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How good is your online returns policy?

It is vital to make sure that web-based sales are not being damaged by a poor returns process.

by Stuart Morgan

The reason why so many companies in the footwear supply chain have chosen to sell online becomes obvious when the modern lifestyle in many parts of the world is taken into consideration, with its excessive demands on the average person’s time. The world has changed greatly thanks to the arrival of the internet. As well as the incredible amount of knowledge on every subject under the sun available at the click of a mouse button, virtually anything can be bought online and shipped around the world.

However, as there are several factors that lead to a successful footwear sale – such as fit, comfort, styling, perceived quality and perceived value for money – shoes are one of the hardest things to market online.

Many companies – both traditional bricks-and-mortar organisations with high street stores and those that service their customer base purely as an online venture – have benefited from the growth in internet shopping in recent years. However, it is an unavoidable fact that the volume of returns by web shoppers is massive. One footwear supplier, for instance, sees around one in three pairs of shoes that it sells online returned – far more than for products sold in the company’s outlets. The cause of this problem is straightforward – shoppers cannot hold the shoe before buying it.

“You just don’t get to try any of the shoes on, so how do you know they’re going to fit or not?” is a common complaint. “It’s not as if you can try them on ‘virtually’. Even if you’re always a size eight, not all size eight shoes are comfortable, and it’s hard to know unless you can try them on.”

Clearly then, with an online purchase it is impossible to assess a product for comfort, being able to feel or smell the material. Even accurately judging the colour (perhaps to match a new dress), considering the limits of the average home computer screen is virtually unachievable.

Multiple purchases

It is known that many internet shoppers will buy several shoes with the full intention of returning items that do not meet their expectations. While the delivery charge can be a deciding factor when it comes to choosing which website from which to buy, a major aspect is the ease of return.

Interestingly, well-established methods of shopping have coloured the way some nations purchase online. For example, levels of footwear returns in Germany are reportedly higher than in many other European countries – up to three times greater than in France or Spain. Why? Apparently, because of the German people’s long history and love of shopping by mail order catalogues, when a similar attitude towards returns was accepted as the norm. In that country, multiple orders often consist of colour or styles variations, rather than simply a variety of sizes.

To cut back on the quantity of returns they have been experiencing, some footwear retailers have been providing as much information as possible about a shoe and the materials it contains. To allow prospective customers to see just what they are buying, a number of internet vendors are making use of 360-degree views, which a shopper can spin around to see the shoe from every angle. While more detailed information and clearer views of the product may help to cut out some returns, these provisions still do not avoid the already-mentioned problems of a consumer not being able to try on a shoe or even accurately judge its colour.

Inevitably, then, there will be returns from online shoe sales. How, then, can such a process be made easy?

A variety of policies

Surfing the internet shows the different ways online retailers deal with footwear returns. Some offer completely free returns if the shoes are returned in an 'unworn' condition within a certain time (the period varies greatly – between 10 and 365 days), although international customers normally have to pay for the returns in any case. Other companies charge shoppers for return postage as a matter of course – whether via a national postal service or a courier company. If retailers have stores, some allow goods purchased online to be returned in store for a full refund, others accept the returns in-store but make a charge, and yet others will not accept back anything bought via the internet into their high-street outlets.

Problems can arise with the returns policy for online purchases, so it is vital that this information is made as clear as possible. Easy-to-follow steps for customers to work with are needed, especially if there is no store to take unwanted items to. Shoppers who find returning unwanted shoes to be a painless process are more likely to buy again, as well as tell their friends about their pleasant shopping experience.

With this in mind, and so much competition existing between footwear retailers today, making product returns as easy as possible might be viewed in the bigger picture as an opportunity to turn a negative proposition into a future sales opportunity. Some companies have decided that keeping costs down by tough returns policies might reduce costs, but they could be driving their customers into the arms of their competitors. If the economics of providing easy returns works for a footwear retailer, the policy could feasibly become part of the company’s marketing budget.

Publishing Data

This article was originally published on page 38 of the May 2016 issue of SATRA Bulletin.

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