Backtalk: Get Your Returns Rate Under Control

Feb. 1, 2010
Although seven percent of all retail products are returned, many of those returns aren’t as inevitable as you might think. In fact, some are actually quite avoidable. Getting your reverse logistics process under control just takes using your last-mile process and professionals a little more proactively, and steering clear of some misguided thinking

Indecision isn’t cheap.
Each year approximately 7% of U.S. retail purchases are returned, according to a joint study conducted by The Retail Equation and the Loss Prevention Research Council—adding to what Aberdeen Group research estimates is $100 billion in supply chain expense.

My company has had a much closer view of this phenomenon than most, because we deliver to numerous consumers every day. As a result, we’ve come to believe that many returns aren’t as inevitable as some people think, and that some are actually quite avoidable.

All it takes is using your last-mile process and professionals a little more proactively—and steering clear of the following misguided statements.

“We’ll make it fit.”
When it comes to large items, appearances can be deceiving. Often, a product that looks just right in the store or on the website can wind up being too large or small for its intended space, or too unwieldy to get through a customer’s door without sustaining minor damages.

To prevent these mismatches—and the inevitable returns that go hand-in-hand with them—make sure you’re giving customers an adequate measure of pre-delivery information.

At the very least, this information should include product dimensions and delivery clearance requirements for the item purchased. However, for optimal results, it also should feature a clearly worded request (in checklist or instruction form) for measurements of a customer’s doorways, hallways, freight elevators and the actual space where an item is supposed to go.

“We’ll deliver sometime between 12 and 4.”
No one wants to waste a vacation day waiting around for a delivery, especially one that doesn’t arrive on time. However, that’s often what happens in the last-mile sector, where many companies are notorious for making—and then failing to be on time for—vague delivery appointments. It’s a frequent cause of delivery day buyer’s remorse.

Although your company may not be able to schedule last-mile deliveries down to the minute, it can at least tighten its delivery windows significantly—perhaps to two hours or less—with the help of today’s superior routing and optimization tools.

It also can buy customers a little more convenience by having drivers call them when the truck is less than an hour away from their particular residence. This is an easy and inexpensive courtesy now that most drivers have cell phones, and it’s one your time-challenged customers will truly appreciate.

“Call the help line if you have any issues.”
One of the most common reasons cited for customer returns is some variation of “I couldn’t get the product to work.” Yet many of these returned products aren’t defective at all. Instead, they’re just too complex for a particular buyer to install or operate without help.

To reduce this phenomenon, consider teaching your company’s delivery teams to perform product set-up and installation (where permissible by state law) and offering this as a delivery option. Or have these teams provide short product familiarization sessions as a standard part of customers’ delivery experience. You’d be surprised at what a difference even five to ten minutes of on-site instruction can make.

“It’s just a little dirt”
Many customers will return perfectly good products for the most superficial of reasons. For example, if your company delivers an item in a box or crate that looks like it’s been used for crash testing, some customers will automatically conclude that the product inside it is equally damaged, even if it’s clearly not.

Or, if a product has collected dust or dirt while in transit, customers may either think they’re getting an SKU that’s already been used or one that’s been sitting in someone’s warehouse too long.

Before delivering any product, take the time to make it look like the high-quality new item it is, whether that means wielding a dust rag, changing out tired-looking packaging or bringing in a professional who’s qualified to make cosmetic repairs.

Give your teams some empowerment at the delivery site, too, because sometimes a product with minor defects does inadvertently wind up being delivered. And when that happens, drivers’ ability to offer a damage allowance per your company’s clearly defined parameters could make the difference between a product being kept or kicked back.

Will O’Shea is chief marketing officer of 3PD Inc., a provider of last-mile logistics and delivery services for heavy goods. The company provides services in nearly 500 cities throughout North America.

This article originally appeared in the Logistics Today digital magazine. To read other articles from that issue, click here: