Brace Yourself: Returns are Coming

May 28, 2020

There’s a pile of new clothes on top of my dresser right now, tags all intact – mocking me. 

There’s a swimsuit I bought for a beach trip to Florida this March (Canceled.) There’s a dress I was going to wear to a friend’s wedding in Palm Springs (Canceled.) A new blazer I picked up in anticipation of a string of sales trips in the Southeast (Also canceled. I did those sales meetings over Zoom. In sweatpants.)

One thing’s for certain: As soon as my go-to brands open their doors again, I’ll be at the front of the line with an armful of returns. And I won’t be alone.

As retail stores cautiously reopen across parts of the country, many are bracing for an onslaught of in-store returns. They’re not wrong to be concerned. Major brands have already extended their return windows and relaxed their return policies, in the hopes of capturing some much-needed foot traffic when their doors open. These same brands are also dangling deep online discounts in front of customers, encouraging those of us who are stuck inside to combat that inevitable feeling of depression by filling our (virtual) cart with things we don’t really need. 

But most of all: online returns suck. Very few people want to print a shipping label and wait in line at the post office (does anybody even have a printer anymore?). And even fewer want to pay for return shipping. The alternative? Head to your nearest brick and mortar store with those wrinkled poly bags full of last season’s fashions in tow. 

So, what’s a retailer to do? Returns – especially online returns – are a huge source of friction of customers and associates alike. But companies that take the time now to prepare their field teams via clear and consistent communication will come out on top. Here are a few practical tips to help your stores weather the storm of returns.

Uncomplicate the Complicated

Opening after COVID isn’t going to be “business as usual” for any retailer, especially those anticipating a large number of returns. Depending on the type of merchandise they sell, some brands have committed to quarantining returned products for 72 hours. Others have adopted painstaking and/or visible sanitation methods so customers feel more comfortable purchasing items that were originally brought home by others. Whatever policies and procedures your company decides to adopt, you’re going to need to make sure your communication is crystal clear.

On top of this, the way a retailer manages their online inventory may be entirely different from the way they manage store inventory. Different naming conventions, SKUs, style numbers – you name it. Add to this the fact that online pricing strategy rarely, if ever, matches up with in-store promotions, and you’ve got one big headache of a return process. Cashiers are left piecing it all together to figure out exactly what a customer’s refund should be. 

Even the most operationally sound retailers may still have a returns process that’s a little counterintuitive. Weird POS workarounds, barcodes that don’t scan easily – tiny nuances like this are typically inconsequential when you’re dealing with a handful of online returns a day, but they can become real roadblocks when your volume of returns shoots up. Treat reopening the same way you’d treat the day after Christmas: do everything in your power to make executing online returns at the POS dead simple. 

  • Now’s the time to check to make sure your SOPs, policies, and job aids are actually up-to-date. Any incorrect information that’s lingering in your document repository could cause confusion.
  • Consider sending a preemptive communication to remind store teams of the proper returns process. Require every employee to “sign off,” certifying they’ve read the reminder.
  • If your returns process is particularly gnarly, create a “cheat sheet” that teams can print, cut, and tape to the POS with step-by-step instructions.
  • Reach out to your Store Support team and make sure they have the right information in case they get an influx of calls about returns.

What’s New is Old Again

Retailers in some US locations haven been closed as long as two months. That’s years in the merchandising world. Consumer trends change so quickly that the stuff your customers bought back then might as well be today’s flea market fodder. What happens when schools are shut down for the rest of the year, but (thanks to a flood of returns) your stores are up to their elbows in uniform pique polos? Give your teams the tools and context they need to proactively merchandise the old with the new. 

  • Send out generic guidelines for remerchandising returns to the salesfloor, so teams are empowered to make swift decisions about “where-this-old-thing-goes” without needing to contact corporate.
  • Set parameters around what products should automatically be routed to the back “vaccum shelf,” where they can be shortlisted for ship-from-store orders. 
  • Consider giving teams a little more creative license when it comes to merchandising the “old” with the “new.” Put out a call for photo submissions and celebrate stores that are able to seamlessly integrate the two in a seamless, shoppable way.

Rethink Upsells

Historically, there’s a bright side to all those in-store returns: They’re a chance for a retailer to save a sale, or even encourage a customer impulse buy or two. Now, a dizzying array of new health and safety guidelines are giving new meaning to the term “retail therapy.” Shopping in stores is more stressful than enjoyable. 

How do you convince a customer with a return to “try another size” when stepping into a fitting room seems like it could pose a real health risk? How do you encourage shoppers to “take a minute to look around” when capacity limits make them feel rushed? Retailers are going to need to rethink their upsell tactics to prevent cashiers and sales associates from sounding tone deaf.

  • Think about the most common customer objections your store employees will encounter when trying to turn a return into a sale. Then, script out responses and provide your teams with roleplaying resources. Encourage them to practice so they feel prepared to deal with customers in this “new normal.”
  • Establish a real-time feedback loop so your stores can share learnings from the front lines. Are there common themes they’re seeing, or common customer concerns that are emerging? Ask teams to post to a (private) social channel or send reports up through their DM so you can get a pulse on what’s working, and what’s not.

If you’re looking for a communication and store execution platform that can help you ensure that your associates have all the information they need to provide customers with the best service, please reach out to us. We’d love to chat.

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