Almost on a daily basis, we hear customers say “Do you offer free returns”? Some people even take this up a level – “Why would you not offer free returns?!” All of this despite the fact that when we issue a refund for a returned product we refund the original postage, and therefore lose a considerable amount on every single returned product.

Let me just confirm that if a product is sent in error or there is a blatant fault with a product, we would of course never expect the customer to lose a single penny. We are talking here about when a customer orders a product that maybe isn’t a perfect fit, or they have simply changed their mind.

To be frank, we are baffled how anyone could expect a company to pay for the postage to send a product out, and the postage to receive it back, at no loss whatsoever to the customer, when there is nothing wrong with the product that was sent! We are even more baffled why someone would feel irked if this wasn’t the service being offered. Surely our system of going down the middle and bearing the cost of sending the item and for the customer to bear the cost of sending the item back is a ‘more than fair’ system..?

Back in the day when people would buy things from physical shops, and they had to return a product because they changed their mind or had second thoughts, did they demand from the retailer a refund of their car parking ticket, or maybe their fuel costs, not to mention the time involved with it all..? The answer is no – of course they didn’t! And why didn’t they..? Because they knew it wasn’t right! Their morals (and let’s be honest, even people with a low moral code are well aware of what’s right and wrong) told them it wasn’t right! The retailer has brought a product to you putting in much time, effort and financial commitment and you have decided to purchase it. The retailer has then left the door open for you to bring the product back if you wish, and on taking them up on this, they have refunded every penny they originally took from you. Surely a feeling of gratitude is more appropriate than one of anger and injustice..?

So why does this culture exist?

We believe there are a few elements that have changed the face of returns. Firstly, most transactions these days are not face-to-face. People can ‘try it on’ with a computer screen and feel little guilt. People can be quite rude and abrupt to someone over email, in a way that they could never bring themselves to do in person. The ultimate goal of course being to make sure that the purchaser themselves does not lose a single penny.

The vast majority of people still associate purchasing online as a way of finding a ‘bargain’. So when things don’t turn out quite the way they planned, they are still in the ‘bargain’ frame of mind. This basically means that the buyer does not want to lose out – regardless of who else has to pay the price, or what moral depths they have to stoop to. People have many tools in the current online environment to ‘punish’ a retailer or hold them to ransom, but that’s a whole ‘nother piece!

Many purchasers also have a strong sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’, being the customer and the retailer. They see ‘them’ as being the big profiteer, with extortionate prices, that can easily afford to absorb the losses from a single transaction. Anyone that runs a small business could soon put them to rights (hello, we only make a few pounds on each item!), but the reality is that most of society detaches themselves from the human element behind the company. They don’t care for the money concerns of the owner behind the business that may be struggling to make ends meet!

In answering this question, I’m going to ask another question, “Why does this culture continue”, and I’m going to answer this question with a single word – Amazon.

By far the most powerful retailer in the world today, Amazon are enjoying making such vast profits, that in doing so, good morals are in actual fact being lost! I’m not talking about tax-avoidance here, or the way that Amazon treats its merchants, although the latter issue we definitely intend to cover in a future piece!

It did not happen by accident of course, someone didn’t fall upon this by good luck. Amazon has strived to be the number one retailer online for 20 years. In that 20 years (of which I’ve been on the whole journey), the online environment has become extremely competitive. There are many ways to bring in sales of course; marketing, an attractive website, a website that is easy to use etc. But the most powerful thing of all is price!

Although a basic principle of business is that you should do everything that you can to win a sale before lowering your price, Amazon is the market leader at under-cutting! And if Amazon can’t beat someone at price, well… that just doesn’t happen! If Amazon has the product in stock they will beat everyone on price! Any small retailer hoping to compete with Amazon only has one option - to sell products that Amazon just doesn’t have. But what has come alongside the low prices is - Free returns – sold by Amazon as ‘good customer service’, or more accurately, ‘customer service’.

The truth is Amazon has no interest of course in rectifying a problem with a product, answering questions about it or offering any kind of product support, and ‘Free Returns’ was the solution. Amazon made it commonplace to have free returns rather than commit time and money into giving staff any kind of product knowledge. It could be argued that they rely on the specialist retailers out there to do this work for them, and then they just reap reward of the sale! What at first seemed a great perk of making a purchase on Amazon, has now become normal and expected of all retailers. Retailers felt forced to match Amazon’s returns policy, but more than likely in addition to having superior product knowledge. Have a look around online today and a company that doesn’t offer free returns is a rarity! And it is fair to say that there is some degree of risk by not offering it.

However, as a small company that doesn’t have the financial resources of Amazon, and a level head we like to think, we long for a more realistic and sustainable environment. Just like the face of shop retailing evolved over the centuries, we hope that the unsustainable elements in the online world will slowly and surely be realised!

In short, my company doesn’t offer free returns, not because it is tight or greedy, but because it doesn’t want to distort the basic principles of decent morals and knows that by trying to conform to unrealistic expectations with the likes of Amazon, we just wouldn’t be here tomorrow! We can of course offer you the superior product knowledge to help you make a more informed purchase, and we believe this should be your demand from retailers over free returns!

This whole culture can change of course and we firmly believe it will over the course of the next decade or so, now that online buying is mainstream, and gimmicks are just not necessary! It may however need Amazon to take the lead in this, and then for other large retailers to grab that window of opportunity with both hands and ditch the free returns culture for good!

© The Online Retailer