Last updated: How to create a winning returns policy and keep customers happy

How to create a winning returns policy and keep customers happy


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In the world of online retail, returns are inevitable, but that doesn’t mean it has to be a negative experience for you or your customers. In fact, a well-planned return policy can even be an opportunity to strengthen customer relations and make new shoppers feel safe and secure in trying out your business.

When crafting a returns policy, it helps to look at how some of the top e-commerce sellers do it to see what works and what could be done better. Whether it’s apparel, sporting goods, or electronics, making it convenient and easy for customers to return items is key to e-commerce success.

What makes a good returns policy?

There are a few features we’ve found to be essential in having a solid return policy:

  1. An interactive returns portal that allows customers to look up past orders 
  2. Prepaid return labels simplify the process for customers
  3. Excellent customer service
  4. Clearly communicated

The pandemic has changed the world of online shopping quite a bit and that includes return policies. We have found that while some businesses have changed their policies back to their original forms as the world has opened back up, others have decided to keep theirs.

We’re not entirely out of the woods yet, and the increase in online shopping is still going strong. As you craft or update your return policy, keep your customer base, product regulations, and how the pandemic could continue to impact them and your business.

Apparel policies offer smaller return window

Apparel has some of the highest returns of all products, coming in at about 30% of sales. It makes sense: getting the right fit is tricky. Many customers today want to try out different sizes and colors before committing to a single item and plan on sending back a particular option of their order.

Compared to department stores, which also sell clothing, apparel retailers like the Gap have shorter return times — 45 days to Macy’s 90. Extending your return windows to give your customers some more grace could give you a leg up on some of your other retail competition. 

And if you have free returns — a feature often missing from department store return policies — you’ll be competitive in both worlds.

Superstore returns: Great customer service wins out

The online supercenters category includes businesses like Target and Walmart, and also includes the only wholly online retailer on this list, Amazon. Most of these businesses offer free returns and 30 days or more return windows, but Amazon’s return period caps at 30 days, doesn’t guarantee free returns, and can have refund windows as small as a few hours.

That said, Amazon is well known for its awesome customer service and features like its Prime free shipping, which has garnered them a loyal customer base.

The major takeaway is that customer service is an essential aspect of your return policy regardless of features. Do your best to make every experience a positive and fair one within your limits, and you’ll build a solid customer base.

Department stores rely on brick-and-mortar returns

Department stores are relative latecomers to online shopping and still rely heavily on brick-and-mortar stores, reflected in their return policies. Many bigger stores lack free online returns but will allow free in-store returns for online purchases.

Some department stores tend to have very generous return windows, such as Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue, which have no returns deadline. Saks is also one of the few that have free online returns – as long as you return within 14 days. These kinds of exceptions and technicalities are another feature of department store policies.

What should we learn from department stores’ return policies? Here we see what to avoid if you’re a primarily online business. These policies are geared toward physical locations, and that is how they can get away with less forgiving online policies.

Streamlined and straightforward is the way to go if you want to engage most of your customers online.

Sporting goods: REI flexible return policy shines

Sporting goods stores, similar to department stores, have a long history of physical locations and similar return policies. Many of these companies do not offer free online returns and require a receipt for refunds. That said, sporting goods stores tend to have plenty of brick-and-mortar stores for you to return your items free of charge and have fewer rules and exceptions than department stores.

REI is a perfect example of a business whose return policy has garnered plenty of consistent support despite not being the most online friendly. Their return window is a full year and will still replace items with defects afterward.

Flexibility and a commitment to quality are the crucial things to learn from REI. Ensuring quality no matter what is always a good choice in a returns policy, and being flexible with returns or replacements with faulty products is a must.

Electronic retailers focus on commitment to quality

Return policies from businesses that sell electronics, such as Apple or Dell, have some of the most limited return policies with both short return and refund windows as well as not typically offering free returns.

Electronic retail sellers do, however, recognize the importance of quality which tends to show in their fine print. Like REI, Apple will replace items even after their return window (even after the warranty period!) if the product has a fault that didn’t manifest signs until later. That said, these return policies are not reflected in their stated policies.

When considering your return policy, be clear about your quality guarantees and return exceptions. Especially when starting out, you want to build trust with your customers, and being straightforward about your commitment to quality is one of the best ways to do so.

Bottom line: Clear, transparent policies are best

Having a solid online return policy is crucial today. Return policies are always ranked as one of the highest concerns on all customer attitude surveys. It makes pre-existing customers feel secure and attracts new ones. A transparent and clearly posted return policy is particularly important for people who are not comfortable with online shopping and need a safety net.

Above all else, you want your policy to be easy for customers to find and understand as well as being built on superb customer service to make sure that no matter what you offer, the customer walks away feeling heard and respected.

Is your return process
a pain in the a**?
It doesn’t have to be.
Win loyalty + grow profits
with easier returns. 

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