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7 ways to minimize returns in ecommerce

Returns are simply a fact of life in retailing generally and ecommerce in particular. In fact, a generous, customer-friendly return policy is a key element of a successful online sales operation.

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Why? Because customers are more likely to buy and keep buying when they know that they can return or exchange something if it doesn’t work out.

It’s ironic but true — you can sell more by being willing to take more of those sales back in returns. When customers feel there is less risk in trying something, they are more comfortable with their decision to buy.

Still, the financial and logistical aspects of returns can be a challenge. Even though we know that returns are a part of the game, fewer returns are still better than more returns.

That’s why we’ve put together this list of things you can do to minimize the number of returns you get through your ecommerce store. While there’s no single magic bullet, there are several things you can do that, when combined, can have a positive impact.

Remember that you can never completely eliminate returns and even a modest reduction of, say, ten percent can have a major impact on your bottom line. So focus on these small steps, take control over things you have influence over and keep your returns to an absolute minimum.

Make sure customers know what they’re getting part 1 - High-quality photos

There is just no excuse for using anything less than the best product pics these days. In a world where just about everyone has a powerful camera in the phone in their pockets, taking high resolution photos is easier than ever.

The rule here is simple - more pics and better pics from all angles is the way to go. Depending on the product in question, important details might get their own up-close examination. The point is to make it possible for customers to visually inspect everything in advance and avoid unwelcome surprises later.

Many returns are made with the same general explanation of “It just wasn’t what I had in mind”. When your pictures make it very clear what the product is and isn’t, including all relevant details, everyone involved can be more sure that it’s exactly what the customer had in mind and another return can be avoided.

If possible, take things a step further and use videos in addition to photos. Remember that many customers will be viewing everything on a mobile device so use lots of close-ups on details.

Make sure customers know what they’re getting part 2 - Product descriptions

While a picture may say a thousand words, you still need plenty of words in your product descriptions.

Product descriptions need to be as detailed as possible. It’s important that you anticipate customer questions about the product and answer them in your descriptions. Just as with product photos, the idea is to make sure that customers know what they’re getting before they order so everyone can avoid surprises later.

Keep an eye on customer reviews and online forums focused on the product and look for common questions and themes. Use this to inform your product descriptions to make them more complete.

Remember — the more a customer knows in advance about the product from descriptions and photos, the more sure he will be that this is what he wants or needs and thus another return is avoided.

Lengthen your return period

Yes, that’s right — give customers more time to return what they’ve purchased.

Let us explain. When a return period is fairly short, the customer thinks more about returning the item because the deadline for that return is not long after they’ve received it. They have to decide very quickly whether they’re going to keep it or not.

With a longer return period, not only is the sense of urgency removed, but the customer can concentrate on simply using the product normally. This means more time getting used to it and enjoying its benefits rather than thinking about returning it.

Have the right logistics / fulfillment partner

After you grow beyond a fairly low level of sales, you need to partner with a logistics specialist to take care of shipping, fulfilment and returns. This means that you don’t deal with customers directly after they place an order on your site.

That’s good, right? Well, yes — this is a standard part of the ecommerce industry. However, it also means that you’re trusting a third party with a crucial aspect of your customer service relationship. Any mistake they make becomes your mistake. Any time they disappoint a customer, you disappoint a customer.

It’s always important to verify that your logistics partner meets the standards you expect and can maintain customer relationships at the level you need in order to avoid returns. This means comparing shipping accuracy levels, ability to meet deadlines and how they process returns, which is often done by the same shipping partner that sends the packages to customers.

Encourage customer reviews

Reviews are a standard and even expected part of the ecommerce landscape. Customers like to read them when looking around and write them when they are especially impressed (or unimpressed) with a product or service.

The helpful part of reviews is the same thing we’ve already mentioned above – answering questions and reassuring customers that they are making the right choice. We can’t emphasize the importance of this enough. Returns happen when products don’t meet expectations. When customers have more of a chance to educate themselves through things like the reviews of other customers, their expectations are calibrated appropriately to the features and benefits of the product.

If someone thinks the product they’re ordering will do A,B,C and D and they only learn that it does A and C when they receive it, you can be sure that a return is on the way. However, if things like customer reviews can help them to understand this in advance, everyone wins.

Identify those who abuse your return policy

It’s a fact that there will always be people who abuse your return policy in various ways. Too many returns, returning used items, returning past deadlines, returning items due to ‘defects’ that don’t exist — you can expect all this and more. The problem here is not that it happens (it’s always going to happen), but that a hugely disproportionate number of these returns can come from a small handful of customers.  

Sometimes, ending a relationship with a particular customer is simply the best thing to do. It’s a tough decision to make because it can result in negative mentions online, but the dollars and cents involved tell the story. You’re not in business to lose money on a customer because they abuse your return policy.

Look at your numbers and see if there are any such customers behind your returns. If there are, consider politely informing them that you can no longer accept returns from them.

Use size guidelines and fitting tools

A huge portion of returns happen because of size issues. A “Medium” here doesn’t always equal a “Medium” there and this manufacturer’s idea of a certain shoe size can be completely different from another’s.

Unfortunately, this is always going to be a problem and sizing is always going to be a primary source of returns. Still, there are things you can do to help customers get the sizing right the first time.

Amazon gives customers a shortcut to reviews that mention whether a particular item runs big, small or true to size:

Certain manufacturers sometimes provide their own charts to help customers decide what’s best for them. Whatever tools help to get the job done, the important part is to enable customers to choose the right size from the beginning instead of through trial and error and returns.

You’ve probably noticed a strong theme here throughout these tips. You have to do everything possible to help customers know exactly what they’re getting before they order it. Whether through pictures, descriptions, reviews, charts or other tools, returns can be significantly reduced when questions are answered before the package even shows up at a customer’s door.

Take this approach to the content on your site and remember other tips related to your customer relationships and you’ll make progress in your quest to combat the problem of returns in ecommerce.

Marketing theory

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edrone is an AI-fueled SaaS platform providing Instant ROI and Customer Experience solutions for eCommerce. Over 1000 Brands use our technology in 25 countries around the globe.