Many (Happy?) Returns

We asked, and brick-and-mortar answered: How they’re turning takebacks into triumphs.

Black Friday? Done and gone. Next up? No one’s favorite retail event: Return Season.

The weeks after Christmas can be a true headache for stores, as a flood of hard-won holiday purchases come right back through the doors and require refunds, restocks, calls to vendors and writeoffs.

But of course, it’s not just the first weeks of the year that see customer returns: They’re a baked-in part of the business all year round. In our Trend Insight survey with Mesh01 (see results here), 69 percent of shoppers said a store’s return policy had an impact on whether or not they decided to shop there.

The rise of online shopping may have accelerated the demand. Where brick and mortar stores could compete on free refunds (and more regret-proof purchases — after all, the merchandise was right there!), in the Amazon Prime era, many e-tailers offer free returns, too. It’s the price of entry: per our survey, the majority of customers expect return shipping to be free.

“Returns aren’t negative; they’re just part of the game.”
– Brian Baumert, Beck’s Shoes

But while returns may be a constant, there’s a way to make them a positive, too. In fact, a strong majority of our consumer survey respondents — 61 percent — called their last return a positive experience. (And only 8 percent called it a negative experience.)

And that’s borne out by what we retailers are telling us, too.

We spoke with some of the smartest brick-and-mortar shops from across the country to see how they made the returns process a win-win. The consensus? Each return is a chance to build a relationship and cement your reputation as a true resource. And there are ways to reduce the sting, too. Here, retailers sound off on making those returns work for them.

Be Upfront

The best way to prevent the return in the first place? Communication.

“The return process begins at the fitting stool. Over-promising or over-selling can lead to an unhappy customer. If a shoe has a comfort guarantee I use that as a feature — not a selling point or tipping point,” says Joseph Cortini of Cortini Shoe Store in Fulton, NY.

“I tell my staff to make people happy.”
– Jay Kozel, Back Country

Another key element: Having a clear return policy – and making sure the customer knows it. Nick Kolterman of Fit My Feet Orthotics & Shoes in Sioux Falls, SD, says the store’s return policy gets printed on a card which is then stapled to every receipt.

Whether it’s displayed at the register, easily findable on the website, communicated by staff, or all of the above, retailers said setting expectations with the consumer can help establish the ground rules of returns.

Just Say Yes

For a surprisingly large number of shops, the simplest policy is the most rewarding: The customer is always right. (Even if they aren’t.)

“I tell my staff to make people happy,” Jay Kozel, owner of Back Country in Des Moines, IA, says. “It’s better to take the hit in the handful of cases that come up than risk seeing bad reviews on Yelp or Google or Facebook.”

Ted McGreer of Ted’s Shoe and Sport in Keene, NH, agrees. “We look at returns as part of our marketing budget. If we embrace returns in a positive way, we win. We simply can’t afford any bad reviews,” he says.

To be clear, most retailers say returns aren’t generally a big problem day to day. And the kind of really jarring, way-out-of-return period (we’re talking years) or heavily used (read: utterly destroyed) merchandise are rarer still.

“Unofficially, our policy is never say no.”
– Anne Pezalla, Lively Athletics

Anne Pezalla, co-owner of Lively Athletics in Oak Park, IL, recalls once doing a return of shoes that were bought at one of her since-gone-out-of-business competitors, just as an example, but says outlandish requests aren’t the norm. Pezalla says her store has rewritten its return policy multiple times since its founding, but has settled on this: “Since we opened it’s always been a 30 day money-back guarantee, but unofficially, our policy is never say no.” It makes it easy for her staff, she says,  “they never have to be the bad guys” and it gives a welcome clarity when it comes to making customers happy.

That policy, she says, doesn’t come without a price. While most of her shoe vendors are good about covering costs, Lively’s policy is more generous than most of her suppliers, in the kids’ space especially. “In kids, we eat the cost,” she says. “But it’s well worth it.”

Work the Upsides

In fact, store owners say, they’ve gotten good at making the return process bear some fruit.

Kozel says his store makes sure to put out a display of new goods at attractive prices in time for the post-Christmas returns. Having a fresh display of things shoppers won’t have seen yet, as well as the store’s annual merino sock sale, makes an exchange more attractive than demanding a refund. Pezalla says perfectly good apparel returns, which often can’t go back to the vendor, are coveted by teenage staff members as a great workday perk.

And even more so, it’s a chance to prove to your shoppers that you’ve got their back, an opportunity some retailers said could pay off with more loyalty than even a sale does.

“Returns aren’t negative; they’re just part of the game. Your best salespeople will sometimes have the most returns, and that’s OK,” says Brian Baumert of Beck’s Shoes in Campbell, CA. “As long as the returns and exchanges are done with the same attitude as the closed sale, then all it does is build more trust and make the customer want to do business with you again. Take care of them as best as you can — taking back a pair you ‘might’ not be able to resell for full value will not put you out of business, but a bad attitude about it might. Every return is a brand-building opportunity.”

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