A Few Happy Returns From a Season of Shopping Online

A Few Happy Returns From a Season of Shopping Online

Walmart just introduced a simplified online return process. Nordstrom offers curbside returns. Will other retailers follow their lead?

Eighty four percent of us shopped online this year during the pandemic, according to Shopify’s Future of Commerce 2021 report. And I’d venture to bet that most—even those who miss the in-store experience—would admit that it’s a pretty convenient way to shop. There’s a search bar to prevent aimless wandering of aisles. It’s easy to compare prices, check stock, and read reviews. You don’t need to brush your teeth first, or wear clothes. And there’s the fun of surprising yourself with packages at the door that you forgot you even ordered.

But when one of those online deliveries contains a wrong size or an odd color, I don’t need official survey data to estimate that 100 percent of us dread the online return. The re-boxing, the taping, the trying to piece together the plastic bag you ripped haphazardly not realizing you’d have to use it for the return. Printing out a return form, and in some cases, having to pay a return fee. The putting on of pants to drive the unwanted package to the post office. It’s enough to make us miss the shopping mall.

Yesterday, Walmart answered this collective gripe by introducing new return options. Now, you can schedule a pickup date, and Walmart will retrieve unwanted packages from your doorstep. The retailer also made it possible to arrange a return without having to print out a label—a detail that trips up more consumers that you might realize, especially those who don’t have a printer at home. Walmart also promised to speed up the credit process for online returns with money back as soon as the next day.

Walmart shoppers will still need to go online to initiate a return, and a receipt or item code is required to schedule a pickup. But the new process addresses many consumer pain points, which is essential if retailers want to keep up their online momentum post-pandemic.

I’m thinking about my own parents, who’ve become very adept at ordering everything from groceries to gifts online. A delivery they received this week included the wrong flavor on an item they planned to give as a gift. Mistakes happen, but my parents aren’t about to negate their careful quarantining to stand in line at the Target return counter.

One of the big (surprise) successes of pandemic shopping has been the popularity of curbside pickup. It satisfies our need-it-now mentality at no extra cost, and—this should not be minimized—provides those bored at home with a destination and safe moment of human connection. So what about curbside returns? Nordstrom, beloved for its superior customer service, is one of the first and only retailers I’m aware of to offer curbside returns. Why aren’t more retailers following suit—particularly those that have done so well with curbside pickup this year? Are you listening, Best Buy and Target? For Nordstrom, returns must be initiated online, with a shipping label printed, but then customers have the option of dropping it at the store, without getting out of the car. That’s a service boutiques ought to consider offering this season as well. Labor intensive though it might be to run out to the parking lot to collect merchandise and deliver credits, an easy return is one of the best ways to create customer loyalty.

79 percent of consumers plan to shop online regularly in the next six months.

While we’re on the topic, here’s another shortcoming of online shopping that’s been fully exposed this holiday season: the lack of ability to include a gift message. Why are so many sites missing this? If you can buy it, you can gift it. As far as I’m concerned, every e-commerce seller should make it easy and obvious to hide the price upon delivery and add a message to let the recipient know who it’s from. A card, rather than a line on the order printout, would be even better. I’m mystified by how often this is not the case. Several times this season, I’ve sent emails to customer service departments requesting that a gift message be added to my order. The small, local companies responded quickly and accommodated my request. Two national brands never got back to me, leaving me to alert my intended that hey, the unexpected box at your door from that site you’ve never shopped? That’s from me. Merry Christmas.

I tweeted my frustration about e-commerce sites that lack the option to include a gift message, and one small retailer responded by saying that selling platforms often make it difficult to add a gift message option. That would explain why this shortcoming is so widespread, but not why it’s an  overlooked and under appreciated feature. I posed the question to Shopify, the commerce platform of choice for more than a million retail businesses, but they haven’t gotten back to me yet, either.

Shopify reports that its retailers—predominantly smaller brands and boutiques—replaced 94 percent of in-store sales lost in the first six weeks of the pandemic with online sales. That represents huge potential, particularly for indie stores. Before Covid-19, many of them dismissed the mere thought of competing against Amazon for online orders, and focused on experience as their unique advantage. It took a pandemic to illustrate that experience and service can happen beyond the store as well.

Shopify’s Future of Commerce 2021 survey finds that 79 percent of consumers plan to shop online regularly in the next six months compared to 57 percent who say they’ll shop regularly in store. Wouldn’t it be something if 100 percent of those online experiences made easy the ability to consult with a human, personalize an order with a simple message, and round out the transaction with seamless support services for exchanges and returns? These are big e-commerce opportunities in the year ahead.