual fit is just as important.

Bob Amster

Most important is for the consumer to know his/her key measurements, not his/her size. With this in mind, retailers can display these key measurements by product “size” (because these run small, those run wide, etc.). Once a relationship is established with specific brands, one can select “by size,” but not ignoring that “the fault, dear [Consumer], is not in our stars, but in ourselves” that it doesn’t fit. More than one company sells bespoke apparel online and sends a measuring kit to each customer to make sure that customers get it right. After that, the manufacturer must stick to the quality of the apparel.

David Spear

I’ve found great success when retailers provide extremely transparent information about products such as: 1.) Size of model in the picture, 2.) Reviews that include sizing information like “I’m 6 feet tall, 180 pounds and this shirt runs big — order a medium, not a large,” 3.) Product materials, such as stretchiness of jeans, 4.) Livestreaming discussions about how a product fits on an above/below average sized individual.

Combining multiple points of intel is the best way for retailers to mitigate a percentage of returns, which brings into focus the value of data and how retailers are harmonizing multiple threads of information that provide the most holistic, granular view of a products such that a consumer can make the most educated buying decision.

Carol Spieckerman

Here is another area where supply chain snafus play a role. Suppliers of apparel and footwear are doing a global sourcing dance right now to avert availability disasters. As sourcing and manufacturing become more fragmented, the dream of sizing continuity fades into the distance – at least for the near term.

DeAnn Campbell

It depends on the product of course, but the best online tool for reducing returns is BOPIS. More than 25 percent of all returns are due to the wrong product being delivered, or from shipping damage. The second best tool is accurate product descriptions and photos that include showing the object in context so shoppers can understand its true scale. How many times have you ordered an item and been unhappy with how much larger/smaller it really was? Listing measurements is not nearly as effective as showing an item held in a hand, or adjacent to a familiar object for size. A lot of software companies offer some great algorithm or AR based tools for fit and personalization, but the truth is at least half of all returns would go away with the two simple solutions I’ve just outlined.

Jeff Sward

The best way to prevent or reduce returns is for the customer to be smart about how they shop in the first place. I come back to knowns and unknowns, and Explore + Experiment = Experience.

If I am shopping a brand where I have purchased several items over time, I probably have a very high confidence level of sizing and fit. Knowns.

If I am shopping a new brand I have no idea what the fit is like. Unknowns.

Even if a spec summary is included I only have a slightly higher level of confidence. And I have been a garmento for many years. So now I move on to Explore + Experiment, and for me that equals a trip to the store. I really don’t want shop and buy apparel by numbers. It’s a sensory thing. And buying sensory product by the numbers is always going to be a hit-or-miss proposition.

Gene Detroyer

My wife says all of the above, in the order the results come up.

But, she goes further than that. The sizing doesn’t take into account the shape of the woman. For example, she says all size 8 women are not shaped the same and, as a result, while the garment might be a true size 8, it can look very different on different size 8 bodies.

Communicating that to an online shopper strikes me as difficult.

Paula Rosenblum

DTC has always had a huge apparel return rate. Absent a fitting room, that’s just the way it’s gonna go. Think about the number of items you bring into a fitting room vs. the number you buy. There you have it.

Rachelle King

The insight to online shopping is that consumers have a different mindset about shopping online vs in-store; they simply approach it differently.

Often, online consumers buy with the intent to return. They will often buy different sizes/colors/styles just to try on at home; regardless of return prevention tools available. Many consumers just need to see/touch/feel for themselves.

In the end, repeat purchase may be the best return prevention tool because consumers already know it works for them.

"Online returns are one reason stores will be with us forever."
"In the end, repeat purchase may be the best return prevention tool because consumers already know it works for them."
"I’m ready to see standardized sizing across brands. As of right now, a medium at one retailer could be an extra small at another."

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