The Deal with Online Returns

A survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers has found that few shoppers actually return items purchased from online sites, and those that do are not so dissatisfied with the return process that it adversely affects future shopping behavior. The bad news, however, is that many more would make a return but are turned off by the expense and hassle of the process.

In order to enhance customer satisfaction with the return process, online retailers should aim to make the process cheaper and quicker/easier for the online shopper, the survey found.

“Minimizing the rate of return is obviously desirable for any online retailer,” said Mary Brett Whitfield, Columbus-based Principal Consultant and Director of the E-Retail Intelligence System®. “But if the mechanism used to lower return rates is making the process harder than it is already, customer satisfaction is sure to wane. That appears to already be the case for some online purchasers.”

Only 4 percent of online purchasers reported returning their most recent online purchase and 29 percent have ever returned a non-business product purchased from an online shopping site, according to the survey. However, 41 percent of online purchasers have wanted to return a product purchased from an online shopping site, but decided that it was just too much of a hassle to do so. For online retailers, the implication is that return rates are not the best measure of customer dissatisfaction with an online purchase.

More than any other reason, online purchasers return products simply because they are not what the consumer expected. This suggests there are plenty of opportunities for retailers to make advancements in realistically representing the products they sell online.

When asked to identify the three biggest problems associated with returning online purchases, two-thirds of Internet users cited having to pay for return postage. Nearly half of respondents identified the fact that returning an online purchase requires a trip to the post office, UPS, or FedEx pick-up location. Not being able to return products to a store came in as the third biggest problem, demonstrating the inherent advantage enjoyed by multi-channel retailers.

Reasons for Returning Online Purchases
Among respondents that have
ever returned a product
Product not what I expected 40%
Product broken/damaged 31%
Product quality not as expected 31%
Right product shipped,
but wrong characteristics
Wrong product shipped 26%
Decided that I simply
did not want product
Arrived too late 17%
Received only part of an order 7%
Multiple responses accepted
Source: PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP

“The leading problems mentioned by respondents point to two primary culprits — money and time,” Whitfield said. “To enhance customer satisfaction with the return process, online retailers should aim to make the process cheaper and quicker/easier.”

The survey found that Internet users expect most online shopping sites to offer numerous fulfillment capabilities. E-mail communication capabilities top the list with 75 percent or more respondents indicating they expect most online retailers to use email messages to verify order receipt, order shipment, and to advise of any products placed on back order. E-mail capabilities are especially important to online purchasers who have ever returned a product, suggesting that satisfaction with this capability may be necessary for repeat business.

Nearly half of respondents expect most online retailers to provide the option of returning products to a local store. This factor was significantly more likely to be identified by Internet users who wanted to return an online purchase, but decided that it was too much of a hassle. Not being able to return a product to a brick and mortar store is clearly a hassle for some online purchasers.

More than half of the online purchasers who have returned products indicate that their return experience(s) at a specific online shopping site had no affect on their future shopping behavior at that site. However, one in three also said that they are less likely to shop at that specific online shopping site. Offline shopping behavior is even less likely to be impacted by undesirable experiences online. Just 17 percent indicate that their return experience(s) at a specific online shopping site negatively impacted the likelihood of them shopping at that specific company’s stores or catalogs.

The PricewaterhouseCoopers E-Retail Intelligence System® surveys approximately 500 Internet users regarding online shopping behavior and attitudes and Internet usage. The most recent survey was fielded from June 28 to July 8 among Internet users using NFO’s Interactive Panel. Most survey respondents access the Internet at least weekly for non-business use.

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