For years online shopping has given us the chance to order clothes, try them on at home and return the ones we don’t like. In fact, we’ve grown very used to that - many shoppers even order the same outfit in different sizes so they can check the best fit in the comfort of their own homes.
And as we shop online more, we return more.
The tech firm ReBOUND works with big brands such as John Lewis and JD, and its data shows that volumes of UK fashion returns are currently 55% higher than they were at this point in 2021.
But the free postage many of us expect when we return our stuff could all be set to change, with big brands warning that it is no longer sustainable.
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Boohoo and ASOS both recently warned of a jump in the number of items being returned by shoppers. There are reports that Boohoo may start charging for accepting returns.
Of course, anyone who shops online with Zara will have noticed that it now charges customers £1.95 to return garments, a price that is deducted from their refund (although shoppers can still return for free in store).
And where the big retailers go, others often follow. Sam Carew from Elliot Footwear says: “If big business like Boohoo and ASOS are feeling the pinch then there is likely to be a shift in how returns are processed.
“It also could lead to more considered purchases if customers have to factor in the costs of returns.”
Who’s returning what?
Alexandra Dobra-Kiel, head of behavioural research and insight at Behave, says people return items for different reasons.
“First, you have the ‘Planned or Unethical Returner’,” she says, “customers who intentionally plan unethical returns, then you have the ‘Eager Returner’, customers who see returning as a good decision, and the ‘Reluctant Returner’, customers who feel embarrassed or guilty about making returns.
“The Eager Returner and the Reluctant Returner are the most likely to be swayed into reducing the number of returns they make.”
The thing is: online returns are a massive headache for companies. They have to manage them, assess them, transport them, often pay for the return postage and make no money from them at all. They also add to a businesses’ environmental impact, which most are now on a mission to cut.
But most of all, dealing with them is an expensive and logistical challenge.
Marianne Morrison, founder of the inclusive fashion brand Bubu, says: “On average, all online retailers see 35-40% of their clothing sales returned.
“When you combine this with the rising cost of postage – typically [customers get] free postage over a certain basket value - and returns postage if offered by a retailer, combined with the cost to process or dispose of an item on return, it is a real financial problem all fashion retailers face.”
Shoppers are in a cost-of-living crisis but businesses are also feeling the pinch. Their energy bills, wage bills and material costs are all also going up and they need to cut their costs too.
Julian Skelly, head of retail for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at digital transformation consulting firm Publicis Sapient, says that returns can be so expensive that it stops retailers from turning a profit.
“Online shopping rapidly becomes non-profitable if retailers allow uncontrolled returns. A pattern of customer behaviour has developed where customers order more than they need (multiple sizes, variants, etc), expecting to select one and return the rest.
“The freedom to do this removes a key barrier to purchase but it means that retailers systematically pay the cost of both delivery and collection, making the sale unprofitable.”
Returns also mean a significant amount of quality control and checks are needed. Bubu’s Marianne Morrison adds: “We have been surprised at the way some items have been returned to us.
“On one occasion we had a dress returned soiled and very obviously worn, and when we refused a refund, the customer took to threatening us with leaving a bad review. This is an extreme example but a real one based on the challenges online companies face.”
Changing our habits
Retailers don’t want us to stop shopping or switch to a competitor so many feel they have to offer an easy returns policy. But as that becomes less affordable, many are looking for ways to reduce that wasted time and effort.
Marianna Morrison says: “The cost-of-living crisis is leading people to order less than before, being more selective in what they need or want, ordering two or three pieces for an event rather than five or six previously.
“We know when a customer orders a large number of dresses and sizes we can expect a return of at least 50% of their order.”
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Bubu is combating that by ensuring their website displays accurate pictures of each item, helping shoppers understand the best fit for them and only offering free returns if a customer is exchanging their item for another rather than if they just don’t want it.
Julian Skelly thinks that some retailers may simply start charging for returns but others may choose to start treating their customers differently depending on how they shop. Regular returners could be asked to pay a fee to return, while more careful shoppers could be rewarded with free returns.
Alexandra Dobra-Kiel thinks retailers should work harder on their messaging. If products are clearly labelled and described, there will be fewer ‘eager returners’, for example.
She adds: “And to target Reluctant Returners, retailers should tap into shoppers’ moral satisfaction - communicating to this group about the environmental consequences of returns. Over time this category will recognise and reward the sustainable values of these online retailers and could also sway other consumers to reduce the number of returns they make, as customers’ sustainable behaviours are impacted by the expectations of wider society.”
Whatever happens, one thing seems certain. The era of pile ‘em high, try ‘em at home and send ‘em back may be just the latest victim of the economic squeeze.