reduce returns

Online shopping is at an all-time high. Unfortunately, so are returns. As we noted in last month’s blog, Americans returned about $816 billion worth of merchandise last year, representing about 17% of all retail purchases. With the amount of returns rising steadily, your best bet as a business owner is to adopt a preventative strategy. The following tips can help you reduce returns, so you can spend more time building your small business.

Invest in high-quality photographs 

It may go without saying, but you should never use your phone camera to take your product photos. Instead, you should either invest in a professional photographer, or rent a high-quality camera and take the photos yourself. Be sure to capture each product from every angle, and position it next to common household items to give an indication of its size.

Use minimal (or no) photo editing

Make sure that your photos display your products as they truly are. Don’t add photoshop effects or sparkly filters, or use a saturation tool that might alter the color. Those tactics might work for massive retailers like Amazon, but small businesses live and die through their customer relationships. If customers feel that what they see is what they’ll get, they’ll be more likely to purchase from you—and less likely to make returns.

Include video when necessary  

Videography is another great way to give customers more information about your products. If you are selling clothing, video can demonstrate how the fabric moves against the body; if you’re selling a game or gadget, it might benefit from a “tutorial” video demonstrating how to use the product. When you make this information readily available to your customers, they will be less likely to return products that they can’t activate or use correctly.

Describe products in detail

Again, your overarching goal is to give the customer as much information as possible before they make a purchase. In your product description, be sure to list the item’s exact dimensions; its weight; the materials used in its construction; and the texture, if applicable. If anything changes about the product—say, if you decide to omit a certain ingredient in future batches–make sure that your descriptions are updated to match.

Answer customer questions immediately

There are two ways to do this: by answering phone calls and emails as quickly as possible, and by placing answers to FAQs on your website, product listings, and social media pages. Ideally, you should do both, but if you’re balancing starting your business with another obligation, it may be impossible to check your inbox or answer the phone consistently. Nevertheless, do your best to answer customer queries, so they aren’t encouraged to simply “take the risk” and purchase the product without fully knowing whether it will satisfy them. Avoid setting up an automated “chat bot” on your website—people who purchase from small businesses are generally expecting a more human approach.

Refine your distribution process 

Many returns are initiated simply because the seller sent the wrong order to the customer. If this has become a frequent occurrence for you, it may be time to consider what you can do to address it. Perhaps you could benefit from implementing an order fulfillment software, rather than relying on spreadsheets, or perhaps there is a communication issue affecting your supply chain.

Invest in quality packaging

It may be tempting to use the cheapest packaging you can find to ship your products, but this will undoubtedly end up costing you in the long run, as your products are damaged during shipment and then returned. Instead, invest in sturdy boxes, bubble wrap, foam, and other materials that will protect your items throughout their long (and likely rocky) journey. If you are selling extra-fragile items, you may want to consider using double- or triple-lined boxes instead of the traditional single-walled boxes.

Incentivize customer feedback  

Customer reviews are an incredibly powerful tool for encouraging sales, as they give customers “social proof” and an unbiased source of information. But reviews can help minimize returns, as well, by giving potential customers a “heads up” about potential drawbacks. Don’t be afraid to keep bad reviews—as long as they are polite—visible on your site. It’s better to miss out on a sale entirely than to go through the hassle and expense of processing a return.

Identify “serial returners”

Ever since the Covid-19 pandemic, serial returners have become an increasing problem for merchandisers of all sizes. These are shoppers who abuse return policies by essentially “renting” a product for a single event or occasion, with no intention of keeping it. Another big problem in the ecommerce sphere is the practice of “wardrobing,” or buying a clothing item in a variety of colors and sizes, and returning all the unwanted options. If you are able to identify customers who are abusing your return policy in this manner, you can send them a warning email, or ban them altogether from making purchases from your store.

Lengthen your return window

It might sound counterintuitive, but giving customers a longer window in which to return their products will usually reduce returns. That’s because when people have a short period of time in which to do something, they’re more likely to make it a priority. A longer window gives buyers more time to become comfortable with using the product, or to forget about making the return entirely. Lengthening the return window also has the bonus effect of giving you more honest customer reviews, because they aren’t checking off a box in a rush. Having more accurate, high-quality feedback can help you address issues in your sales process and reduce returns even further.

Improvise, adapt, and overcome

Learning how to reduce returns, like everything else, is a process that involves trial-and-error. Don’t be afraid to examine new solutions, new technologies, and other resources that can help—which you are already doing by reading this blog! Make sure to record every return you process, with the reason given for the return, for future evaluation. Once you’ve gathered enough data, you can examine places that you can improve, and help keep your returns to a minimum.

Looking for more tips on starting and running your own small business? Check out SSI Packaging’s small business advice blog here.

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