Many unhappy returns for online shopping

 An Amazon box on a counter in Golden, Colorado on Aug 27, 2014.
An Amazon box on a counter in Golden, Colorado on Aug 27, 2014.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK • Ms Kristina Nicolas will proudly tell you that she has been doing practically all her shopping online for years now. She will also tell you, in a more exasperated voice, that this has not remotely abbreviated the amount of time she spends going to stores.

"It has become a huge errand and a huge part of my life having to get all this stuff back to where it came from," said Ms Nicolas, a stay-at-home mother and former fashion buyer. She receives 10 to 15 boxes a week of merchandise at her home in Chicago and returns (or tries to return) about 30 per cent.

The ease of the task varies. "Sometimes it can be returned to the store, but sometimes it cannot," said Ms Nicolas, growing louder. "Sometimes it's UPS, or DHL, or FedEx, or however they shipped it, then you have to print up a label and I never seem to have the right tape."

And who has a working printer at home anyway? "I don't really need one except for this," said Ms Beth Paholak, a TV producer who has sacrificed a corner of her small apartment in Manhattan to boxes awaiting return. "And I'm not buying a printer just for returns."

The paradox of e-commerce now is that while acquiring items has gotten easier than ever before, exchanging or returning the unwanted ones remains an epic, tyrannical time suck.

It was not supposed to be like this. Online shopping would save us time, we were told. It would free us from the torment of malls, angry clerks and wasted Saturdays. But as the fantasy becomes real - e-commerce will account for US$2.3 trillion (S$3.1 trillion), or one-tenth of all retail sales, this year, according to eMarketer - some shoppers are surprised to discover they are devoting as much time to returns as they once did to in-person shopping, with less fun.

"I've ended up keeping stuff because the return process was such a pain," said Mr Rob Cromer, an entrepreneur in New York City, using profanity.

Between Dec 26 and Jan 31, 45 per cent of Americans will try to return at least one gift, according to Optoro, an e-commerce software company. Today, that gift is more likely than ever to have been purchased online: 2017 is the first year that a majority of Americans planned to do their holiday shopping on the Web, according to consulting firm Deloitte.

But while a handful of retailers receive nearly unanimous praise from shoppers for open-ended, friction-free returns of purchases made online (Amazon, Nordstrom, L.L. Bean, Madewell, among others), and many offer more generous policies during the holiday season, plenty still impose tight limitations and draconian requirements that seem designed to either discourage returns or drive traffic into their physical locations.

Forever 21 and Shopbop require customers to return items bought online within 30 days, and like Victoria's Secret, Kohl's and Rue La La, do not always pay for shipping (Shopbop offers refunds for items returned within 15 days). Returns to Net-a-Porter must be made within 28 days, and within 14 days for Apple and Barnes & Noble - a narrow window if you factor in packing and shipping. Many retailers will send multiple items from a single order in separate boxes, each of which could require its own label (and box) in case of return.

One can also feel sorry for the stores. Returns cost retailers US$260 billion in 2015, according to the National Retail Federation. And about 30 per cent of items bought online end up being returned, versus 9 per cent of items bought in stores.

Some third-party vendors are eager to cash in on the inconvenience of returns. In 2015, two former Nordstrom employees started Happy Returns, a company that operates physical "return bars" in malls where customers can give back items brought from e-commerce retailers including Everlane, Chubbies and Tradesy for immediate refunds. Happy Returns has 50 locations and expects to open 150 more by the end of next year.

And in October, Amazon paid a reported US$50 million to US$70 million to acquire Body Labs, a start-up specialising in technology that allows shoppers to create 3-D avatars for trying on clothes online.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 28, 2017, with the headline 'Many unhappy returns for online shopping'. Print Edition | Subscribe