As surely as a busy holiday season brings an increase in Web sales, it also brings more returned merchandise. Unfortunately, returned merchandise is a major by-product of increased Internet growth, especially as consumers become much more comfortable purchasing items over the Net.
"There will be more consumers returning goods purchased over the Internet during this Christmas season than ever before," explains Julie Breen, an e-commerce research analyst at The Boston Consulting Group. "That's simply because there are more goods than ever before being purchased over the Internet."
Web shoppers return merchandise for a variety of reasons. Twenty-five percent of customers who have returned items purchased online say the product wasn't what they expected, according to e-BuyersGuide.com's 1999 "Return to Sender" Shoppers' Expressions survey. Seventeen percent of those who returned items purchased online said the items didn't fit correctly, and another 17 percent said the items were damaged. Sixteen percent of respondents said the wrong items were delivered, 15 percent said they simply didn't want the items, and 10 percent said items were of poor quality.
Not being able to see or touch a product in real life has often been cited as one of the Web's main short-comings. However, that kind of problem may become less prominent in time, says Irwin Barkan, founder of e-BuyersGuide.com, an independent data services organization in Burlington, Massachusetts. "There's incredible technology at work in making touch, feel, color, look, size and fit issues more user-friendly," he says. "Some of the issues regarding these changes are [related to] the current bandwidth and speed available on consumers' computers. It may be a few years before the lines cross between this technology and consumers at home."
The good news: While returns are a problem for e-tailers, they're not a headache for customers. In the e-BuyersGuide.com survey, 78 percent of the consumers who returned items purchased online during 1999's holiday season described their expe-rience with an e-tailer as "satisfactory" or "very satisfactory." The bad news: Of the 6 percent of shoppers who had "unsatisfactory" experiences, 62 percent said they wouldn't return to the e-tail sites responsible as a result. The biggest consumer complaint regarding online returns? Having to pay return postage.
Overall, 86 percent of the survey's respondents said they considered e-tailers' returns policies of significant importance. What features do users like in a returns policy? Receiving a refund as soon as the item is returned; being able to return the item to the e-tailer's brick-and-mortar store; receiving postal pickup at their homes; low or no restocking fees; and being able to exchange the item for something more suitable.
Melissa Campanelli is a technology writer in Brooklyn, New York, who has covered technology for Mobile Computing & Communications and Sales & Marketing Management magazines. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.