Responsible Shopper Returns

by Colin Peacock

A responsible shopper’s guide to exchanges and returns

The internet has changed the way we shop. Returns are increasing. And for many, marching unwanted parcels to the local drop off point, the corner shop, the mailing station, Post Office, etc, to drop off your returns is the new normal post-purchase.

Retailers strive for the perfect returns experience. They value your loyalty and repeat business. But it comes at a cost.

In the UK alone, one-in-three fashion items purchased online are sent back to stores. This has a cost of an estimated £7 billion a year. Globally the cost will soon be measured in trillions. That’s bad news for the planet. Further, the additional costs come at a price for the shopper, and my ultimately be passed on to shoppers through inflated price tags.

What are my rights as a shopper?

Online shoppers also have consumer rights. In the UK for example, shoppers are entitled to a 14-day ‘cooling-off period’, from the day their goods arrive. If you notify a retailer that you wish to cancel an order in this time and you then have a further 14 days to return the goods. Exceptions include software, perishables and made-to-order items.

You have the right to a full refund on faulty goods if you return them within 30 days, regardless of what the store's return policy says.

Then, for the first six months from your purchase, you can ask the retailer to repair or replace faulty goods.

Many retailers have goodwill returns or exchange policies that go beyond these statutory rights. These are usually clearly displayed in-store, or online.

But returns can be a problem, here’s why

Worldwide, warehouse workers open millions of packages of returns each day and check by hand for damage. Only then can they be pressed, packaged and put back on sale. If they can’t get goods back on the shelves quickly, out-of-season items either have to be heavily discounted or even thrown away.

Returns policies can also be abused, the term “wardrobing” describes a new type of wear-it-and-return-it fraud. It’s on the rise with expensive, infrequently used items like formal wear, tools or electronics. Stores may reject a return if they suspect this is the case — especially if it’s a repeat offender — or offer store credit instead of a refund.

What’s the cost to the planet?

In addition to their financial cost, returns create waste. Every van ferrying returned products to and from the warehouse also carries a significant carbon footprint. On top of those extra miles, many unwanted goods simply cannot be resold. No matter how efficient a retailer’s logistics and supply chain, this has an environmental cost.

And this is particularly high for electronic goods, which may contain hazardous chemicals that need careful recycling.

Finally, we need to consider additional packaging needed to process returns. Each stage of the journey adds new boxes and wrapping—some of which may be non-renewable.

Both producers and consumers recognise the need to build a circular economy, where we make existing materials last as long as possible while keeping waste to a minimum.

Accepting that online shopping is here to stay means we will all have to make changes to the way we behave. So, we can all buy smarter.

Want to be a responsible shopper/returner? Here’s four tips to help you.

1) Check before you buy. Avoid buying the same item in three different sizes, by carefully using size guides and previous purchase history.

2) Exchange in-store. Some retailers, in the UK, examples would be Zara, Boden, M&S and H&M, let you return online purchases in a physical store at no cost. This really helps reduce CO2 emissions, especially if you walk, cycle or use public transport to get there.

3) If you must return by post, try to minimise or offset your carbon footprint. In the UK for example, the Royal Mail, with its army of 90,000 delivery "posties" acting as eco-friendly “feet on the street”, report the lowest emissions per parcel. Many other carriers offer carbon-neutral options. DHL, for example, carbon offsets every parcel dropped off at a DHL Service Point.

4) Be patient. Next-day deliveries may be incredibly convenient. But opting for a slower, e.g. two-day service, is usually more eco-friendly. The more items that can be sent out in a single vehicle, the more efficient delivery is. But it can sometimes take a day or two to fully stock a van with goods.