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Retail brands fight back: will free returns soon be a thing of the past?

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Whippet consider a more sustainable returns culture following news of Waitrose's delivery vans partnering with John Lewis.

This week, it was announced that Waitrose delivery vans will start collecting John Lewis returns. Not only is this more convenient for customers, saving them a trip in-store or to the Post Office, but it’s also more convenient for John Lewis, saving them money every time a customer chooses this option over free Royal Mail returns. This is John’s Lewis’s creative way of tackling one of the biggest problems affecting UK retailers today: free returns.

Although we take free returns for granted, they’re not working out so well for retailers. According to Barclaycard, UK shoppers spend an average of £313 on online clothes shopping a year and return 47%, while one in ten has bought something just to send it back after taking a snap for social media.

Serial returning is bad for business and it’s even worse for the environment, sending the fast fashion cycle into overdrive. But when customers expect convenience and cheapness as standard, can brands afford to make the process complicated and expensive?

Let’s take a look at three brands reducing returns (both intentionally and inadvertently) in three alternative ways.

Spoke London: the bespoke disrupter

Spoke London has taken the ‘prevention, not cure’ approach, by building a disruptive business model that creates customised menswear.

Customers answer a series of questions, from ‘What’s the most common waist size in your wardrobe?’ to ‘How do you fasten your watch?’, which reveals their perfect fit. Alternatively, customers can put in their own measurements, choosing from 11 waist sizes, nine leg sizes and three ‘builds’.

Although Spoke offer free, ‘no questions asked’ returns, customers are much more likely to keep an item that’s been personalised to fit them perfectly.

While not all retailers can offer such in-depth tailoring options, they could start thinking about fit rather than just size. Is it such a stretch to imagine a future where high street stores offer different ‘builds’ or ‘fits’ in each size, just like Spoke? Or dresses that are a different size in the top than they are in the skirt? It’s more of a stretch to imagine that two size 10 women will have the exact same height, weight and proportions.

M&S: the digital investor

When sizes vary so wildly between (and even within) brands, it’s impossible to know what’s going to fit by looking at a photo.

That’s why M&S has invested in Texel, a company specialising in clothes-fitting tech. Together they want to combine Texel’s 3D-scanning tech with M&S’s tool for creating 3D clothing patterns. The plan is for customers to build a unique avatar of themselves, which they can use to digitally try on clothes.

It’s an exciting concept, but one that few brands can afford to replicate. A more low-tech version would be to shoot products on three different size 10 models, three different size 12 models etc so that customers can select the model they feel best represents their body shape.

ASOS: the serial blacklister

In an effort to tackle serial returners, ASOS has made the bold move of banning them completely. The new ‘blacklisting’ policy caused a stir on Twitter; at around the same time, an image of an ASOS dress with bulldog clips left in went viral, and customers were quick to make the link between returns and misleading images.

While ASOS says its new policy only applies when there’s ‘an unusual pattern’, our own design director here at Whippet has been banned and we promise he’s not a reckless fashion addict – he’s just short on time, and finds it difficult to know what will fit.

ASOS has already introduced measures to help customers find their perfect fit, but they’re not well publicised around the site. The new returns policy garnered a lot of media attention; maybe it’s time to push its more positive features, like Fit Assistant, and see if this reduces the number of serial numbers.

The last resort for returns

ASOS has clearly chosen to ban the worst offenders in order to preserve free returns for the majority of its customers, but it has risked alienating those who struggle to find clothes for their shape.

Perhaps the best solution, for any brand, is to first eliminate all the factors that make people want to return clothes: by helping them to find the right size, taking close-ups of the fabric, making videos to show movement, and avoiding tricks to distort the fit, like bulldog clips.

After all that, if they’re still struggling with high return rates then, and only then, charging for returns might be their only option. (Unless they can use existing logistics to adopt a more creative approach, like John Lewis.) So, enjoy free returns while you can – but try not to overdo it.

Tabitha Burns is a senior copywriter at Whippet.

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