Most retail customer nightmare stories start at the return counter. For the retailer, the return process is a delicate balance between providing the customer with the best possible service and protecting itself from abuse. If return policies are unclear to the consumer, difficult to navigate, or burdensome the customer experience is diminished. When that happens, shoppers feel misled.
Consumer psychologist, professor, and retail consultant Kit Yarrow discusses the return process from the customer’s point of view. Overwhelmingly, consumers describe the retail-customer relationship as a genuine, personal relationship built on trust. A bad return experience violates that trust. Yarrow described individual customer return experiences in a recent TIME article, noting that when a retailer doesn’t live up to the customer’s expectations, customers experience a feeling of betrayal.
Yarrow insists that the return experience makes or breaks customer opinion about a retailer. She describes how even a long standing relationship can abruptly when the consumer feels slighted during a return:
Janine, a woman in her 50s, no longer shops at one of her favorite stores, Williams Sonoma. Janine shopped at Williams Sonoma for many years, paying “top dollar” for their merchandise. When she wasn’t able to return a gift without a gift receipt that changed. While Janine shops at other stores that require return receipts, she felt that William Sonoma no longer valued her as a loyal customer. “They put on this air of graciousness, but they’re acting like a discount store. The sales clerk looked kind of smug about the new policy, too—like I was cheap or dishonest or something.”
Companies are catching on. Large online retailers like Amazon boast some of the most hassle free return policies on the internet. The results are positive. Amazon shipped more than 5 billion items in 2014. One Cyber Monday alone, Amazon vendors sold 16 million items. According a recent study in the Journal of Marketing, consumers who received free delivery on returned items increased their purchases over the next two years by between 58 percent and 357 percent. Amazon’s free shipping and returns policies have started to add free shipping and returns to their consumer offerings.
The return process plays such a big factor in customer loyalty that an entirely new form of merchandise delivery and returns is evolving in Los Angeles. Shoppler, a newly founded service, allows customers to purchase goods online, but with a twist. Customers can have merchandise delivered, try it one, and have it returned by a Shoppler driver on the same day. Shoppler seeks the fill the void in merchandise home delivery services:
“Customers can order much of what they want online and have it shipped quickly. But, groceries and clothes still remain a problem. Groceries because they are perishable. Clothes because customers often try on more items than they buy to get the right fit. Instacart is tackling groceries. We’re going after clothes, shoes, and accessories.”
Shoppler’s big selling point is free delivery and returns. The service provides an opportunity for merchants to offer their customers the easiest, quickest, clothing shopping experience possible. This allows merchants to reduce frustrations with returns while building quality relationships with customers. It also allows customers to try the merchandise in a familiar setting before committing. This reduces returns over the long run as customers are more committed to the purchases they make through Shoppler. Early adopters of the services have been pleased:
“I love Shoppler. I’m able to try clothes on in my home, with my mirror, and my other clothes. It really helps me make sure I want an outfit. I always hated buying things only to find out that the color didn’t match or it wouldn’t work with something I already had. I haven’t had to return clothes to the store at all since I found Shoppler. It saves me a lot of time.”
Retailers are pleased, too. Shoppler customers are repeat customers. They also rarely return items:
“Once a Shoppler user sends what they don’t want back to the store, they almost always keep the rest. We haven’t seen many refund returns from delivered merchandise. People are more confident in their purchasing decisions. We’re keeping up the Shoppler experiment. So far it’s looking good.”