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Drapers Roundtable: Managing returns

With a seamless returns process increasingly crucial, Drapers invited operations and ecommerce specialists to share their strategies.

Once the forgotten cousin of retail, returns are now central to any retailer’s strategy, thanks to the fast-moving world of online shopping. Whereas 15 years ago customers might have been prepared to wait 28 days for their parcel, the immediacy of the online channel means tech-savvy consumers want their garments the next day, with free returns and an instant refund - presenting a real challenge for retailers.

Along with delivery specialist Clipper Logistics and parcel collection and delivery service Doddle, Drapers invited operations and ecommerce specialists from the likes of Asda, Net-A-Porter and Whistles to discuss best practice in managing returns. The round table event at Covent Garden Hotel on October 22 focused on what an increased rate of returns means for fashion retailers and brands.

Clipper Logistics chief executive Tony Mannix kicked off the discussion by highlighting how the fast pace of online shopping means that customers expect returns to be just as slick: “The consumer base is very tech-savvy and unforgiving. If you’re a student who bought on your tablet or phone and paid instantaneously, you expect returns to be just as good.

“The returns process is the final touch point and if consumer perception is that they have been treated badly, it can damage the brand beyond all recognition,” he cautioned.

Asda senior project Simon Blackman agreed that previously logistics has been focused on getting the product out most efficiently, but said it was now time to think about things the other way round: “To support customers’ expectations and get all of the product back is a challenge of balancing simplicity for the stores and convenience for the customer in a cost-effective way.”

Whistles head of ecommerce Louise Salt agreed that in the past retailers were guilty of neglecting returns. She noted that one of the main gripes for customers who pay immediately is that they expect an instant refund.

“We have to work on getting the refunds back to the customer really quickly. It’s especially important if it’s a young person who needs that money straight back, whereas banks can take two to four weeks to put those funds back on the card,” Salt explained.

Social media is an important tool for consumers to vent their fury if a retailer gets it wrong. Paddy Earnshaw, Doddle chief marketing officer, argued that it is important for retailers to interact with consumers and give informed, consistent feedback in order to improve
brand perception.

More consumers contact Asda regarding a refund than about finding out where a parcel is. The supermarket monitors social media to find out what consumers are saying and stop complaints before they even hit Twitter or Facebook. George at Asda online senior merchandise manager Kelly Baker pointed out it is important to tackle returns before they happen by arming consumers with information about fit, colour and fabric, although the company is yet to offer videos online.

In a bid to reduce returns, luxury etailer Net-a-Porter has worked on photography and introduced video, as well as measuring each garment to ensure correct fit. The high-end consumer expects payment and supply to be seamless, said Net-a-Porter head of retail operations Zsofia Jamieson.

Video is an important element for East trading director Alison Lippiatt, although she questioned whether consumers really engage with detailed fit information. “I have spent a lot of time getting our head technologist to comment on exactly how a product fits, but I struggle to measure any notable difference in returns with this extra information. People will be interested in the detail if they are buying a washing machine, but on clothing it’s really about the look.”

Womenswear retailer Monsoon’s head of product, web and group trade planning Jo French agreed that integrating video is key, although this could soon be aided by new technology. “We have been working with Virtusize to let customers virtually try on dresses and the technology to have avatars of ourselves is not far away,” she said. “But it’s an interesting dilemma. Do women really want to see their actual body shape [on screen]?”

In terms of gender differences, all participants agreed that men are far less likely to return items than women. Mannix argued that women are more demanding in terms of fit and feel, as even if a virtual system says they are a size 10, that garment might not feel right when it is tried on. He also noted the sizing challenges for a department store selling 40 to 50 brands, because a customer is unlikely to be the same size across different brands.

Geographically, Germany was noted as a particularly challenging market for returns by Antony Comyns, head of ecommerce at womenswear brand Ghost and luxury shirtmaker Hawes & Curtis: “In Germany, payments are largely on invoice so consumers order lots of goods and send them back, without any money having changed hands. German companies offering invoices are now squeezing into the UK, so I think it will soon become the norm.”

