To attract more business from online marketers, on Oct. 29 the U.S. Postal Service launched Electronic Merchandise Return Service (aka Returns@ease). The program is designed to make it easy – and free – for Web shoppers to return merchandise to online retailers. The service is also available to print catalogers.

To return orders, customers can dial the marketer’s customer service line, send an e-mail to alert the marketers that they want to make a return, or go into the marketer’s Websites and input their return information. The marketer then electronically transmits a return label (via the USPS Website) that customers can print out and use to mail their return packages.

Participating marketers pay the return postage costs, a $100 annual fee, and a $0.30 fee for each package returned via the service. “It’s up to the online retailers whether they want the return to go via parcel post or [the speedier but more expensive] Priority Mail,” says USPS spokesman Gerry McKiernan. Marketers must also set up postage accounts with their local postal facilities.

The USPS began testing the program in the middle of September with, a Bellevue, WA-based online-only outdoor apparel retailer. In addition to making returns easier for customers, notes Altrec director of operations Tim Shannon, the service speeds up processing on the marketer’s back-end.

“When we receive returns on the loading dock,” Shannon says, “we can open them and scan the return label, which records all the information on the packaging list, verifying that we’ve received it. The scan also automatically credits the customer’s credit card.”

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