As the festive season wraps up, the tide of returns surges in, and this year, consumers face a slew of new return policies. Retail giants like Amazon and Macy's have implemented fees or curtailed the return window for online purchases, reflecting a broader trend in the retail industry. With online orders skyrocketing during the Covid-19 pandemic, returns have become a significant challenge for retailers.
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Navigating return policies
Approximately 40% of stores now charge for online returns, up from 31% the previous year, according to Narvar, a returns management company. Financial considerations and an attempt to deter excessive returns have driven this shift. Understanding the fine print of return policies is crucial in this evolving landscape. Edgar Dworsky, founder of ConsumerWorld.org, emphasizes that consumers should familiarize themselves with the return policies of their preferred retailers. If a retailer charges for online returns, Dworsky suggests opting for in-store returns, which often remain free.
One of the reasons for the shift in return policies is that along with inflation and overall increased prices on everyday essentials, shipping has also gotten more expensive. "Whether that is increased cost in fuel, increased cost of labor [or] the complexity in logistics, the last two years, since the pandemic, it accelerated the cost of moving something from point A to point B,” says returns expert and CEO of B-Stock Solutions, Marcus Shen, in a conversation with USA Today. “I’m sure that’s a huge driver of people rethinking everything we’ve been taking for granted from an e-commerce perspective."
Holiday return policies from popular stores
While some retailers have adjusted their holiday return policies, others have maintained their previous practices. This season, let's delve into the specifics of popular stores' return policies so you don't miss a deadline.
Policy Change: One of the bigger changes is that Amazon shortened its three-week holiday return window.
Key Date: Items bought on or after Nov. 1 can be returned by the end of January.
Policy Change: There are no significant changes to the return window; returns are accepted until Jan. 13 for most purchases.
Online Returns: Generally free, with potential restocking fees for opened items.
Policy Change: No deadline for most items; electronics and major appliances have a 90-day return window.
Online Returns: Free.
Policy Change: No significant changes; shoppers pay to ship online purchases back.
Return Window: Most items can be returned within 180 days of purchase.
Policy Change: Another huge change is that Macy's now charges $9.99 to return online orders for non-Star Rewards program members.
Rewards Program: Free returns for Star Rewards program members.
Marshalls and T.J. Maxx
Policy Change: Increased return-by-mail fee by $1 to $11.99.
In-Store Returns: Free.
Policy Change: Staples shaved nine days off its return window.
Return Deadline: Until Jan. 14 for items purchased on or after Nov. 13.
Return Policy: Online returns are free; most items have a 90-day return policy.
Extended Window: Electronics bought between Oct. 1 and Dec. 24 have a return deadline of Jan. 24.
Return Policy: Online returns are free.
Deadline: Most items purchased between Oct. 1 and Dec. 31 must be returned by Jan. 31.
Retailers' response to the return challenge
The surge in returns poses challenges for consumers, retailers, and brands as consumers look to keep more cash in their wallets in the form of gift cards or store credit. According to the National Retail Federation, returns in U.S. retailers accounted for approximately $816 billion in lost sales in 2022. As online shopping dominates, the return process becomes crucial in purchasing decisions.
- The cost of returns: A recent survey by Pollen Returns highlights that over 43% of respondents find returns inconvenient, with printing labels, repacking items, and visiting logistics services the process.
- Retailers' strategies: Retailers are adjusting their return policies to balance profits. While shipping remains primarily free, some brands charge fees for returns to recover costs from lost sales.
- Shorter return periods: Retailers are shortening return periods, with some reducing the window from 60 to 30 days or even 14 days. This move aims to discourage returns and liquidate excess inventory promptly.
- Charging fees for returns: A survey by Happy Returns reveals that 26% of merchants started charging for returns in the last year, with 16% considering implementing fees in 2023. This approach helps cover the costs associated with returns.
- In-store flexible returns: Offering in-store returns provides a convenient option for customers, aligning with the buy online, pick-up in-store model. Brands like Amazon and Ulta Beauty facilitate in-person returns at partner locations. Zappos merchandise can be returned within 365 days from the date of purchase. You can also avoid repacking the product simply by returning the Zappos merchandise to Whole Foods for free.
- Store credit incentives: Some retailers offer store credits for returned goods, providing an additional incentive for customers to make future purchases.
Retailers are adapting to the challenges posed by the surge in online shopping and returns. Consumers are urged to stay informed about the policies of their preferred retailers to ensure a seamless post-purchase experience. The delicate balance between customer satisfaction and the financial realities of returns continues to shape the retail landscape, prompting brands to innovate and explore new approaches to the age-old challenge of product returns.
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