January 18, 2002, 12:00 AM

The good, the bad and the ugly in merchandise returns

15% of retailers include prepaid return labels with orders and 24% require a return authorization, the e-tailing group reports. A fifth send e-mail acknowledging the return was received and some use that e-mail to pitch shopping at the site again.

Some online retailers are learning the benefits of using e-mailed return acknowledgments as a merchandising tool, says Kylee Magno, senior analyst with the Chicago-based consultants the e-tailing group inc. In the e-tailing group’s fourth quarter Mystery Shopping Scan survey, 21% of retailers so far-results are still coming in-have acknowledged the return of a purchase with an e-mail. While the consulting firm did not specifically track how many offered e-mail acknowledgments in previous surveys, Magno says the practice was not widespread enough even in the second quarter to have registered with researchers. And now some even are using the return acknowledgment to pitch further shopping at the site, she says. “It’s a nice little merchandising tool,” Magno says.

Some retailers, however, still have a long way to go to make the returns process less frustrating for consumers, the firm says. In its survey of 100 shopping sites, the e-tailing group found that 24% require a return authorization before they’ll accept merchandise back. “The optimal service to the consumer would be to not have to obtain a return authorization at all,” says Lauren Freedman, president. “Those that require a return authorization have probably adapted an existing system.”

Magno reports that with three retailers she had to call more than once to obtain an authorization, including one retailer where she sat on hold for 25 minutes before a message came on telling her that all customer service reps were busy and that she should call back later. She then e-mailed the retailer and received no response. At yet another retailer, she had to call four times and when she finally reached someone, she was told that she was past the 30-day return window and so couldn’t send the merchandise back. After making the case that the delay was the retailer’s fault, the company agreed to take the merchandise back--and said her return authorization label would arrive in about a week.

The survey also found that 15% provide prepaid return labels and 4% make return forms accessible at their web sites.

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