BoF Logo

The Business of Fashion

Agenda-setting intelligence, analysis and advice for the global fashion community.

Partner Content

How Emerging Consumer Sentiment Should Inform Your Returns Process

E-commerce returns company Happy Returns, a PayPal company, and research firm TRC surveyed over 2,000 US consumers on their evolving shopping habits and attitudes towards online returns to enable merchants to optimise strategies. Discover key insights from the downloadable report here alongside BoF analysis.
Birds eye view of two people exchanging a parcel in a delivery.
Two people exchange a parcel delivery. (Getty Images)
In Partnership With
Article Sponsor

Download the full Returns Happen report to discover how consumers feel about online returns and their returns behaviour.

For every $1 billion in sales, the average retailer incurs $165 million in merchandise returns, making the average rate of return in 2022 sit at 16.5 percent — a flat rate from 2021, according to a report released in December by the National Retail Federation and Appriss Retail. US consumers were expected to return more than $816 billion worth of retail merchandise purchased in 2022, and this past holiday season, the US Postal Service was anticipating the need to process nearly 60 million packages every day.

E-commerce returns company Happy Returns, launched in 2015, offers global merchants a customisable online portal where shoppers can start returns or exchanges, as well as an in-person, aggregated returns service through a network of more than 5,000 brick-and-mortar locations across the United States, such as FedEx, Staples, Ulta Beauty and Cost Plus World Market. Some 78 percent of the American population lives within a 10-mile radius of a “Return Bar”.

Acquired by PayPal in 2021, the US-based company — which plans to further expand its Return Bar service into the UK and Europe next — helps brands optimise their returns process to save money, boost sustainability, and help make the returns process more enjoyable for shoppers.

To optimise its returns service, the company sought to better understand consumer preferences and behaviour around online returns. In late 2022, PayPal commissioned Happy Returns and research firm TRC to produce a new report, “Returns Happen 2022,” based on the responses of over 2,000 US consumers — with the consumer study downloadable for all brands and businesses to better understand, streamline and optimise their returns process.

Returns Happen 2022 Report

Indeed, as holiday returns continue to stream in and 2023 officially gets underway, brands and retailers alike may be feeling the pressure to deliver a positive, more sustainable returns process to not only influence consumers’ decision to buy — the Happy Returns report showed 84 percent of respondents rating a retailer’s return policy as an important consideration when shopping online — but also to counter the industry’s significant environmental impact.

The Returns Happen report investigates evolving consumer shopping habits, as influenced by retailers’ returns policies, and the impact of poorly managed returns on brands and businesses.

Below, BoF shares extracts from the report, distilling four key insights alongside BoF’s own reporting and analysis.

Download the full Returns Happen report to discover how consumers feel about online returns and their returns behaviour.

Insight 1: Increasing returns suggest economic pressures felt by consumers

Happy Returns: Economic pressures are driving up returns: nearly 1 in 4 consumers have been returning a greater percentage of their online purchases as a result of inflation and other economic pressures that are impacting their financial health. This number skews even higher for those under the age of 45.

The report also found that the average order value for shoppers surveyed under 45 is $226, while shoppers 45+ spend an average of $113.

BoF: As the threat of a recession continues to loom, inflation is reaching its highest levels in decades amidst the current global “polycrisis”: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has sent energy costs soaring in Europe; the UK’s home utility bills were expected to soar 80 percent last autumn, while the cost of food has leapt up 10 percent year-on-year; Goldman Sachs issued a forecast that the US housing market will see further downturn in 2023; and in China, the government’s zero Covid strategy hampered economic growth.

The impact of inflation and the cost of living crisis is felt keenly by the end consumer in fashion too. E-commerce sales have flattened after surging in 2020 and 2021, and though retail foot traffic has bounced back from pandemic lows, it still lags pre-pandemic levels.

For mass-market brands, the impact on consumer behaviour is cause for concern, resulting in diminished outlooks for winter. However, the luxury industry currently remains resilient as its end-consumer is generally less price-sensitive. Luxury brands have already increased their prices by 10.3 percent this year, according to Jefferies, with little pushback from shoppers.

Luxury consumers are also driving online sales — the global online luxury goods market size and share nearly doubled over the last two years, from €33 billion in 2019 to about €62 billion in 2021, according to the 2021 Bain Luxury Goods Report.

But signs of trouble are starting to emerge. Data from the three biggest credit-card operators all show that US consumers, the principal motor of the luxury sector’s post-Covid rebound, pulled back on luxury goods purchases in recent weeks.

Insight 2: Consumer preference: in-person returns or free mail-in returns?

Happy Returns: High-volume returners and those under 45 find mail returns most annoying, with 79 percent of shoppers under 30 thinking mail returns are somewhat or very annoying. Younger shoppers are also less likely to have 24/7 access to a printer for printing return labels.

Consumers even deemed free home pick-up for returns as less desirable than box-free, in-person drop-off, while 96 percent of shoppers said they would be willing to travel for a free return, and 72 percent said they are more likely to shop with a retailer that offers in-person returns.

BoF: In recent years, many retailers introduced free and easy returns processes to attract more online consumers — a perk to which many shoppers are now accustomed, if not expectant. However, online shopping has a much higher rate of customer returns than in-store purchases, causing logistical costs but also high carbon emissions to combat.

