August 30, 2022

Returns Are a Headache for Retailers

Whether through my capacity as a strategic advisor at Koba, LLC, which owns the e-commerce platform Koba Roots, or being a long-time shareholder of, I have learned that returns are a significant problem online retailers face which can negatively impact their financial performance. Therefore, it was with great interest to read an article by The Economist that notes 21% of online orders in the United States, "worth some $218bn, were returned in 2021, according to the National Retail Federation, up from 18% in 2020. For clothing and shoes it can reach around 40%. It is a headache for retailers."

The article adds that online shopping in the U.S. "now makes up 15% of retail sales by value, up from 10% at the start of 2019." What is more, "only 5% of returned goods can be resold immediately by retailers. Most go to liquidators at knock-down prices or are thrown away. Retailers typically recoup about a third on a $50 item, says Optoro, a firm that helps with returns." Interestingly, "Over half of items are returned because they are the wrong size."

Some companies like Japan-based Uniqlo, or Zara, a global retailer based in Spain, are levying "a small fee for posted returns." The article point out that "Other firms, including Amazon, are selling more refurbished goods as a way to cut loses."

Online retailers are starting to use artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality (VR), and augmented reality (AR) to simplify the ordering process for the costumer and reduce returns. According to The Economist, "Using artificial intelligence to help retailers decide what to do with the returned goods, taking into account factors such as price trends in second-hand markets is the brainchild of goTRG," a Florida-based startup which helps retailers sort returns. The article adds that Walmart, through its planned acquisition of AR startup Memoni, will let "shoppers virtually try on glasses. Walmart also offers ways to try on clothes and arrange furniture in rooms using AR. Amazon recently launched a VR feature that lets users try on shoes." The article concludes that "Retailers will now try virtually anything to cut down on returns."

In a CNBC article, Mehmet Sekip Altug, associate business professor at George Mason University, said: "In the past, retailers tended to overlook what happened after the sale. But 'as online sales increase, the return rate has also increased significantly, and I don't think it's a secondary problem anymore.'"

What are your recommendations for how retailers can reduce their return rate?

Aaron Rose is a board member, corporate advisor, and co-founder of great companies. He also serves as the editor of GT Perspectives, an online forum focused on turning perspective into opportunity.

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