The German returns rate hovers around 50%, according to Mannix, whereas the UK standard for fashion retail is 20% to 25%, rising to 40% for a pure-play etailer: “The percentage of returns has not changed in recent years, but the speed with which customers expect you to deal with them has. Allowing 28 days for a delivery is now an alien concept.”

Click-and-collect is growing considerably for Whistles, but smaller stores without a dedicated area may struggle to accommodate it during the busy Christmas period. “Refunds and click-and-collect get people in store,” said Salt. “One of the dilemmas of Collect+ is that we would be taking customers away from store.”

Peter Louden, chief operating officer of parcel service Doddle, understands the tension of outsourcing click-and-collect. “There is the fear among retailers that they could have got an extra sale, but if the convenience of the service secures the sale, then that is great.” The Doddle pilot store in Milton Keynes station has “one of the largest changing rooms in the UK”, where customers can try on garments and drop them straight back.

For Miyon Im, head of product at online fashion hub Lyst, retailers that improve the purchase experience by making returns easier will attract more customers. “It’s all about offering a differentiated experience. It could be dangerous for retailers to just look at the return rate, as it’s about the whole customer experience.”

Argos head of eBay click-and-collect Rajesh Gupta argued that free delivery and returns are the cornerstone of business today: “We are focused on free returns for Christmas and getting items back to the distribution centre as quickly as possible. Millions of pounds worth of stock are tied up in returns, so we want to reprocess packages and sell them back into the network as quickly as possible.”

Attendees
Rajesh Gupta, head of eBay click & collect, Argos
Kelly Baker, online senior merchandise manager for George, Simon Blackman, senior project manager, and Debra Martin, senior technical manager, Asda
Tony Mannix, chief executive officer, and Steph Tite, returns manager, Clipper Logistics
Paddy Earnshaw, chief marketing officer, and Peter Louden, chief operating officer, Doddle
Alison Lippiatt, trading director, East; Antony Comyns, head of ecommerce, Ghost and Hawes & Curtis
Miyon Im, head of product, Lyst
Jo French, head of product, web and group trade planning, Monsoon Accessorize
 Zsofia Jamieson, head of retail operations, Net-a-Porter
Louise Salt, head of ecommerce, Whistles


From Drapers Eric Musgrave, editorial director, James Knowles, features and special reports editor, and Charlotte Rogers, features and special reports writer

Readers' comments (3)

  • Vicky Brock, CEO, Clear Returns

    A differentiated returns experience does not only need to apply at retailer/brand level, but to really start making an impact on profitability, it also needs to be considered at customer segment level too.

    Though some shoppers (like me) treat their home as the point of sale, overbuying with the specific intention of choosing at home then returning at least part of the order, that isn't true of all shoppers.

    One of the things we touched on at the last Drapers Returns Roundtable, hosted by Clear Returns, is that for many customers a return is a negative experience however seamlessly it is processed, because their initial expectations have not been met and they are left without the goods they wanted.

    It is often discussed in terms of a size/fit issue - but mismatch of expectation is the key driver. This may be inaccurately described content or imagery (over-shot dresses, which looked better than their price point & the reality will return at higher rates and disappoint more customers). It can also be the result of confusingly described colour/fabric, QA issues or fabric feel issues (a scratch product returns at higher rates than a non scratchy one).

    When customers who purchased not intending to return encounter an expectation mismatch, the service/marketing response should be different to that of the customer who bought with the intention of returning. Because the disappointment - and impact on future lifetime profitability - is higher.

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  • My new business No Place Like Holm (www.noplacelikeholm.com) is offering fashion retailers software to reduce their returns to levels of 10-15% and below.

    It works for both bricks and clicks as well as triggering other benefits (like loyalty and boosted sales).

    Our 7 yrs worth of consumer research says avatars are not what the customer wants. Neither do they want body scanning... though I'm sure more retailers will try it to find out for themselves.

    Our solutions are all about putting the customer first and giving totally unbiased, accurate advice. I totally support Vicky Brock's comment too.

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  • If you're having a level of 15% or more with returns, especially in mens clothing, something isn't right.

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