We all purchased a lot of stuff during last year's holiday season, which pushed U.S. retail sales totals up 4.9%, the largest jump since 2011. Unfortunately, some of it was the wrong stuff.

For many people, unwanted gifts are Christmas kryptonite — they can’t get those products out of the house fast enough. These are the resolute ones who are willing to stand in long lines at the mall on Dec. 26 to unload that undesirable merchandise as fast as possible.

For others, making a single trip to the local pack-and-ship store to send gifts back to online retailers is the preferred solution.

UPS projected 1.4 million returns on Jan. 3 alone, the day the carrier designated National Returns Day 2018. That figure was a fifth consecutive annual record, up 8% from 2017. When the final numbers were tallied, UPS processed 6 million return packages the first week of January.

Focus on Returns for E-Commerce Success

“While the day after Christmas used to be reserved for long return lines at department stores, the growth of e-commerce has changed when and how consumers return gifts,” said Alan Gershenhorn, retired UPS chief commercial officer. “A customer-friendly returns program is now an essential part of any successful e-commerce program.”

Consumers returned about $90 billion worth of goods last holiday season, based on figures from Optoro, a company that specializes in the business of return shipments. This huge increase in returns was the result of the growth in e-commerce. (According to eMarketer, e-commerce accounted for $2.3 trillion, or one-tenth of all retail sales, in 2017.)

Returns, however, become major burdens to retailers that must deal with the issue on both the consumer and fulfillment sides. Returns are important to the customer experience for online shoppers — goods purchased online are being returned at double and triple the rate as items bought from storefronts. A challenging returns experience can alienate even loyal customers. 

Easy Returns Mean Return Customers

Like the unboxing experience, a seamless return process is part of the retailer’s last moment of truth. The interactions online shoppers have with a retailer’s packaging — whether opening it to obtain the item inside or taping it up to send the item back — are the last moments a company has to make good impression.

Data from the National Retail Federation’s 2017 Holiday Shopping Behavior Survey revealed that nearly two-thirds of holiday shoppers had made at least one return last holiday season. More than 80% described the process as “easy,” but for those who experienced friction in the return process, 64% said they would be hesitant to shop at that retailer ever again.

Holiday Returns Can Impact Customer Loyalty All Year

Though the stakes may be higher at the holidays, customer loyalty is a yearlong pursuit. Packaging that has return logistics built in to minimize shipping costs and complexity will help to retain customers.

One of the best ways to ensure customers have as much confidence in a company when it comes to returns as it does with deliveries is the ease in which the delivery receptacle can become the return receptacle. Most online shoppers are seeking reusable packaging that can be resealed easily.

When it comes to secondary packaging, special boxes with retention and suspension capabilities  can be used for returns. Tear strips, which aid in the return process, can be incorporated into mailers as well the corrugated and polybag materials used by automated packaging machines.

During the fulfillment process, companies can include a prepaid return label inside the shipping vessel along with a diagram on how to prepare the package for the return along with an insert card about the company’s return policy.

Companies that make the return process an integral part of the customer experience will attract more shoppers. These days, online consumers seek full retail services, not just delivery services.  

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