Multi-channel complications continue

Returning a purchase used to require no more than a sales receipt and the item to be returned (unopened or in an otherwise acceptable condition). But in today’s multichannel retail world, if an item is purchased online and returned offline, things can get a little messy.

According to a recent study of 25 major retailers during the back-to-school shopping season by the E-tailing Group, a Chicago-based e-commerce consultancy, 44 % of returns of online purchases require a manager’s attention. The study showed that Internet sales invoices often lack pertinent information such as order numbers, credit card numbers or sales taxes. The good news for shoppers is that these problems were resolved in less than seven minutes, on average. Lauren Freedman, president of the E-tailing Group, says that stores that don’t have a dedicated return area are most likely to have difficulty with in-store returns of online purchases. She blames the inefficiencies on a lack of training and poor system integration.

"For retailers with no dedicated return area, training seems to be more of an issue," Freedman says, "but I think both factors are playing a role."

The survey also found that while 85 % of the sample surveyed allowed in-store returns for online purchases, just 33 % promoted in-store pick-up for online purchases. Improvement in this area probably won’t happen in time for the holiday shopping season, Freedman says. Demand on hot products will just be too high. "They have to have the systems in place to handle that and the inventory to support it," Freedman says. "It’s much more difficult to handle from an inventory standpoint versus returns. You’ll continue to see it, but it’s just at a low percentage right now."

The survey looked for the presence of 140 features of websites and retailers in 10 consumer categories. One feature — the number of clicks to checkout — continues to improve. Last holiday season the average number of clicks to checkout totaled 4.93. That number has been trimmed to 3.76;quite an improvement according to Freedman. "When it gets down to three, most everyone will be satisfied," she says.

The study found that many websites lack important customer service information, such as hours of operation of the call centre. Just 60 % of websites surveyed had this information. "Why wouldn’t you put it on there? People use the Web to gather information, so providing that would be helpful," Freedman says.

The back-to-school season, second only to the year-end holiday season in terms of retail sales, can be an indicator of how the holiday season will turn out. Freedman says this year’s numbers are looking good for a strong retail holiday. Online shopping will continue to grow, Freedman says. "The pattern in online growth is continuing," Freedman says. "Letting the customer make the choice, that’s the issue."

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