Find out which retailers triumphed and which fell flat when Drapers put retailers’ online returns services to the test.
The issue of returns and how to handle them is a hot topic for retailers, and as customers become ever more discerning and demanding, the returns process is continually having to evolve in an attempt to meet both consumer and retailers’ needs.
Research from IMRG’s Consumer Home Delivery Review found that 74% of UK shoppers consider a good returns service important when they choose the retailers they shop with online, and as standards become ever higher, Drapers put the services and policies offered by 14 different retailers to the test to find out who could really deliver on their returns.
The overall picture was hugely varied, and the processes and options ranged from effortless to puzzling. While some retailers such as John Lewis, House of Fraser and Very clearly put the customer first, offering free returns, simple packaging and smart processes, others such as Next seem geared up to discourage users from returning items.
The strongest operators were those that kept things simple and slick, such as Asos, and some of the more nimble retailers – for example, Topshop – made the process so easy it was almost automated. Against this high average standard, small technicalities and complications such as the need to print address labels and the lack of resealable packaging at Debenhams proved unexpectedly irksome.
Bigger issues included charges for posting returns, delayed refunds, failure to refund delivery charges and limited returns options. IMRG’s research showed that returning by post is still the most popular method of returns – 28.8% of shoppers choose it as their preferred option – but other services are also on the rise with companies such as Doddle, Hermes Parcelshop and Collect+ offered alongside in-store and courier returns.
Finding the balance of a slick returns process that is sustainable for retailers is a challenging process, but as customers become increasingly demanding, perfecting the process is more important than ever.
All orders were placed online via standard delivery options. Where possible, all orders were returned by Royal Mail post within two days of delivery. Other orders were returned by courier.
How the retailers scored:
- John Lewis: 9.5/10
- House of Fraser: 8/10
- Net-a-Porter: 8/10
- Very: 7/10
- Asos: 7/10
- Topshop: 7/10
- H&M: 6.5/10
- River Island: 6/10
- Whistles: 5/10
- Debenhams: 5/10
- Marks & Spencer: 4.5/10
- New Look: 4/10
- Schuh: 4/10
- Next: 3.5/10
John Lewis: 9.5/10
Clear and functional, John Lewis also made the fastest refund
Despite cutting its returns limit from 90 days to 35 in February, John Lewis is still one of the most generous retailers in terms of returns periods, matched by Marks & Spencer and beaten only by Schuh. John Lewis also offers a wide range of options for free returns: in John Lewis and Waitrose stores, via Royal Mail, Collect+ and courier. Delivery charges are also automatically refunded. The returns process itself is clearly explained on the delivery document, which details how to use each option and provides all the relevant postage stickers clearly labelled. The delivery note itself is easy to read and presents all the returns options clearly, as well as a code to explain why the item is being returned. The resealable bag makes it easy to repackage the return. After sending by Royal Mail on a Thursday afternoon, John Lewis is the fastest retailer to process my refund, which comes through on Sunday morning.
The only minor flaw with John Lewis’s returns process is that I do not receive an email when my refund is processed.
House of Fraser: 8/10
Simple and well thought out, and the “webchat team” is a useful touch
The House of Fraser returns process is relatively uncomplicated and slick. The returns label gives clear instructions on the process for post, in-store, Doddle and Collect+ returns, all of which are free. Returns address stickers are included on the label, making the process easy. The returns period for a full refund is the standard 28 days. Beyond that, if items are returned within 35 days, House of Fraser offers gift card credit instead of a full refund. My refund is processed within five days of posting, and includes the initial cost of postage for the item. I am also sent an email letting me know the money has been refunded. The returns note is easy to understand and directs me to the “webchat team” for any issues with the process.
While the online process is simple, returns in store may be more complex, as the retailer does not refund PayPal purchases in store, instead offering a gift card or exchange. Given the ease PayPal adds to the shopping process online at House of Fraser, and its popularity with shoppers, this lets the returns process down slightly, so the process is not necessarily as seamless as would be expected.
Despite limited options, Net-a-Porter’s returns process is the ideal set-up for a luxury retailer
The options for returns to Net-a-Porter are via a Doddle pick-up point or by a dedicated courier. Both are free but any return requires navigating the Net-a-Porter website rather than filling in a document. The returns limit is the standard 28 days, and the policy and process are explained in detail online, as well as on the returns document. Although the small number of returns options initially feel like a limitation, the average value of the products sold on Net-a-Porter warrants a more regulated service, and it feels secure and reliable. To arrange a courier I do have to phone DHL directly but, beyond that, the process is relatively simple. The courier arrives on a Saturday to collect. Interestingly, Net-a-Porter monitors “repeat returners”, opening the possibility that the account could being flagged or even closed if returns become excessive.
