The cumbersome return process

Published on: Jan 3, 2013
Source: National Retail Federation

By Tom Ryan

While sales associates are regularly lauded for their on-floor selling techniques, their true people skills come out when managing returns.

Beyond dealing with missing sales receipts, the return or exchange process often brings back merchandise that can't be resold, either because the packaging is damaged or it's missing required tags. Some items are returned to stores that weren't bought there. Further complicating the return process logistically is that most stores now allow shoppers to return items bought online to the store.

Overall, it's expected to be a record holiday season for returns and exchanges not only because stores are offering in-store returns for online purchases but also because of the spread of free online shipping and returns. Joel Bines, co-head of the retail practice at AlixPartners, told the Wall Street Journal that if consumers know they can freely mail an item back or return it to their local store, it removes an impediment to limit their buys.

Stores also have to protect themselves against fraud. The NRF's 2012 Return Fraud Survey estimated that 4.6 percent of holiday returns are fraudulent. Typical tricks by thieves include returning stolen merchandise, using fake receipts, or returning used items

NRF's VP of Loss Prevention Rich Mellor in a statement said "innocent consumers" often get unfairly punished by shorter return windows and limitations on the types of products that can be returned in combatting the crimes.

To crack down on fraudulent returns, 73.2 percent of retailers said they require customers without a receipt to show a picture ID, while only 7.1 percent say they require both a receipt and photo ID. More than one-quarter (26.8 percent) don't require identification during the return process.

The Journal noted that the upside of the return process is that those customers returning items offer add-on selling opportunities and perhaps even a chance to win a new customer. It also indicated stores plan to be fully staffed in the days after Christmas to assure the return process — including the lines, restocking chore and the contentious exchanges — go as smoothly as possible.