Holiday Headaches Solved: How to Handle Returns Online

Bethany Johnson, Writer

This article is part of Square’s definitive guide on eCommerce best practices during the holidays. Explore the guide to learn how to curate a festive and stress-free shopping experience for your customers and stay competitive.

Seamless returns, refunds, and exchanges are important aspects of running a successful retail business. As more sellers head online, returns have become progressively challenging to maintain, as eCommerce customers come from increasingly disparate locations.

When handled well, a customer’s return experience can produce lasting positive brand sentiment, especially during and just after the winter holiday season, when return rates spike. According to the National Retail Federation, one in three holiday gift recipients returns one or more items.

Online returns give merchants the chance to communicate more than in-store returns, a benefit that can be tapped with a responsive, empathetic staff; customized messaging; and scalable automation.

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How to build a strong return policy

A seamless return policy can be an opportunity to build long-term trust with customers. Even if they are unsatisfied with one product, creating this transparency can help them see you as a seller they want to continue to do business with.

A clear return policy:

  • Establishes clear expectations with shoppers. Holiday buyers especially need to know they’re shopping with a reputable merchant. A strong return policy insulates buyer choices, ensuring them that if the item doesn’t work out, their gift recipient will have an easy time returning it. This increases the likelihood they’ll shop with you again.
  • Streamlines decision making within your team. You and your team can consistently lean on your policy to determine when, why, and how returns are made. Everyone’s in agreement.
  • Saves valuable time. Imagine how many hours you’d spend every gift-giving season if you required a human to answer the same questions over and over. A return and refund policy covers the most important, frequently asked questions, so you can get back to running your business.
  • Insulates you from potential eCommerce fraud. An air-tight return policy prevents fraudsters from trying to obtain a wrongful refund, which is one of the most common forms of buyer abuse.

Basic elements for a clear, fair return policy include the number of days within which customers must initiate the return, viable reasons a return should be made, rules regarding the condition of the returned item, fees and costs involved (and which party is responsible for those expenses), and how refunds are issued.

How online returns differ from in-store returns

Online returns are common, especially during the holiday season. Experts at Invesp Consulting found that while almost nine percent of items bought in physical stores come back, 30% of products purchased online are returned.

In-store customers usually see a return policy near the cash register and on a physical receipt. The digital difference, though, is that this verbiage can be easier to miss within the design of a website. Consider displaying it on the shipping information page of the online checkout process, on their emailed receipt, and again on the packing slip once they receive the product.

Another way online returns differ is through digital communication channels. While physical store owners typically see returns walking into a location, online returns can be initiated by ticketing (that is, “opening a ticket” via email or phone), live chat, chatbot, or a website form. According to research covered by Adweek, over half of consumers say they prefer contacting brands’ customer service via social channels.

When purchasers initiate contact online, you have an opportunity to learn about their experience and why they returned a product. Establish your own controlled network of feedback with product reviews solicited and displayed through your Square Online Store.

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How to physically handle returns (i.e., reverse operations)

Before diving into exactly what steps to take to administer a remote return, consider the mutual benefits of BORIS (buy-online-return-in-store) transactions. In 2018, an NRF survey revealed that 93% of retailers reported the same or increased rates of in-store returns that were purchased online. A documented BORIS strategy can prep your customer care team for the holiday season.

Before a customer initiates a digital return, whether that’s through a phone call, email, or chatbot, ensuring they have easy access to relevant order details not only helps expedite the process but also eliminates another point of potential frustration by offering an element of convenience. In addition to online confirmation and fulfillment email, order text message alerts (enable these in your Square Online Store checkout settings) keep customers up to date about their online order status — a text message alert from your business puts the carrier, tracking number, and order page link at their fingertips.

Once you receive the returned item, inspect it. Compare its condition against your return policy to determine whether it warrants a full refund. If your shopper wants store credit or an exchange, administer that quickly. Again, take a moment to email your customer a thankful note expressing your hope to see them again.

Approach the winter holiday season in anticipation of — not wary of — inevitable returns. Look forward to the opportunity to serve the buyers that need it most, and rest assured, they’ll reward your business in kind.

As more shoppers head online to find the perfect gift, sellers can capitalize on the rise of eCommerce by launching an online store. With a user-friendly eCommerce website, you can stay competitive this holiday season and grow your customer base. Square Online Store helps you quickly launch an eCommerce website with an intuitive online store builder and easy-to-use eCommerce tools. Showcase your items, set up Square for online payments, and you’re ready for this peak shopping period. Learn more about Square Online Store.

Bethany is a writer covering emerging technology for small businesses, content marketing for enterprise-level practitioners, and consumer trends.