An online option for arranging a courier would make the process slightly more convenient.
A fairly standard, slightly complex process enlivened by a smart, efficient app chatbot
Very offers free returns via Collect+ and by post, with a standard 28 day returns policy. The big plus point is the Very Assistant, which is available through the MyVery app. While going online to request a return feels like a bit of a hassle, the Very Assistant offers the ability to request refunds in a much easier-to-access location and format. This may only really be an option for regular Very customers, but it is a clever touch that elevates a fairly standard service.
To return items to Very, I have to request a return online through my Very account. Although there is a returns form and address label included with my order, I had to go online for actual instructions. Additionally, my order arrives in a box, rather than the usual plastic bag, so repacking the parcel is a little more time consuming than for other retailers.
A well-thought-out and simple process, but a guaranteed postage refund would be a plus
As a pureplay online retailer, you would expect returns to Asos to be easy and well thought out. There are four free options, as explained on the returns form, and the number of parcel drop-off options – including Doddle, Collect+ and Asda – would suggest that most areas of the country will be reasonably close to a pick-up point. In its returns policy, Asos does not require the product to be returned in its original packaging, as long as it is secure. It requests that items still have labels attached “where possible” and the focus is instead on the quality of the garment remaining pristine. My order is refunded within a week of sending it back, and I am sent an email alert.
Although I am not charged for delivery or return, unlike House of Fraser, River Island and Debenhams, Asos does not routinely refund delivery when it is paid for, stating on its website that you will be refunded if “your entire order was faulty or incorrect, or if your order has been cancelled under the Consumer Contracts Regulations,” which is slightly confusing.
Topshop’s returns are straightforward and unfussy, and well suited to the needs of their youthful customer
While not boasting anything particularly novel, Topshop’s returns are easy, well organised and simple. Returns are free, via Royal Mail or a Hermes Parcelshop, or in store. Resealable packaging and dedicated returns stickers make the actual returns process easy and, once posted, the refund comes through after seven working days. Topshop refunds the delivery cost of the item, but only when the entire order is sent back. Other than some small niggles, both the returns policy and process are slick and functional, and do not require much effort or thought, which is surely the aim for all returns procedures.
Returns by post must be made within 14 days, and in-store returns within 28 days, which is clearly stated on the returns document in the packaging. Additionally, I do not receive an email confirming that the order had been refunded.
User-friendly, no-frills returns but not quite as quick as other retailers
On the delivery document, details for in-store, parcel shop and courier returns are all explained. The package is geared up for easy returns: a returns form is included at the bottom of the delivery note, and a resealable strip makes packaging the product easy. A standard 28-day returns policy is in place for a full refund, and my return is processed within a week of returning the parcel, although the terms and conditions state that refunds can take up to two weeks. I receive a full receipt and breakdown of my refund via email.
Like most retailers, H&M seems to want to drive customers in store to make returns: although there is a free returns label in the parcel, full details of Royal Mail returns are only listed online. Delivery is free on the item I purchase, but H&M’s online returns policy notes that delivery charges cannot be refunded when items are returned in store, and PayPal payments are refunded as gift cards when returned in store.
River Island: 6/10
River Island is well prepared for easy returns, but a longer returns period would add some ease
Alongside free returns by post, courier and in store, River Island offers numerous “parcel store” options, including Collect+, Hermes and Doddle, making the process simple to initiate. The packaging includes a resealable tab and return address sticker, and the returns form is simple, requiring only a code indicating the reason for the return. Once the item is returned by post, the refund comes through in just three days, only marginally slower than John Lewis. I also receive a detailed email informing me the return is completed, and the full amount, including delivery is refunded immediately.
In store, items can be returned within “a month” of purchase, but online there is only a 14-day returns window, which is the joint lowest of any of the retailers tested. As with other retailers, PayPal returns cannot be refunded in store but, other than that, the process and policy is simple and sensible.
Slick on the surface, Whistles would do well to up its service to match its premium price points
Although let down by a couple of small flaws, Whistles returns are relatively straightforward. Returns are free, and can be made by post using the enclosed returns sticker, or items can be returned to store. The process is simple and easy to follow: the returns slip fully explains how each process works in simple terms. The actual return is relatively swift, and my refund arrives seven working days after posting.
