Nobody is happy at the customer service counter. No matter how generous a store’s return policies are, returns and exchanges are inherently negative experiences. Regardless of the reason—whether the product is lacking or the customer just changed their mind—a trip to customer service means something went wrong.
Traditional brick-and-mortar retailers have historically discouraged returns by allowing the process to be as cumbersome as possible. Opaque guidelines and byzantine forms and protocols make customers feel like low-level criminals for deciding they only need three plastic Rubbermaid bins instead of four.
Retailers must design the return-and-exchange experience with as much rigor as any other retail process.
Online retailers have done surprisingly little to improve the situation. A generous return policy by itself does not create a good customer experience. Customers don’t want the hassle of online returns: printing labels, scheduling package pickup, and trying to stuff an item delicately back into the original packaging. It’s no surprise that customers prefer making returns at a physical store.
As retail becomes increasingly more experiential and less transactional, retailers must design the return-and-exchange experience with as much rigor as any other retail process.
Imagine a typical retail situation where a customer wants to return a blue dress shirt, size medium, that was purchased for $80. The customer arrives at the store and immediately gets in the cashier line—a negative experience—behind three other customers. Fifteen painful minutes later, he reaches the counter and hands the shirt to the cashier.
“Was there a problem with the item?” asks the cashier.
“No, I just decided I didn’t want it.”
The cashier scans the item. “Would you like store credit or should I put the money put back on the card?” Assume the customer was stopping by on his way home from work, has already waited in line, and said only seconds ago that he just wants to return the shirt. Is there any reason to think the customer wants to take a look around the store? “Just put the money back on the card” The cashier obliges, staples the old receipt to the new one, and sends the customer on his way.
In a future retail scenario, the customer would use his smartphone to scan the receipt (or access the email receipt) and the tag on the shirt. He then informs the store he’ll be arriving at 5:45 p.m., and the reason for the return: “Liked item, but wrong size, too small.” He adds: “Yes, I’d love a coffee.” At the appointed time, the customer arrives at the store and is greeted at the entrance by a sales associate who takes the unwanted shirt and hands the customer his warm, much-wanted beverage.
By designing the return-and-exchange experience as a natural part of the retail journey, customers reengage with the path-to-purchase the moment they arrive at the store.
The return-and-exchange experience has been completely upended! Within moments of entering the store, the customer’s singular need—returning a shirt—was met. He’s now mentally and emotionally liberated. He might decide to leave, seek an exchange for the original shirt, or begin an entirely new retail journey.
From the retailer’s perspective, the moment the customer notifies the store of the impending return, the store has options on how to proceed. Data tells the retailer that this customer is returning a shirt because it’s too small. The shirt is size medium, cost $80, and was purchased along with seven other items. The store not only knows what these other items were, but the customer’s entire sales history. And most importantly, they know that this customer would love a coffee when he arrives.
These insights help the store anticipate the needs of the customer. They might proactively put larger-size shirts in a dressing room, identify on-sale items the customer might be interested in, or provide a discount voucher along with the coffee. However the store chooses to proceed, a traditionally close-ended and negative experience has been made customer-centric, open-ended, and positive.
By designing the return-and-exchange experience as a natural part of the retail journey, customers reengage with the path-to-purchase the moment they arrive at the store. This creates opportunities for additional sales for the retailer and transforms the customer experience from a dull procedure into, of all things, a pleasure.