Optimizing ecommerce returns management in 2024

Explore key strategies to optimize ecommerce returns in 2024, boosting customer loyalty and operational efficiency.

There is little doubt that ecommerce has opened up new opportunities for retailers in the last decade. However, a symptom of the shift to online shopping is return rates. It is all too easy for customers to order multiple sizes, colors, or fits online, keeping one and returning the rest.

While customers benefit from the experience, retailers often must foot a considerable bill for servicing and attempting to resell these items. 

Some industries report that nearly 30% of all online purchases are returned, compared to 8.9% in brick-and-mortar stores.

Mastering returns management can significantly boost customer loyalty and the bottom line.

What is ecommerce returns management?

Ecommerce returns management efficiently unwinds the sales process, beginning when a customer decides to return an item. This journey involves several key steps: receiving the returned product, assessing its condition, updating inventory records, and resolving the customer's request through a refund, exchange, or store credit. 

1. Return initiation: Customers start the process by submitting a return request online and receiving instructions and authorization.
2. Item shipment: Customers ship the item back using a label provided by the retailer.
3. Receiving and inspection: The returned item is inspected to determine its condition and suitability for resale.
4. Inventory update: Inventory records are updated to reflect the return, ensuring accurate stock levels.
5. Customer resolution: Depending on the item's condition, customers receive a refund, store credit, or an exchange.
6. Restocking or disposal: Items in good condition are restocked, while others may be refurbished, recycled, or disposed of.

The goal here is straightforward—maintain customer satisfaction and trust while keeping operational losses to a minimum. This delicate balance helps ensure the customer feels valued and the business remains profitable.

Why is ecommerce returns management important?

Ecommerce returns management is crucial for several reasons.

It provides a good customer experience

According to a Narvar survey, 96% of customers are more likely to repeat buy if the returns process is straightforward. Every positive experience directly correlates to brand loyalty. Traditionally, retailers view returns as a negative touchpoint with the customers, with essential sales canceled out and an item coming back that may not even be resellable. 

However, proper communication can turn the return into a valuable sales opportunity. Understand why the customer returned the item, offer alternatives that could be a better fit, and use it as a chance to engage with your customer base. 

Impact on seller performance ratings

Returns management influences your seller rating and reviews. A Corra study shows that almost 50% of customers who leave a negative review did so due to challenges in receiving a refund. Another primary reason for negative reviews is that companies are not upfront about their policies, such as returns.  

Given that 95% of customers read online reviews before buying a product, you must handle returns processes efficiently.

Inventory management

Efficient returns help maintain accurate stock levels, which is essential for the inventory management process. Brands that do this effectively minimize stockouts, overselling, and reduce waste. 

Cost control

Managing returns efficiently also helps improve operational efficiency. Reports estimate that returns cost merchants $100 for an ecommerce order, with much of the stock thrown away, donated, or sold off to liquidators. The cost of logistics, labor, transportation, repackaging, and refunds is not sustainable without an efficient ecommerce returns management process.  

What are the main return management challenges?

While recognizing the importance of returns management in ecommerce, the practical challenge lies in implementing these practices without compromising profitability. At a time when 76% of online customers want free returns, any changes to your returns strategy will risk damaging the consumer experience. Here are some of the primary hurdles businesses face.

Shipping costs

Shipping costs are a significant pain point in returns management. The expense will typically fall on the retailer, where many have a free returns policy to attract customers. Sellers can try to shape consumer behavior to help reduce shipping costs of returns. 

For example, you could charge for the least-desirable (most costly) method and offer free returns for the least expensive method. In doing so, customers can receive free returns while retailers reduce costs.  

Restocking fees

A restocking fee is typically deducted from the customer's refund amount as a cost for inspecting and repackaging returned items. The objective is to discourage frivolous or unnecessary returns. However, a restocking fee policy can deter buyers who like to try products, which could be particularly damaging in "try before you buy" sectors such as fashion. 

