These Retailers Provide the Best Return Experience for Online Orders

Oct 04, 2013 11:00 AM  By

Consumers return a whopping $264.3 billion of merchandise per year—and while a retailer’s goal is to avoid returns, it’s important to provide a seamless experience for the customer when it does happen. When it comes to returning products ordered online, providing consistency in the customer experience is everything.

In order to identify the quality of return processes among online retailers, my company, StellaService, which independently monitors e-commerce customer service performance, evaluated 96 retailers across 10 categories from June to August.

Only 16 of the 96 merchants our researchers evaluated achieved the caliber of “Perfect Returns,” defined as a retailer that always provides a prepaid, adhesive return label in the package and never requires authorization to initiate the return.

Ten of the 16 merchants that achieved Perfect Returns were apparel retailers, while the rest included three department stores, two sporting goods shops and one sportswear retailer. Given the inherent challenges of ordering the right size online without trying on the item first, it’s not surprising that apparel companies were the most frequent to achieve Perfect Returns.

Our researchers identified Shopbop, Urban Outfitters and Nordstrom as best in class among the companies we evaluated, as they ensured returns at no cost to the customer 100% of the time. In fact, Nordstrom’s fast returns processing has earned it a consistent rating among the top five department store performers in StellaService’s monthly Benchmarks evaluations 10 out of the past 11 months.

The results showed that L.L. Bean led the pack in terms of speed, averaging 7.3 days to issue a return. Shopbop scored second highest, averaging 8.8 days to process a refund, and apparel retailers Eddie Bauer and Tory Burch followed with fast return processing despite a $6 to $7 cost to the consumer. Sporting goods retailer Sierra Trading Post also fared well consistently during the past 5 months.

But not everything is as easy to return as a pair of jeans. Categories like home furnishings didn’t fare so well in our research, with an average refund time of over two weeks and inconsistencies with return label policies among the retailers we studied. Hardware and home improvement retailers also struggled. And while electronics and media companies were fastest across all retail categories, averaging 6.6 days to issue a refund, few provided pre-paid return labels in the package.

Our research suggests that as we migrate further online for all our shopping needs, the returns process becomes increasingly important. And the data goes to show that consistency wins the game—or at least the repeat customer. Our reporter recently spoke about the matter with consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow, who noted that “we’re getting to the point now where a retailer that doesn’t have a seamless return policy is viewed as being from another era.”

Click here for the full list of 16 retailers that met our Perfect Returns criteria, ranked in order of the fastest to processing a refund.

Jordy Leiser is co-founder and CEO of StellaService, an independent provider of ecommerce customer service performance ratings.