Should You Offer Free Return Shipping? What to Consider.

Our experts weigh in on how to handle this latest shipping challenge.

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By Samantha Drake

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

These days, when customers see the words "free shipping,' they often think "free returns.' According to Internet analytics service comScore, consumers check out an ecommerce business' policies with an eye on not having to pay to return an item. Eighty-two percent of online shoppers polled in 2014 said they would make a purchase on the Internet if the company offered free return shipping.

Offering free shipping on returns is a great marketing tool, one given prominence by companies such as Zappos, whose free return policy helped make shopping for shoes online finally make sense. And free returns will make you stand out for customers. "It's a benefit to be able to offer free returns," says John Haber, CEO of Spend Management Experts in Atlanta. "It does impact the customer experience."

But free returns doesn't make sense for every business or even for every item. Here are some tips from shipping experts to help you devise a strategy that works for your customers and your bottom line.

Related: "5 Shipping Secrets of Zappos

1. Be strategic. Take a page from successful Etsy sellers who often don't offer return shipping outside of strategic periods, such as the two weeks around the holidays, notes Jason Malinak, an accountant in Colorado Springs, Colo. who wrote the e-book Etsy-preneurship (Wiley, 2012) to help Etsy sellers run their businesses.

Related: 4 Secrets to Multichannel Success

2. Think lean. If you do offer free return shipping, offer it in economical way. For instance, make the perk only available with standard ground delivery service from USPS, which our experts stress is an economical option. The longer delivery window of two- to eight days, likely won't be an issue for customers on returns, Haber adds. Money can also be saved by reusing packaging for returns, Haber says.

Related: 5 Ecommerce Mistakes to Avoid: A Newbie's Guide

3. Remember: It's a marketing tool. Use free returns to earn customer loyalty. Zappos' free return shipping policy encourages customers to buy more shoes than they'll end up keeping, notes Hal Altman, president and co-founder of Motivational Fulfillment & Logistical Services in Chino, Calif. He says it's not unusual for customers to order five pairs of shoes and return four of them, he says. However, this flexibility earns repeat business and a reputation as a leader in free return shipping, says Altman.

Samantha Drake

Samantha Drake is a freelance writer and editor in the Philadelphia area who specializes in business, legal, environmental, and general interest issues.

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