Understanding your customer is one of the most important goals for any business, whether eCommerce or brick-and-mortar. The knowledge of what motivates your customers will help you build a solid strategy for forming good relationships with them. Among other things, you need to know what they like and dislike, why they prefer certain products over others, and why they sometimes return their purchases.
Online stores receive many more returns than brick-and-mortar locations due to the imprecise nature of shopping online, but both can receive returns for all kinds of reasons. In fact, there are almost as many return reasons as there are customers — some of which can be quite unusual, to say the least — but the most common reasons can be boiled down to a few major types. Here are 5 common examples, and how to help avoid them.
1. The customer bought the wrong item or changed their mind once they received it.
You might be hard-pressed to find a person who had never made a mistake or changed their mind about a purchase. The odds are good you've done it yourself. There isn't much you can do to prevent a customer from feeling differently about a purchased item once they see it in person, and you can't prevent every mistake on their part. But what you can do is to ensure that all your product information and images are accurate, clear, and complete so the customer knows exactly what they're getting. This won't completely prevent this type of return, but providing the customer with comprehensive product information will mitigate many of them.
2. The merchant shipped the wrong item.
If you've never had the wrong item shipped to you, you might wonder how often this happens. It's actually quite common, and even large retailers like Amazon and Office Depot have done it. All it takes is a small error at any point in the pick, pack, and ship process, and soon a customer will be opening their newly-received order to discover a mystery item instead.
Naturally, the customer will contact you — but in this case, if they initiate a return, consider yourself lucky. According to the Federal Trade Commission, it's illegal to bill a customer for something they didn't order (even if they did order something else) and so your customer is under no obligation to return the item to you, even if you issue a refund. Of course, some may offer to return the product, but you'll have to pay shipping and handling charges. It's best to make every effort to avoid this situation in the first place.
3. Purchase arrived too late or the customer doesn't need it anymore.
A purchase can be a "late arrival" in a customer's mind for many reasons. Maybe they needed it for an event, which passed before the item arrived. Maybe they just got impatient and bought it elsewhere. Late arrival is frequently the cause of an item being no longer needed, but sometimes it overlaps with the customer changing their mind. Either way, all you can do to mitigate this type of return is to provide clear, real-time shipping information, preferably with tracking numbers included, so customers can be aware of the exact time frame in which they'll receive their order — that, and processing your orders promptly so they can ship out on time.
Wardrobing is a fraudulent practice in which a customer buys an item they intend to use for a very short time and then return afterward. You're probably familiar with the often-repeated tale of a woman buying a dress for a special occasion and wearing it with the tags tucked inside, only to return it a few days later. This is a type of wardrobing. A businessman who purchases a classy new briefcase to bring to an important meeting and then return after he's impressed his clients is also engaging in wardrobing. Many shoppers feel that this is a perfectly legitimate practice (believe it or not), but it's fraud.
Wardrobing doesn't stop at clothing items, either — electronics, kitchen equipment, and anything else you can think of with the potential to be used for a special event can be subject to this type of behavior. Plates have been returned with food residue on them. Therapeutic knee braces have been returned after 2 weeks of injury recovery. When it comes to wardrobing, if you can picture it, it's probably been attempted.
Wardrobing can be difficult to avoid, because some customers who engage in this practice are real experts at it. The best means of protecting yourself from this kind of fraudulent return is to implement strategies around it, like placing clothing tags in obvious places where they cannot be concealed during wear. It also helps to use an RMA system that allows you to request photos from the customer before you accept the item — make sure you use reliable eCommerce software that supports this feature.
5. The product was damaged or defective.
Accidents in shipping are always possible, and even if you send out a pristine item, the worst can happen and it can arrive in a thousand pieces. If you get a lot of feedback about broken items, reevaluate your packing procedure and take better steps to protect your products.
Defective merchandise is another matter, and serves as a reminder that you should inspect your inventory and try to weed out any products that meet that description. If a large number of your products are being returned as defective, take a close look at your means of warehousing, as temperature, moisture, and other environmental factors can damage many types of merchandise. Depending on what you sell, you might also have access to batch or lot numbers, in which case you might be able to identify defective products as all coming from a particular lot or shipment.
As mentioned earlier, there are almost as many reasons for returns as there are customers. Hopefully with this article, you've gained a greater understanding of 5 of the common reasons and feel more informed about how to address them. There's much more to learn about eCommerce returns, though, and we encourage you to download our free Best Practices for Handling Returns ebook, so you'll have even more strategies at your disposal.