Why Britain’s returns culture is out of control

online shopper
Fast fashion retailer Pretty Little Thing (PLT) has this week attracted criticism, after closing a number of customers' accounts due to 'unusual high returns activity' - Getty

Lynne, 65, places a clothing order on the Marks & Spencer website around every 12 weeks. She buys, on average, four items and returns two. Kate, 40, might order one style from Net-A-Porter, in two sizes, returning the one that doesn’t fit.

Aimee, 33, orders 10 options from ASOS and keeps two. Georgina, 26, places an order with Shein every month, returning two out of every three things that she buys.

All are entirely average British shoppers – and women I know. But at what point might a retailer describe them as a “repeat refunder”, or a “fashion hauler”, a problem customer that needs to be banned from shopping?

The fast fashion retailer Pretty Little Thing (PLT) has this week attracted criticism, after closing a number of customers’ accounts due to ‘unusual high returns activity’.

Those affected took to social media to express outrage and question why – some who had been banned told the BBC that they had only placed one return to PLT this year, that their last order had been more than three months ago, or that they had only returned items because the retailer’s sizing was “terrible”. The Telegraph has contacted Pretty Little Thing for comment.

A Pretty Little thing truck
Outraged "repeat refunder" Pretty Little Thing customers have been banned from shopping with the fast fashion e-tailer due to "unusual high returns activity" - Alamy Stock Photo

Returns are one of British e-tail’s most costly and damaging problems. Around 30 percent of clothes bought online are returned, compared to 10 percent bought in physical shops, according to a survey commissioned by The British Fashion Council. The cost to the retailer to process each web return, according to Narvar, is £27, once postage, processing and repackaging have been taken into account, as well as any depreciation of value due to a missed sales window.

Environmentally, returns also have a heavy impact. For retailers who compete to offer the lowest prices, the cost to restock may well outweigh the original retail price of the item – it is frankly cheaper to dump it.

Some 23 million returned garments were sent to landfill or incinerated in 2022, the British Fashion Council found.

“When I worked for ASOS 16 years ago, customers paid for returns,” says Anna Woods, the founder of Positive Retail, who formerly worked at Topshop and ASOS in their heyday. “I saw what it did when free returns were introduced – orders skyrocketed and so, of course, did returns. Around 45 percent of items were suddenly being sent back. I’m sure it’s far more now. As a move, the arrival of free returns really propelled the idea that fashion could be throwaway.”

Shopping on the pretty little thing app on a mobile phone
British Fashion Council research shows that 30 per cent of clothes bought online are returned - Alamy

The culture of returning in the UK has been entirely normalised in the decades since online shopping took off and sped up. Many – including Woods – would argue that it was the very retailers who now find returns so problematic that had actually encouraged and even incentivised our habits in the past.

“I think that Pretty Little Thing has made this decision to ban returners because their bottom line is being affected, however they helped to create this whole culture encouraging customers to buy now and think about if they want it later,” she says. “What is the message?”

Several of the customers who complained about receiving banning emails from Pretty Little Thing were also members of the retailer’s ‘Royalty’ scheme, a promotion that allows access to unlimited UK next day deliveries for £9.99 for a year.

Others, including Marks & Spencer, COS and John Lewis, entice customers to order more by offering free delivery over a particular minimum spend amount. Why not place another order, and try on that dress, when you can so easily receive your package tomorrow, for nothing, and decide later?

Unstandardised sizing makes shopping across the digital high street a gamble. The British Fashion Council’s 2023 Returns Report found that 93 percent of customers blamed ‘incorrect sizing or fit’ as the reason for their return – and the act of ‘bracket buying’ (ordering multiple sizes and returning any that don’t fit) is considered a normal practice when online shopping.

Pretty Little Thing billboards
The #KeeporReturn bulk shopping haul trend is too widespread for retailers like Pretty Little Thing to easily police - Reuters

‘Hauling’ is another big issue – when customers place a huge order, try on everything they purchased for fans on social media, then return the lot. On TikTok, the #KeepOrReturn trend sees users rattle through ‘their’ new dresses, as followers rate in the comment box whether the item should be sent back.

Retailers have generally become savvy to the practice, and can use the public evidence on social media to justify a ban – but investigating and proving offences can be challenging when the trend is so widespread. The hashtag #KeepOrReturn has more than 260 million views on TikTok.

In the last year or so, brands from Zara to H&M have introduced a nominal charge for returns; typically around £2, to recoup some of the postage cost. This has deterred would-be shoppers, and 56% of shoppers told the British Fashion Council that a return charge was off putting. The fees may discourage some shoppers from placing an order in the first place, which struggling retailers certainly don’t want to do.

Pretty Little Thing had previously irked customers when it chose to introduce a £1.99 returns fee, which was applied to those in the unlimited delivery scheme, as well as customers who paid on a one-off basis.

The retailer OhPolly, which operates from offices in London, Liverpool and Glasgow, took its policy to new levels when it introduced a ratio-based fee structure last month. Those who return up to 50 percent of their order will be charged £2.99, but a customer pays £8.99 if they return everything they had bought.

‘If we suspect unusual returns activity from your account, we have the right to increase your return fee,’ the brand states on its website. ‘Unusual activity includes but is not limited to a 50-100% return rate on 3 or more orders.’

Pretty Little Thing
Pretty Little Thing ambassador GK Barry wearing some of the clothing from the British e-tailer, which has offices in London, Liverpool and Glasgow

Woods describes the experimentation and change happening across the retail sector as “necessary”. “The fashion system as it is really is broken, and is not sustainable. It will collapse,” she says, citing better assistance with sizing as one solution.

“There are brilliant brands out there who sell online, like Lisa Taylor Design, who are dedicated to helping their customers understand fit and how to measure something to ensure they are happy with it when it arrives.”

Several high street retailers have attempted to improve their digital sizing guides for customers. Zara now offers a ‘fit analytics’ system, where users can input their body measurements and be told exactly which size should fit them.

Uniqlo’s website will remember which sizes you bought and kept before, advising you to make the same choice again. Marks & Spencer relies on customers to assist each other, and it’s pioneering ‘how did it fit?’ review tool gages whether customers found each item was true to size and length.

High end brands like Balmain, as well as Amazon’s apparel department, are beginning to utilise AI to assist with fit predictions in a bid to improve “returns health”.

Balmain’s ‘Fit Predictor’ tool considers sizes you’ve bought in the past, including from other brands, as well as how you like to wear your clothes (loose, fitted etc). We’re yet to see the results of how these new technologies may improve the digital shopping experience.

Woods now runs Positive Retail, a chain of boutiques selling pre-loved clothing in Margate, Deal, St Leonards-on-Sea and Faversham. She offers returns at her stores, but says it is rare to see them.

In this particular battle between bricks-and-mortar and digital shopping, it is feeling the fabrics and trying clothes on in a changing room that prevails every time.