You will need to weigh up whether providing a better customer experience and protecting your seller rating is worth the cost of soaking up the restocking fee. 

Potential loss in value for returned items

Returned merchandise often loses value, particularly if items are no longer in season, have been opened, or can no longer be sold as new. A report by the National Retail Federation notes that retailers typically lose 10% to 20% of the merchandise value on returns. This depreciation impacts the bottom line directly and complicates pricing and discount strategies.

Keeping internal systems aligned with your actual stock levels

Accurate inventory management is crucial but challenging. Discrepancies between returned stock and what's reflected in inventory systems can lead to overselling or stockouts. 

An integrated ecommerce setup that syncs  data across all sales channels can help mitigate these issues by ensuring that stock levels are always up to date, enhancing operational efficiency and customer satisfaction.

Strategies for effective returns management

There are several strategies retailers can deploy to reduce ecommerce returns. 

Detailed product descriptions

Consumers seek a buying experience that is smooth, seamless, and well-informed. Therefore, providing extensive information about products is crucial. Enhancing the customer journey with user-generated content (UGC) like reviews, photos, videos, and Q&As allows shoppers to access all the information they need to make confident and precise purchasing decisions. 

For instance, by using a detailed sizing chart, customers can ensure they select the correct size, and reading customer reviews about sizing accuracy further aids in making the right choice. 

Nearly two-thirds of consumers indicate that access to UGC would make them less likely to return products.

Lucardi worked with ChannelEngine to gain better control and accuracy of their product information and avoid misinterpretation while expanding onto multiple marketplaces.  

Amazon A+ Content

Amazon A+ Content enhances product listings with detailed descriptions, high-quality images, and videos, providing customers with a comprehensive understanding of products. This enriched content helps bridge the gap between customer expectations and the actual product, significantly reducing return rates.

Integrating technology

Incorporating AI-driven analytics into your returns management can automate many aspects of the process, enhancing speed and efficiency. A key application of this technology is in updating inventory management. AI analytics can promptly adjust your inventory levels to reflect returns, ensuring accuracy and preventing issues like overstocking or understocking.

Moreover, advanced analytics can intelligently reroute returned items to the nearest warehouse where demand is highest and determine the most cost-effective return methods and routes.

Such automation not only boosts efficiency but also significantly reduces costs, making your returns process more effective.

Clear returns policy

According to Invesp, two-thirds of shoppers will check the returns policy before purchasing. The policy should be easy to find with a dedicated page and a clear link from your website or marketplace. 

A clear and comprehensive returns policy can reduce return rates by offering customers multiple options and transparently explaining any associated fees. Customers are better informed about their choices by detailing the steps for returning items, the conditions under which returns are accepted, and any costs involved. 

For instance, providing options like exchanges, store credit, or refunds and clearly stating any restocking or shipping fees helps set realistic expectations.

Download our Mastering returns CheatSheet

Efficient returns with ChannelEngine

ChannelEngine helps to streamline returns through an integrated platform. 

It automates returns across multiple sales channels, reducing manual labor and speeding up processing. Centralized management offers real-time insights into return statuses and reasons, while automatic inventory updates ensure accuracy across all channels.

Additionally, the platform's ability to sync data directly into back-end systems simplifies workflows. With flexible handling options and access to detailed return statistics, ChannelEngine helps businesses tailor their returns process, address common issues, and reduce return rates, improving overall operational efficiency and customer satisfaction.

Expondo teamed up with ChannelEngine to streamline operations and save time on manual tasks, paving the way for global expansion.
Published on 08 May 2024
Timo Sprinkhuizen
Timo Sprinkhuizen is the Product Marketing Lead at ChannelEngine. He loves simplifying the complex by creating compelling narratives around advanced products for global audiences. Off the clock, Timo is all about tech, sports, travel, music, and good food.
Timo Sprinkhuizen