Five Differences Between U.S. and European Online Returns Habits

Mabel R. Acton

With most retailers offering multichannel buying options, coupled with the rise in e-commerce in the last two years, shopping has become easier than ever for consumers. Yet returns remain one of the hardest parts of logistics to master for a retailer or e-commerce company. They absorb time, money and almost always negatively impact the environment. But the more we learn about consumers’ return habits, the easier it is to tailor a strategy to what they want and expect, while addressing costs and sustainability issues.

Online fashion purchases are typically returned at a higher rate than items bought in-store. An estimated three in every 10 e-commerce fashion items are sent back. The post-pandemic e-commerce surge has sparked an enormous rise in return volumes, and this has led many brands to invest in initiatives to address and offset the environmental impact of returns.

Cycleon recently conducted a survey of 2,600 online fashion shoppers across the U.S., France, Britain, Germany, Spain, The Netherlands, Italy and Sweden, and found the following key differences about their shopping and returns behaviors. The information could be key for global retailers looking to customize the right return logistics and consumer experience strategies to each specific market.

Returns frequency. Besides free shipping, free returns are often touted as consumer’s top demand when shopping online. According to the survey, more than a third (34%) of U.S. shoppers said they “frequently” send back multiple online fashion purchases with the intention of only keeping one. By comparison, just 20% of European shoppers reported doing the same. The ease of shopping online makes spur-of-the-moment purchasing, for items you’re unlikely to keep, much more likely due to the simplicity of adding items to your cart and checking out. Many retailers are also offering free and easy returns with the uncomplicated printing of a label or drop-off location. 

Try before you buy. In today’s fashion world there’s no such thing as universal sizing, and often a small size at one retailer can be a large at another, especially when it comes to women’s fashion. This makes purchasing from an online retailer or e-commerce business more complicated, and consumers frequently report purchasing more than one size and returning the one that doesn’t fit. The research found that both sets of shoppers displayed similar behaviors when it came to finding the right size, with 44% of U.S. online shoppers stating they buy several sizes of the same item to try on at home, compared with 41% of European shoppers.

Wear and return. According to Power Reviews, 88% of customers reported that they make returns at least occasionally. Moreover, American shoppers were nearly twice as likely to send back an item they’d already worn, with 28% of U.S. shoppers admitting to this, compared with 16% of Europeans. Known as “wardrobing,” the practice of returning a product after having used it — perhaps for a special occasion or a social media picture — has grown significantly in the last few years, as social hashtags and the rise of influencers have led to garments only being worn for a short time. While “influencer culture” is happening around the world, Americans’ addiction to social media and fame seems to translate into shopping habits as well. Free shipping and returning has no cost for the aspiring influencer, but means two wasteful trips for the seller, impacting both its bottom line and the environment. According to the Fashion Technology Accelerator, every year the United States generates 15 million tons of carbon emissions due to product returns.

Footing the bill for sustainability. The post-pandemic e-commerce surge has sparked an enormous rise in returned items, and this has led many brands to invest in initiatives to address and offset the environmental impact of returns. Some brands are now exploring sustainable returns transportation options, such as biodiesel trucks or electric vehicles. The research found that U.S. shoppers were more willing to have the cost of these efforts passed on to them — almost two-thirds (64%) of U.S. consumers said they would be willing to pay extra when returning a parcel to subsidize greener carrier options, compared with just 47% of European shoppers who said the same.

Shoppers around the world are increasingly aware of the environmental impact of their own shopping habits, and will reward brands that help them to minimize or offset this impact in 2022. American consumers may be generating more frequent returns than their counterparts in Europe, but there’s a clear opportunity for trailblazing brands to lead from the front with pioneering sustainability initiatives, educating their customers on the outcome of these initiatives and how much they cost. Brands that empower their customers to make sustainable choices will be rewarded with customer loyalty.

Return process (drop-off versus home pickup). According to the survey, when it came to choosing how to return an item, Europeans were much more receptive to dropping off an item at the local post office (46%) versus Americans at 33%. Both Americans and Europeans felt similarly about having a returned item picked up at their own home, at 31% and 33% respectively. With Europe’s smaller and more walkable and bikeable city centers, it makes sense that dropping off an item at the local post office is an easier task compared with America’s rural and suburban sprawl.

The world of e-commerce and online retail is continuously evolving and shifting as consumer’s demands ebb and flow. While promoting sustainability and reducing carbon emissions seems to be at the forefront of consumers’ minds, ease of use and “free” lead the way when it comes to the returns process. It’s key for online retailers and e-commerce businesses to look at the latest research to tailor the best possible return strategy for their American and European shoppers.

Joseph Valentine is a senior sales executive at Cycleon.

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