Managing returns; keeping reverse logistics moving

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I read an interesting report* recently that shed some light on what consumers want from returns.

It claimed that 92% say the range of return options is an important consideration in their purchasing decision, with nearly half (49%) admitting it’s very important.

While delivery choices have become many and varied in recent years, from click and collect points to the emergence of drones, the same can’t be said of returns. When asked, almost two thirds of respondents (61%) wanted to be able to return their purchases to the retailer’s store, while 73% still favour the Post Office.

Whichever way you look at it, returns are on the up and if we’re to believe this report’s findings, 40% of shoppers under 35 are claiming to return more items than they did two years ago. 

Now this would appear to suggest that it’s all going the way of the consumer, who has seemingly got into a habit of displacing the changing room to their own home and over-ordering items in the expectation they’ll be returning some. Although it seems that one online retailer is fighting back as I read in the Wall Street Journal last month that Amazon is banning shoppers who make too many returns!

Change is happening but at what pace? Zebra recently published a study2 where 87% of its 2700 respondents agreed that accepting and managing returns was a challenge. It claims that 7 out of 10 executives surveyed agreed more retailers would turn their stores into fulfilment centres to accommodate returns. While 60% did not currently offer free shipping, free returns or same-day delivery, they planned to do so. And given the growing trend for returns I wasn’t unduly surprised by Zebra’s findings that 44% expected to outsource the management of returns to a third party.

Whether retailers have a high street presence or purely online, one thing is certain, the returned goods must be back on sale as soon as possible for both profitability and reputation. Extending return window timeframes by a few days could uplift conversion and customer satisfaction.

But it’s all very well offering varied returns methods and longer timeframes but knowing when a product is being returned is half the battle. The sooner a retailer knows, the sooner they can replace or refund. As many as 42%† were not aware of a returned item until it appeared at their warehouse or dedicated returns centre. 

The three pillars of returns logistics are reliability, accuracy and speed. For reliability, it’s vital that goods are returned back into the system using scanners, mobile computers and RFID. The Zebra study revealed that although 72% of organisations use barcodes, some 55% are still relying on inefficient, manual pen and paper processes to enable omnichannel logistics. There needs to be accuracy in inventory management. With customers using different channels to return goods, knowing where returned stock is and where it’s needed is vital to improving order fulfilment and minimising unnecessary stock holding. 

Speed is also critical in enabling returned stock to be put back into circulation as soon as possible. Many returned items go straight back onto shelves. Being able to scan them in-store and re-label them enables stocks to be replenished quickly and efficiently, and gives retailers complete visibility of their inventory management. 

Knowing why goods are returned, and from where and how often is also valuable information. Real time analytics of data can give retailers fast and useful intelligence on product demand and enable them to position stock more effectively in stores and distribution centres.

As I’ve said, scanners, mobile computers and RFID devices are critical in returning sellable goods to the shop floor or stock, and actually, I’d add industrial and mobile print devices to that mix. But again, they all need to be reliable and operational, which is where asset visibility services (AVS) like that from Zebra can help. They give companies instant insight into the location and health of all their business-critical devices.

AVS is a cost effective way of ensuring return logistics are as efficient as the delivery experience. Some retail brands are fantastic at managing returns, but others need to work on their returns strategy in tandem with their fulfilment one.


* ReTHINKING ReTURNS, The Ultimate Guide to Consumer Expectations by ReBOUND
2 Zebra’s Future of Fulfilment Vision Study
† The growing need for smart e-fulfilment, Vanderlande and eDelivery, February 2017

Richard Gilliard

Renovotec is the UK’s largest independent rugged hardware and maintenance, software and services company. Managing Director Richard Gilliard has helped lead the organisation for over 25 years, supporting customers across many sectors including warehousing and distribution, transport and logistics, manufacturing, retail, healthcare, seaports and field mobility. Richard's drive is to enable firms through…

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