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5 Secrets to Painless Returns

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You have likely spent months preparing for the holiday buying season by ordering new merchandise, placing gift items at the front of your store and maybe even hiring temporary workers. But a bad returns experience can keep shoppers away from your store forever, so don't forget to plan for the post-holiday season.

1. Have a separate return line. Set up a separate line for handling only returns with a dedicated cash register. "Time is very valuable to consumers and if they have to wait in a long line, their customer satisfaction will decrease. By not mixing customers buying items and returning, you also enhance the buying experience for a customer purchasing an item," says Brent Schoenbaum, partner in retail practice at Deloitte Services LP. Make sure signage directs customers to the return line as they enter the store so busy customers can find it in an instant.

2. Train employees on returns. Before this or any big shopping season, have a short employee training session on how to process returns. "Most retailers have a different policy during the holiday for their returns and there is a lot of ambiguity for the sales person handling the return and that anxiety carries over to the customer," says Matthew Hudson, president at Rick Segel & Associates. After the training, keep a written version of the return process posted in a back room as a refresher.

Hudson suggests holding a returns rehearsal. Once, in previous job as a retailer's director of sales, Hudson designated one evening as a trial run for returns season, inviting friends and family to serve as "customers," and turning points of sale systems to training mode to test specific return scenarios. "We treated the event like it was real transaction and even used cash for the training," says Hudson.

Your training should also stress the importance of a positive attitude. "You want your associates to be just as thoughtful and cheerful when dealing with returns as when making an original sale," says Hudson. He recommends staffing your return line with the most enthusiastic cashiers and even giving higher pay for the hours worked on returns to encourage exceptional performance.

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4. Go the extra mile. Instead of just having employees available to carry purchases out to the car, Hudson recommends having an employee posted outside your store looking for customers carrying bulky packages for returns inside. He recommends not advertising this service, but offering it as an unexpected surprise. "You do not get the wow factor when you announce it," Hudson says. He also recommends giving customers coupons for their next purchase when return lines become long as an extra token of appreciation.

5. Have a clear returns policy. As you'll find during returns season, most problems can be prevented with a clear policy. Most returns policies fall apart in three main areas: confusion over replacing versus refunding items; requiring a receipt for returns; and customers returning damaged merchandise. "You don't want your customers to be surprised if they bring a product back. You want to make sure they know that you have a policy and what it is," says Roger Beahm, professor of marketing and executive director of the Wake Forest University Center for Retail Innovation.

Hold a post-mortem once the season ends to ask your staff what suggestions they might have for your next busy returns season and what could be made more clear. Of course, if you haven't yet, now is the time to post your return policy where all customers can see it. Also, include the policy on all receipts so that customers have an additional reminder of any restrictions.

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