No retailer expects every customer to be happy with every item they purchase. But a worrying rise in the number of returns is causing businesses all sorts of headaches.

And with Christmas just around the corner, many retailers are bracing themselves for a post-festive season avalanche of returned gifts, posing considerable logistical challenges, adding unwanted extra costs and raising the delicate question of just how generous businesses can afford to be with their returns policies.

The problem is particularly acute in ecommerce, with up to 30% of all items bought online now sent back, a figure that has leapt by 20% in the past two years. And it’s also an issue that disproportionately affects the fashion and apparel sector, with UK shoppers returning an astonishing £4.1bn worth of online clothing purchases in 2022.

What is more, it’s a trend that is being driven by consumer intention. A third of shoppers admit that they over-order online with the intention of returning some items.

The in-store context

But this doesn’t mean that bricks-and-mortar retailers are immune to the problem. It’s true that retailers only have to accept returns on items bought in store if they are faulty. Whereas, as per the terms of the Consumer Contracts Regulations 2013, shoppers have much more leeway for returning items bought online. This is to account for the fact that online purchases are made on the basis of text descriptions and photos, without the opportunity to examine or try out goods directly (a big factor in the high proportion of apparel returns).

But still, the proportion of store-bought items that end up getting returned hovers just under 10%. And perhaps more importantly, pretty much every bricks-and-mortar retailer these days is also a digital retailer. If you have an ecommerce site, also having stores doesn’t protect you from the high online return rates.

Tellingly, 54% of consumers say they’d prefer to return an item in store, even if they purchased it online. Plenty of businesses offer free postal returns, but a lot of people still find it easier to take an item back to a shop rather than put it in an envelope and drop it at their local Post Office.

Why returns kiosks make sense

All of this makes the emergence of returns kiosks all the more interesting for retailers. New Look is one company that is already trialling the concept. Tech-wise, it’s a straightforward idea – a touchscreen kiosk where customers can enter the purchase details of an item they want to return, or else scan a receipt; a card reader so the cost can be credited back to their bank account; and a drop-off bin for leaving items in.

Logistically, returns kiosks solve one of the biggest pain points retailers face when accepting in-store returns, the impact on staffing resources. Returns brought to checkout slow up transaction processing and add to wait times, causing frustration for other customers. For this reason, many retailers operate separate returns desks. But they still have to be staffed, often by having extra people on shift, and therefore at an extra cost.

Making returns self-service solves all of these problems at a swoop, taking it away from normal checkout but without any extra staffing requirements. It’s also a great way to encourage more online customers to switch to in-person returns. Like a number of other large fashion retailers, New Look has started to charge for postage on returns in a bid to discourage shoppers from intentionally overbuying. Offering free returns in store via a kiosk is a good way to keep customers who have genuine reasons for returning items they bought online happy.