Some companies are looking to reduce subsidised returns, with Zara, Uniqlo and Next just some examples of retailers who have started to charge customers for returning products via parcel shops or home collection. In October and November 2021, just under 40 percent of retailers said they charged for mailed returns, according to a survey by Appriss Retail and the US National Retail Federation.

However, while some consumers understand the environmental efforts behind trying to improve consumption habits, others reacted negatively to the cost and inconvenience.

Retailers also sought innovative new ways to combat logistical challenges that lockdowns presented during the pandemic. New hybrid means of facilitating consumers’ purchasing experience saw solutions like Buy Online Pick-Up in Store (BOPIS) — which saw BOPIS-driven sales surge 259 percent in August 2020 year-over-year, according to Adobe Analytics — and Buy Online Return In-Store (BORIS). This omnichannel approach continues to resonate strongly with consumers, who can choose the returns process most convenient to them and integrate it into their day-to-day.

Insight 3: A streamlined, in-person returns process boosts the bottom line

Happy Returns: 50 percent of shoppers have abandoned a purchase because the merchant did not offer a convenient return method, like box-free, printer-free returns. A further 78 percent said: “If I have a poor returns experience, I am less likely to shop with that retailer again.”

What’s more, poor returns experiences lead to the need for more customer service contacts. Some 72 percent of survey respondents said they had to reach out to customer service for help with a return, with 32 percent stating they have started an online chat for support and 31 percent have called a customer service agent.

BoF: In the initial waves of the pandemic, when supply chains ground to a halt and the impact rippled throughout the global industry, fashion brands big and small had to grapple with substantial delays in shipments and returns, which in turn delayed the processing of reimbursements. The significant increase in online sales and subsequent returns during the e-commerce boom also added to these logistical challenges. Companies like T.J. Maxx and Victoria’s Secret simply paused online shopping in March 2020 due to logistical issues.

In 2022, supply chain, logistics and inventory management were labelled by executives as the biggest challenge ahead for the industry in BoF and McKinsey & Co.’s State of Fashion Report. These departments have since moved from backseat entities to front-of-house — and heavily scrutinised — divisions in fashion companies. Employment of supply chain management professionals is expected to grow by 30 percent from 2020 to 2030, according to the US Bureau of Labour Statistics.

Insight 4: Younger consumers’ returns practices are inconsistent with expectations around sustainability

Happy Returns: “Bracketing” — the practice of over-purchasing multiple versions of items and returning the undesired excess — is putting even more pressure on returns shipping costs. Some 43 percent of shoppers have bracketed their purchases in the last year.

The Returns Happen report found that this phenomenon is considerably more popular among younger consumers. Some 61 percent of shoppers under the age of 30 have bracketed a purchase in the last year, versus 26 percent of shoppers who are over 45.

However, some 41 percent of respondents claimed to be willing to pay more for a more sustainable/environmentally friendly return method.

BoF: Bracketing is a popular practice among Gen-Z consumers, in part inspired by “fashion hauls” on social media, in which influencers showcase and review mass orders from fast fashion retailers like Shein or Boohoo — the latter of which reported in May a return rate of 33.7 percent in its core UK market. Indeed, a Bain & Co. x Depop study found that 80 percent of Gen-Z Depop users cite social media as a source of inspiration.

However, bracketing is in direct contrast to growing consumer demand for more sustainable practices from brands and retailers. BoF and McKinsey’s State of Fashion Report 2022 found 43 percent of Gen-Z say they actively seek out companies that have a solid sustainability reputation.

Justine Porterie, head of sustainability at Depop, discussed “the value-action gap, where you say something is important to you, but then it does not necessarily translate into how you behave,” in season 2 of BoF’s Retail Reborn podcast.

Porterie lists numerous factors that can influence this gap, including fashion’s creation of “an environment where everything arrives the next day [...] so [consumers] have those expectations.” She also references the need to provide an alternative “as easy, as affordable, as seamless as the other option. And that’s how we reconcile this.”

Learn what shoppers really think about online returns and how to unlock growth through a smart return strategy by downloading the full Returns Happen report.

Research firm TRC was commissioned by PayPal on September 8-19, 2022. The research was conducted by TRC, with fieldwork administered by Forsta across 2,002 US consumers who returned an online purchase within the past year (n=2,002).

In This Article

© 2023 The Business of Fashion. All rights reserved. For more information read our Terms & Conditions

More from Retail
Analysis and advice from the front lines of the retail transformation.

The company’s recent introduction of a marketplace model has led to a flood of listings for new, high-end goods by third-party sellers. Some brands aren’t happy, but there may not be much they can do.

The US Federal Trade Commission filed a long-awaited antitrust lawsuit against Amazon on Tuesday, charging the online retailer with harming consumers through higher prices in the latest US government legal action aimed at breaking Big Tech’s dominance of the internet.

view more

Subscribe to the BoF Daily Digest

The essential daily round-up of fashion news, analysis, and breaking news alerts.

The Business of Fashion

Agenda-setting intelligence, analysis and advice for the global fashion community.
Introducing The BoF Brand Magic Index
© 2023 The Business of Fashion. All rights reserved. For more information read our Terms & Conditions, Privacy Policy, Cookie Policy and Accessibility Statement.
Introducing The BoF Brand Magic Index