Guarantee Holiday Sales

In cubicles and corner offices around the e-tailing world, eager marketers and merchandisers are cranking up for the 2008 holiday season, with visions of plump virtual shopping carts dancing in their heads.

Meanwhile, shoppers go about their lives. Time ticks. The burden of seasonal shopping grows bigger as the number of shopping days until Christmas gets smaller.

Each year the season seems to start earlier. Shoppers are faced with more choices than ever, and online retailers are getting savvier, offering better wares and new technologies all designed to increase sales, average order values, and conversion rates.

How can you get a leg up on competitors? How can you ensure visitors buy from you and not the guys and gals on the domain just a few clicks away?

One powerful tactic is the return/exchange policy point-of-action (POA) assurance.

With current economy concerns, gift buyers are likely to be more frugal than they were in 2006, and online retailers must address that reality.

POA Basics

Offline, returns and exchanges are of lesser concern to shoppers. They can simply take their purchases back to the store they bought them from. Many retailers even offer gift receipts so recipients can take the merchandise back and exchange it.

Online, the gift exchange/return process looms more ominously in shoppers’ minds. What if shoppers must return or exchange orders? What do gift receivers do? How about gift givers: Where do they go? How fast will they get a refund? Return-shipping costs, shipping hassles, price-matching concerns, and other questions hover like conversion-rate-chomping gremlins, threatening to devour your sales. Online retailers must resolve these questions, manage expectations, and inject confidence into their visitors, or their “buy now” buttons will look like black holes threatening to suck shoppers’ cash into the ether.

A basic (and powerful) thing you can do is provide a visible, simply worded, and easy-to-understand return/exchange policy near your “add to cart,” “checkout,” and “buy now” calls to action (CTAs).

This sounds like a no-brainer, but we’re often surprised by those who fail to do this. Of course, almost all sites have a return/exchange policy, and many of them do actually link to it. Macy’s is a great example. One could indeed argue that the “easy returns” link is near the CTA. But let’s not confuse near with visible:

Compare Macy’s with eBags, which places its return policy link directly to the right of its CTA:

EBags links to a convenient pop-up that doesn’t take the user away from the process. The only thing more preferable is to have such a simple, powerful customer-centric return/exchange policy that it needs little to no explanation.

Gift Return Policies

The “it’s the thought that counts” mindset isn’t as popular as it used to be. In fact, ShopperTrak predicts that December 26 will be the sixth busiest shopping day of 2007. That adds up to a lot of returns. It also means that by establishing a gift return policy, you have the opportunity to build a new relationship with someone other than the original buyer, expanding your customer base. This also means upgrade and up-sell opportunities.

Here’s how a few of the big boys are handling gift returns and exchanges: Apple,, and Wal-mart all speak to gift buyers.

Obviously, people expect a gift return policy from known brands, but what if you aren’t an established brand? It’s even more important for you to clarify your policy.

Customer-Centric Return and Exchange Policies

Fine print is the enemy of customer centricity. It’s the opposite of company transparency. Most companies write return policies to protect themselves. Most returns go into the “loss” column (restocking, factory return, etc.). While trying to minimize loss is indeed a noble cause, it’s often difficult for anything customer-centric to come out of such a one-sided goal.

Instead, look at your gift/return policy as a word-of-mouth opportunity, and assign advertising budget to make the policy as liberal and customer friendly as possible. After all, you want to look beyond a single transaction to a long-term relationship. Our experiences show that more liberal return policies lower return costs. Reduced time explaining adversarial policies and less customer-hassle time can translate into lower customer service costs and even more repeat sales and upgrades.

The return/exchange desk at your company is part of the overall experience; don’t relegate it to some lame policy.

Your Turn

What are you doing for your gift recipients this holiday season?

Are you charging them petty return shipping costs that irritate them and waste their time? Are you fine-printing them into keeping something they don’t really want? Are you letting them get angry before you do anything to their benefit?

Or are you wowing them, finding ways to exceed their expectations and letting them see those policies at the POA?

Meet Bryan at SES Chicago on December 3-6.

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