Are We Witnessing the End of Free Returns? New Data Suggests, Maybe

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Consumers have grown accustomed to clothing retailers and merchants allowing free returns on items that aren’t a good fit. It’s a courtesy typically offered by retailers to encourage shoppers to feel good about the retailer and become repeat customers. 

However, changes in the retailing landscape have resulted in more people shopping for their clothes online, then returning them to a physical store or through the mail. This has led to merchants adjusting their return policies to reflect the new reality of shopping for clothes.

It’s estimated that returns from e-commerce purchases have gone up 95% since 2015. You might think that the clothing you return is repackaged and sold to another customer the way it would be in the store. Unfortunately, that’s not the case as many retailers don’t want to bother with the cost of restocking an item. Instead, many retailers are putting the returns into shipping containers and selling them to discounters or sending them straight to the dump.

Clothing is one of the toughest items to recycle in terms of reusing the materials and fibers that make up a garment. Much of the waste stream from unwanted clothing winds up in landfills or goes overseas to other countries where they’re bought at local markets. Even then, the excess clothing isn’t absorbed in its entirety, and what’s left over finds its way to local landfills or is burned as trash. And that’s not including the countless trips the garments made before they were shipped overseas to their final destination. 

In response to these issues, many retailers have begun charging for returns, to minimize financial losses and mitigate potential waste.  Zara is the most famous merchant for instituting the policy. Inflationary costs may have also prompted retailers to begin implementing fees for returns as a way to recoup costs and cover the cost of handling the return.

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CouponBirds, a well-known coupon site, has been tracking how merchants are changing their return policy and found that only 30% of retailers are still accepting free returns. The remaining 70% charge a fee in the form of a restocking fee, pick-up fee, or shipping. Further data compiled by CouponBirds shows that 22% of the retailers specialize in clothing, with shoe retailers following up with 8%. 

Major department stores such as Walmart, Amazon, JCPenney, and Hobby Lobby don’t charge for returns or exchanges in any form. However, smaller retailers, including food, office supply stores, vacation rentals, tool sales, and others, are far more likely to charge a fee to cover the cost of handling the return. 

Does this mean that the end of free returns is coming?

No one is capable of predicting the future, but it’s looking likely that yes, the end of free returns from retailers may be on the rise. This practice may never reach the major outlets like Walmart, as their sheer amount of sales volume covers the loss of returns, but smaller merchants and retailers may very well make this a permanent policy. 

One final word to the wise: shop wisely, make sure the item is what you want, and make it a point to buy items in-store when you’re not sure of fit and size. It’s the best way to decrease the likelihood of paying fees on something you don’t want. 

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