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Online retailers today typically publish return policies online and on post-order shipping confirmations, says Lauren Freedman, president of The E-tailing Group Inc., an e-commerce consultancy. "But you will also see retailers like Nordstrom and Zappos reinforce their easy-and-often free shipping and returns policies throughout the site, in particular via the shopping cart," she says. "There are some companies that are so customer-centric that they're always reinforcing that."
Web-only e-retailer eBags Inc. puts gift recipients in the driver's seat to initiate returns. Consumers click a Return A Gift button on the web page that details eBags' return policy. They provide the first and last name of the person who gave them the gift, enter their own name, e-mail, contact phone number, and the brand and model number they want to return, and press the Submit button. EBags built the program that matches order information with the gift buyer's name in-house, says Peter Cobb, co-founder and senior vice president of marketing. EBags immediately e-mails a prepaid mailing label to the gift recipient. Once eBags receives the return, it issues a gift certificate for the original purchase price, less the initial shipping fee.
"Customers have lots of options, so we want to make returns easy and friction-free," Cobb says. Interestingly, eBags' return rate drops nearly 20% during the holiday season, from a 10.8% average most of the year to 8.8% around the holidays.
Cobb believes there are several reasons for the drop, including consumers recognizing that they got good deals on promotional days like Black Friday and Cyber Monday. He says eBags also sells a lot of luggage and accessories during the holiday season, which have lower return rates than products like handbags. EBags doesn't change its 60-day return window around the holidays, but Cobb says it endeavors to do whatever it can to accommodate customers so long as an item is unused.
Web-only specialty retailer AccessoryGeeks.com, which sells cell phone and electronics accessories, takes a similar approach, says vice president Karen Kang. "Our policy is 30 days, however, customer satisfaction is our No. 1 priority. We accommodate the customer's needs as much as possible," she says. Kang says AccessoryGeeks.com sees about a 15% increase in returns and exchanges in January. Consumers who get a gift they don't want can exchange it or return it for credit on a future purchase. "We feel that every experience must turn even a disgruntled customer into a happy customer who will remember us," she says.
The holidays bring joy to many, and with their improved returns processes retailers today aim to extend that goodwill even to unwanted holiday gifts.
John N. Frank is a freelance writer based in Evanston, Ill.
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