Fulfillment Workers Deserve a Reliable Returns Process

returns process

It’s still too early to tell how smoothly supply chain operations and throughput will run this peak holiday season, but now is the time to review your returns process. Adding new efficiencies to improve your returns process will pay dividends well into the future no matter when they’re introduced.

Given the tight labor market, high worker turnover rates, supply shortages, and climbing ecommerce order volumes, planning ahead has never been more fundamental. DHL eCommerce Solutions is projecting peak volume to grow 35%. The near-term labor outlook is especially grim for SMBs: NABE’s August 2021 Jobs Report found a staggering 50% reported job openings they could not fill, more than double the 48-year historical average.

To bridge the gap, you need to identify ways to improve the experience for both customers and employees. Like any fulfillment center function, your returns process can also impact employee retention. Here are some beneficial ways to make your organization more attractive for current and future employees.

Establish a Clear Returns Process 

Everyone knows consumers expect a simple, transparent and seamless returns experience. But there is something to be said about the importance of making the returns policy clear for associates as well. Managing returns-related tasks and processes can quickly eat up considerable time and energy without a standard set of guidelines to follow, much less a proper system for handling them.

Your associates should understand the policy so they know exactly what to do with returns when they arrive and how to navigate these requests. Whether assisting the customer with returns at the front counter or over the phone, or even processing that customer’s return or exchange within the warehouse, a clear returns policy will make the process run more smoothly for employees.

Put a Proper Receiving Process in Place 

This is the best way to prevent returns or exchanges from becoming a mounting, unaddressed problem. Make sure associates receive timely updates on returns so they can be prepared to deal with them as they arrive. For example, in the absence of a proper receiving process, returns can all too easily get mixed up and processed with inbound products by mistake, creating hours of additional labor for associates who are then responsible for tracking them down.

Every return has a disposition. Is it broken? Is it damaged? Is it in the original box? Did the customer include a return merchandise authorization (RMA)? Has an exchange been requested? Tracking returns in a warehouse management system (WMS) – even before the disposition has been determined – can help avoid confusion around what to do with a given return and why it’s been sent back. It can also reduce shrinkage from theft of returned goods.

These simple steps make it easier to put a proper receiving process in place. Just be sure to monitor and continue to optimize the process, as necessary, going forward. Otherwise, don’t be surprised if (or when) you start finding returns shoved into various corners of your warehouse, left for someone else to discover and deal with later.

Equip Associates With Adequate Tools

Many mistakes in order fulfillment can be reduced or virtually eliminated with the right technology. Toss out any lingering paper-based processes and equip associates with adequate, digital tools such as handheld scanners with functionality to help them carry out daily tasks with greater efficiency and less wasted time and effort.

Deploying a WMS is another way to improve overall productivity and efficiency by keeping silly mistakes to a minimum, resulting in fewer returns and customer complaints and encouraging employees to do their jobs even better. 

Understanding the Reason for Returns 

Processing ecommerce returns manually and dealing with each on a case-by-case basis can be expensive for your operations and exhausting for your associates and customer service staff. If an item is damaged during inbound or outbound delivery, or if it was simply defective, an employee will be required to resolve the issue. While some operations try to designate at least one or two individuals for RMA duty on the warehouse floor, it’s not uncommon for that employee to be dealing with returns in addition to their usual day-to-day work activities and responsibilities.

Fortunately, reason codes in a WMS can be used to help them identify trends like frequently returned items or defective products. Reason codes can even help them monitor and mitigate fraudulent returns, resolving such issues quickly, efficiently and without the burden of a time-consuming manual process to achieve the same result. 

At the end of the day, what’s the value of a return anyway? Does it make sense to have a customer return a $4 item, especially if you’re paying for shipment? Do you plan to restock that item or simply throw it out? And even if you are going to restock it, is it worth the effort and expense to process the return, review it and put it back on a shelf?

To reduce needless waste and keep these inefficiencies from contributing to potential employee frustration and burnout, have the customer keep or donate lower-value items instead of burdening them – and you – with the hassle of returning it. I know of one distributor that takes returns, racks them and prices them super cheap for employees to buy directly from the company. It’s a better option than trashing items that come back, especially those that can’t be resold at a profit or easily refurbished.

As we prepare for another challenging holiday season and the returns that follow, consider their impact not just on your customer experience but also your employee experience. Taking these actions today will help ensure your fulfillment center workers have predictable, reliable returns processes in place ahead of the post-holiday surge.

Eric Allais is president and CEO of PathGuide Technologies Inc.