An option of a parcel drop-off service or a courier service would make things easier for those far from a Whistles store, or unable to easily get to a post office. Given Whistles’ premium positioning – some items on the website cost up to £1,800 – a secure courier service similar to that offered by Net-a-Porter would give customers returning high-value items more peace of mind than the Royal Mail’s proof of postage, which only offers compensation of up to £20. The refund window is slightly unclear: the returns note indicates 14 days but the website says 28.
While appearing simple, several stumbling blocks make Debenhams’ returns needlessly complex.
Although Royal Mail returns are free, and Debenhams also offers the option of returning goods in store or via a Hermes pick-up point, the whole returns process is not nearly as seamless as other retailers. Once sent, the refund comes within five days and is signalled with an email notification. The delivery cost of the item is also automatically refunded along with the item cost.
Although the returns options are clearly described on my delivery note, the returns label and address are not included in the parcel, and I have to hunt through the returns pages on the Debenhams website to find them. The label is slightly hidden away, and requires clicking through several unhelpful areas of the website before it can be downloaded and printed. It then has to be cut out and stuck on to the parcel. Unlike most, Debenhams’ packaging is not resealable. The whole process is a bit of a hassle.
Marks & Spencer: 4.5/10
Marks and spencer
Clear and efficient with a long returns window, but let down by a lengthy wait for a refund
M&S’s returns policy offers a refund up to 35 days after purchase – equal to John Lewis – and the second-longest returns period of all retailers tested. As the 35 days technically begins from the date of dispatch, the M&S policy allows a few extra days for online orders to be returned, although is does not specify exactly how long this is. The process itself is simple and easy to navigate, and clear instructions on the document advise the range of free options, including in store, post, Doddle, Collect+ and parcel lockers.
The relevant labels for each option are included on the returns document, but are tear-out pieces of paper rather than stickers, and so need to be attached to the front of the packaging. This feels slightly less secure than a stick-on label. Online refunds are supposed to take three to five working days to be processed, but it takes a total of 15 days just to confirm receipt of my return.
New Look: 4/10
A simple process, let down by the need to pay for postal returns
Options for returns include in store, Doddle and Collect+, all of which are free. The processes are clearly explained both on the website and on the returns form. New Look promises “no quibble” 28-day returns, and the process is fairly easy to navigate with no unexpected complications. The delivery cost is refunded in the order, and return is speedy: the money spent is back in my account five days after posting.
New Look is one of the few retailers to charge for returns via Royal Mail, so a £12.99 T-shirt costs £2.85 to send back to the warehouse. I do not receive an email when the item is successfully returned and, given that I had to pay to for it, it would have been nice to have confirmation of successful delivery. There is no returns label in my delivery note, but the address is stated for me to write on to the parcel myself, where it is made clear that returns by post will be at my own expense.
With points docked for charging for returns, Schuh’s 365-day returns period feels like a gimmick
Boasting a 365-day returns policy – far longer than any other retailer – on the surface Schuh’s process seems straightforward and easy to navigate. The delivery note seems to clearly describe the returns processes for returns by post, Collect+ and in store, and includes returns stickers with the addresses attached. My refund is processed quickly, in just four days, and includes the delivery cost.
I have to pay to return the item by post, and am charged for second-class delivery on the parcel. Although this is explained online, it is not clearly noted on the returns document, and it is not until I arrive at the post office that I discover I have to pay. Although the refund is quick and includes my postage charge (£3), this is negated by the cost I pay to return the parcel (£2.85). Reading online, the Collect+ option is only free for those with “myschuh” accounts, and is £2.50 for those without accounts. Although a long returns period seems like a good idea, it comes across as a gimmick when the rest of the returns process fails to match that of most other retailers who offer shorter time periods, but free returns.
Updated - Next: 3.5/10
Convoluted and costly, Next returns seem designed to drive consumers away from returning their items
The label included in Next’s parcel clearly explains the returns process, and the packaging is well designed to facilitate repacking. A return address sticker for the courier pick-up is also included with the order.
Next’s returns process is by far the most complicated of any retailer tested. Although Next does offer in-store returns, the only other option for returns is by courier, and for my order, there is no option for posting the return. Courier returns cost £3.99, which is taken off the price of the item that is returned. This cost is however refunded once the return is completed. If there is no store within easy reach during the short 14-day returns window, arranging a courier requires phoning Next Directory to arrange a pick-up – this cannot be done online. However, if a customer does not live close to a Next store, Next later informed Drapers that it does provide a Royal Mail returns label within the order, although this was not made clear on the website, and there was no information on Royal Mail returns provided in my order. With a complex process, it feels like Next is actively trying to discourage costly online returns. I would be discouraged from ordering anything online from Next again, as the fuss of the returns process negates the ease of online ordering.