BY ALICE MURHPY
Barclaycard released an article last summer which reported that an increasing number of UK shoppers are now ‘serial returners’ - that is, shoppers who regularly change their mind and go back for a refund after purchasing an item. I have been one of these ‘serial returner’ for many years and will happily admit to buying several items of clothing online in order to spend enough to qualify for free shipping, on the basis that I’ll probably send back whatever isn't quite right or looks completely different to the photo on the website.
Barclaycard discussed how this has been a problem for fashion retailers in particular, where 47% of the money spent by consumers ends up being refunded. The resulting ‘phantom economy’ is a complete headache for them because of the logistics and costs of processing all these returns. They even suggested that 3 out of 10 retailers have had to raise their prices to cover the costs of web returns alone.
Over the last six months, I’ve been co-managing a small menswear brand at a department store, and have been in a prime position to make several observations about the way that returns culture works in clothing stores. Here are four key things I’ve learnt:
1) This squeeze on retailers is real.
It’s easy to feel like your shopping habits won’t make a difference. Surely I’m just a drop in an ocean of millions of other shoppers? Well, actually, on an individual shop basis at least and especially in smaller shops, even one return might make a difference.
When you’re under pressure to hit certain sales targets, it can be a kick in the teeth to have a customer come back in and return something simply because they were too lazy to try it on in the shop before they bought it. And if you have several returns in a day, particularly with expensive items like coats, it can put you into negative figures for the day. Multiply this on a national level, and it’s easy to see why shops are feeling the squeeze.
2) English awkwardness plays a big part.
Barclaycard claimed that as many as 33% of shoppers buy things that they actually expect to be unsuitable, on the off-chance that they work, safe in the knowledge that they’ve hung onto the receipt. Whilst online shoppers don’t have to worry about the ‘returner’s guilt’ of taking an item back to a store, when people buy things in a physical shop it’s a very different story.
When people shop in-store and have been assisted by a member of staff, some of them are simply too polite to not buy it. Sociologist Kate Fox calls this awkward Englishness ‘social dis-ease’ and I have been eyewitness to this in action on many, many occasions. You can see the anxious panic rising in their eyes – you've dug through the stockroom to find the item in a different colour and in two different sizes, and now they cannot say no.
As one particularly intuitive friend of mine said, ‘You can tell when they’re too just too awkward to say ‘no thank you’. I can see it in their face – I always know who’s going to be back the next day for a refund’.
3) A surprising number of shoppers have literally NO CLUE how returns work.
If you buy something that you aren’t certain that you’ll keep, please make sure you know what their returns policy is. Different shops have different rules. Some stores, like Sports Direct, have actually done away with refunds altogether and only do exchanges. Some stores may have a 14 day, rather than a 28 day, refund window. Likewise, please remember your receipt or at the very least a bank statement, and don't try to bring back anything that’s not in a re-sellable condition.
These probably sound like no-brainers to the majority of readers, but I am consistently alarmed by the number of people who are completely shocked and offended to discover that they can’t get their money back for a pair of shoes that they bought six months ago, or that they can’t exchange a jacket with the label pulled off that they no longer have the receipt for. Many of them take it very personally indeed.
4) Clothes in shops really get around! Always wash anything that you buy and plan to keep.
I implore you. You have no idea how many other people have taken that item home with them.
When you work on a very small mat in a department store, you deal with quite a limited number of items. This means I can often remember where each item has been, how many times it's been tried it on, and how many people have bought it only to bring it back again. We tend to think that when we buy a new garment that it’s - well, new. But the reality is that your brand-new shirt has probably been bundled up in two other random stranger's bags, dropped on their dirty bedroom floor, and maybe even worn out and about. So a quick spin in the washing machine before you wear it for the first time is always a wise move.
At the end of the day, it’s easy to see why returns culture has become so endemic amongst shoppers. As a serial returner myself, I'm well aware that it's reassuring to know that you’ve got that option if you change your mind, realise it doesn’t fit, or if it just looks totally different away from the harsh shop lighting. Yet what with the uncertain future of high street shopping and my tendency to justify buying things I don’t need because 'I might return it later', I’m trying increasingly to shop more sensibly and to return fewer items. I may not be able to singlehandedly solve the problem of the phantom economy, but who knows - maybe I can finally sort out my shopping habits!
You can the Barclaycard report at https://www.home.barclaycard/media-centre/press-releases/Retailers-face-a-Phantom-Economy-of-7-billion-each-year.html