Black Friday. Small Business Saturday. Cyber Monday. 12 Days of Deals.
Holiday shopping season feels like a marathon, punctuated by sales sprints that promise staggeringly low prices on gifts that will make you the hero of the holidays. The National Retail Federation reports 174 million people shopped in the five-day window around Thanksgiving 2017. Seems everyone wants to be a hero—and save some coin.
For a bargain hunter like me, when the circulars and deal emails arrive my pulse quickens. That frenzied excitement finally starts to wind down around now as the window for online purchases to arrive by Christmas closes.
Unfortunately, even the smartest and most experienced shoppers can’t guarantee that all items will be keepers. Figures differ on how many holiday gifts are returned, but one estimate has consumers returning $20 billion worth of goods purchased online over the holidays.
Returns have the potential to be a real hassle for consumers, but they don’t have to be. More and more retailers are striving to make the inevitable holiday return process less painful, realizing that investments in a seamless—or at least tolerable—return process have more upside than outright cost. Getting buzz out of a good customer experience is worth the small cost a retailer may have to eat for something like free shipping, but a negative experience that goes viral can create huge issues. Cultivating brand loyalists through the returning process leads to future purchases and the potential to charge a price premium.
A few simple things make or break the holiday return experience and turn hassle into hallelujah:
The longer the better
Extended return windows are self-explanatory, but a crucial tablestake during the busy holiday season. Amazon, Best Buy, Target, and Walmart all extend their typical return windows through January for holiday purchases. But the real winners are Zappos and Ikea (365 day returns) as well as Nordstrom, Bloomingdales and Bed, Bath & Beyond (all are vague about whether there is even a deadline at all). These retailers know that to continue their amazing shopping experiences and reap the benefits of increased customer loyalty, they can’t punish tardiness.
Get it to me free
While consumers were once willing to pay for the convenience of fast shipping, expectations have shifted. In the age of Amazon Prime, it is hard to stomach a shipping fee for online purchases, let alone a return shipping fee. Many retailers offer discount codes for free shipping or free shipping for qualifying orders over a certain amount, but free returns usually require a trip to a physical store. Those efforts, while incrementally useful, feel old school to next gen, digitally native consumers. If you’re willing to go the extra mile to get online goods to customers, you have to be willing to do the same when the item doesn’t fit (or simply isn’t liked).
No receipt, no problem
Return fraud is a real issue for retailers, but for those willing to offer this option, it is a godsend for holiday shoppers. Target and Bed Bath allow returns without a receipt for store credit, as does Walmart (depending on price). But as a convenient alternative, receipts/invoices sent to email enable you to show your phone when returning in-store. What once felt like a potential invasion of privacy now feels more like a step toward a paper-free existence.
Let service shine
Last and most importantly, being a customer service-oriented company and living up to that vision in each customer interaction goes further than any of the previous practices. Whether you’re requesting Williams Sonoma replace a used item pizza stone that got damaged in a move, asking L.L. Bean how flannel pajamas will fit your Grandma when you have little clue as to her size, or requesting a price adjustment from Zappos after midnight because that’s when you finally got to your To Do list, connecting with a well-trained customer service representative who has both the authority and knowledge to effectively handle your query is still the most important piece of the customer service puzzle. This is true in shopping and remains true in returning.
That said, apps like Earny, Paribus, and Slice automatically take care of price adjustment requests for your online purchases, putting the onus on retailers to offer savings without having an opportunity to win back your loyalty through a human interaction. As disintermediation in shopping increases, retailers will have to be savvier than ever to create moments of delight when they actually do get the chance to touch customers.
Whether you’re giving, receiving or buying for yourself, you are guaranteed to face at least one return before 2017 comes to a close. Retailers who will come out on top this season have to offer a level of return flexibility that works for discerning shoppers and those on their “Nice Lists.” And whatever you do, steer clear of candy and chocolate; these treats are the most exchanged gift for men and women.