Which 2020 returns options will stick?

Photo: Amazon
Dec 29, 2020

Never before have consumers had so many options for returning unwanted holiday gifts. Some may help retailers handle what’s expected to be a record haul of returns this year.

Among the expanded options being offered:

Extended holiday return windows: A number of retailers extended the period of time allowed to make returns as the pandemic hit, and have again this holiday season in anticipation of shipping delays and ongoing restrictions on in-store occupancy. Apple’s holiday return policy, for instance, allows purchases made online between Nov. 10 and Dec. 25 to be returned through Jan. 8, a major extension of their usual 14-day return policy.

Curbside returns: Dick’s Sporting Goods, Nordstrom and Best Buy have added returns to their contactless curbside pickup offering.

Alternative retail drop-off points: Amazon expanded “box-free, label-free” return drop-offs to over 500 Whole Foods Market in addition to 1,100 Kohl’s locations and its varied Amazon store concepts. In January, Staples will begin accepting returns at its U.S. stores in a partnership with Optoro, a reverse logistics provider that manages returns for Best Buy, Target, Bed Bath & Beyond, IKEA and others. Among other reverse-returns specialists, Narvar has opened return counters inside select Nordstrom locations and Happy Return Bars are set up inside Paper Source and Bed, Bath & Beyond.

Mall drop-offs: Mall of America in mid-December partnered with Narvar to support drop-off returns for brands including Gap, Old Navy, Athleta and Banana Republic at multiple guest services locations distributed across the property. In November, mall operator Simon partnered with Narvar to support drop-off spots for approximately two dozen brands at participating locations.

Carrier drop-off: Many retailers have deals to drop off packages inside UPS, FedEx and USPS locations. Some stores also serve as drop-off points for the major carriers — Walgreens and Dollar General for FedEx and CVS and Michael’s for UPS.

Lockers: Amazon has installed Hub Locker locations in more than 900 cities and towns across the country inside c-stores, grocery stores, apartment buildings and malls.

Home pick-up: Walmart announced last week that it will pick up items shipped and sold by Walmart.com from customers’ homes free of charge through a new partnership with FedEx.

Of the following, which return option will see the strongest emphasis in the years ahead?

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"Definitely either curbside returns or home pickup. "
"Great topic. Which one wins? The one that is most convenient for the customer."
"I suspect the returns options that stick will be the ones that do the least damage to the retailer’s bottom line."

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12 Comments on "Which 2020 returns options will stick?"

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Neil Saunders

When it comes to returns, the genie is now out of the bottle and many consumers will increasingly expect these options to be offered at all times. I think the extended option is probably the easiest to unwind, but allowing flexible ways to return products will become the norm. The challenge for retailers is that some of these things come with a relatively high cost, and that’s something that the big retailers with deep pockets will absorb in an effort to boost their market share and customer loyalty.

Paula Rosenblum

Definitely either curbside returns or home pickup. One is a drive by and the other is “stay at home and wait for the guy to show up.” Both are easy.

Jeff Sward

I understand providing customers with return alternatives while we grind through the next phase of the pandemic and vaccine implementation. But are we really looking to drive long term return rates up? What needs to happen with both product and process to decrease returns rather than just make them easier? Who is working on “stickiness”? How do we make a sale stick? And stick because the customer is delighted, not because the return is too big a hassle?

Cathy Hotka

I suspect the returns options that stick will be the ones that do the least damage to the retailer’s bottom line.

Gene Detroyer

The real question is “Which return options will customers let the retailer drop?”

My answer, NONE! The more a retailer gives convenience the more the customer will expect it. And in the long run, this is good. The more comfortable a customer is that they can easily return something, the less hesitant they will be to buy. The more they buy, the more they will keep.

Don’t fret about the cost to the retailer. The best operations will continue to build in efficient systems to handle returns, which may even include “you get a refund, but keep the item.”

Ananda Chakravarty

From the customer perspective it will be home pickup. Finding and figuring out where to return products is a hassle and customers are not interested in doing any of the legwork on behalf of the retailer – they just want their money back and to be done with it. Mall and carrier drop offs might also see some interest, and might be affordable for retailers – but ultimately, whatever mechanism makes it simple for the customer will catch on.

Chuck Ehredt

This whole topic upsets me to no end. After the early 2000s recession, retailers started making it much easier for customers to return just about everything. They put most of the cost on the suppliers/manufacturers, so there was insufficient friction for consumers. This has led to mountains of perfectly good merchandise getting destroyed. What people don´t see is the supply chain cost involved in producing and distributing an enormous amount of goods that people with lower ethics return on a whim.

I believe in such a pandemic, retailers need to provide the flexibility for their front-line staff to use their judgement in accepting returns but, overall, I really think some responsible retailers need to put more restrictions in place. Reducing the air conditioning in stores and reducing returns would have more impact on the environment than tweaking things around the edges.

Ryan Grogman

Contactless returns make a lot of sense given the current state of the pandemic and with many shoppers still avoiding entering retail locations when possible. Retailers that have already invested in people, processes and technology to support curbside pickup should be able to leverage those solutions for curbside returns as well, and I think curbside retail in general will continue as a trend post-pandemic. Retailers with only the deepest of pockets will be able to support free home pickup for returns processing but, if Target or others join Walmart, it may become a way to fend off lost sales.

Shep Hyken

Great topic. Which one wins? The one that is most convenient for the customer. Home pickup may look like a clear winner for convenience, but what does the customer have to do to get it picked up? Is the process easy? Does the customer have to pack up the product properly? For long-term impact, curbside returns are easy. Just call a number, someone comes out and takes the return. I love that idea, unless I’m pulling into a crowded mall and getting dirty looks from angry shoppers in the parking lot as I block a lane. I’m not being negative here, just wanting to think the process through.

Brandon Rael

The returns process has quickly become a timely and critical discussion. While the retailers may be focused on the most efficient and profitable returns option, the consumer will ultimately navigate to the most convenient one with the least friction.

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the various returns strategies with contactless curbside, lockers, Amazon’s package-free option, and alternative retail locations emerging as flexible alternatives. Retailers should prioritize the most seamless and friction-free returns experience for consumers, especially as one bad experience could lead to losing the customer for life.

For all this to work effectively, it will come down to excellence in execution. A fully dedicated store operations team is necessary, considering the volume of returns flowing through the system. Returns should not be considered a negative aspect of the shopping experience but an opportunity for retailers to improve the customer journey.

Kai Clarke

It is very clear with the growth of curbside pickup this year, especially in the touchless pandemic era, that consumers will require curbside return service as their preferred return option.

Oliver Guy
Oliver Guy
Global Industry Architect, Microsoft Retail
1 year 4 months ago

Given that certain types of retail (e.g. convenience) has the objective of selling something that customers did not go in for, alternative retail locations make a logical choice. Provided the right chains sign up they are close to population centres and it provides a clear way to drive traffic.

"Definitely either curbside returns or home pickup. "
"Great topic. Which one wins? The one that is most convenient for the customer."
"I suspect the returns options that stick will be the ones that do the least damage to the retailer’s bottom line."

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DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Which return options that have been amplified or introduced this year will likely become more important in the years ahead? Which ones cited in the article do you think offer the least appeal?