Retailers navigate returns ahead of the hectic holiday shopping season

More companies, like H&M and Zara, are experimenting with charging for returns.
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Francis Scialabba

· 4 min read

If retailers had their way, every customer would walk out of their store 100% satisfied with their purchase. But that’s not how life works.

A growing number of companies—including H&M, Zara, Abercrombie & Fitch, and J. Crew—have started charging return fees, which experts say may turn customers off to shopping with these brands at all. Return policies are also very different during the peak holiday shopping season compared to the rest of the year.

Retailers take a number of different approaches when it comes to return policies. The challenge is to strike a balance between consumers’ habits and expectations and the logistical obstacles that come with bringing merchandise back into your ecosystem.

  • “[Shoppers have] become trained to expect returns that are free, convenient, easy, fast,” David Sobie, VP of logistics company Happy Returns, told Retail Brew.

The nature of the holiday shopping season, which involves gifting, requires retailers to make changes to their regular return policies as a matter of convenience for their customers.

Charged up: According to H&M’s website, shoppers may return all items purchased between Oct. 28 and Dec. 24 for free for a full credit with a receipt to the original payment method. Returns with a gift receipt receive “full credit for the purchase price in the form of an exchange.” However, without a receipt, H&M offers an exchange at the current selling price for items of equal or greater value.

  • The company’s regular return policy, which gives customers 30 days, will apply for purchases made on Dec. 25 and on.

Saks Off Fifth allows customers to return or exchange orders placed between Oct. 15 and Dec. 25 until Jan. 31. However, for purchases made outside of that timeframe, customers can return or exchange within 30 days at a $9.95 fee to cover return postage—the company’s regular policy.

But retailers’ approach to returns also varies drastically depending on the size and name recognition of the company, and smaller brands often have to make more concessions than bigger brands and stores.

The more the better: DTC workwear brand Brunt offers a 30-day trial on all of its products year-round. Customers who aren’t satisfied can return the product free of charge within that period.

  • After an item is received and inspected, credit is automatically applied to the original method of payment, which Brunt founder and CEO Eric Girouard told Retail Brew is critical to building trust with customers, particularly as a young brand.
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“We have a policy that allows people to try us,” so the keep rate’s going to be high, he said. “It also shows the confidence that we already have in this category and the confidence we have in our product.”

Critical to Brunt’s policy is that customers receive the refund to their original method of payment, as opposed to receiving store credit. Girouard said it’s important to not force customers to make a future Brunt purchase and understand that when they buy from the brand.

  • Additionally, starting Nov. 22, the company’s return timeframe will extend to Jan. 25 because purchases made for the holidays are often gifted and more frequently returned.
  • Girouard said the company’s return rate for boots is noticeably lower at 10% compared to the larger footwear industry, which sits around 20%.

For Sobie’s part, he said the main challenge for retailers of all sizes is navigating price—for the brand’s themselves and their consumers.

“Ten years of raising the cost of shipping all of a sudden makes returning by mail and the retailer having to pay for that privilege a really expensive proposition,” he said. “What smart and forward-thinking retailers are doing is they're saying…‘If I’m gonna offer anything free, it’s going to be the method that is the cheapest for me to bear.'”

Retail news that keeps industry pros in the know

Retail Brew delivers the latest retail industry news and insights surrounding marketing, DTC, and e-commerce to keep leaders and decision-makers up to date.