Things are starting to look up.

While we may be in what feels like month 247 of the pandemic, there is now a light at the end of the tunnel. More people are being vaccinated every day. Countries and states are slowly beginning to open up. The sun is out, the snow is melting away.  And while we aren’t quite out of the storm yet, this writer has found a way to keep some sanity during the last days of Covid: online shopping.

The COVID inspired impulse buy

Oh yes, just in the last week I bought a Vitamix, new bed pillows, a sand wedge, running shoes (Ha! I hate running), and a waffle iron.

As you may have guessed, these purchases fill me with a tinge of regret on some mornings, like a day trader that bought $20,000 of Game Stop stock with his nest egg and now has to explain to his wife why they can’t afford a new car. (Or maybe that day trader can afford two cars. It really depends on the day.) Fortunately for me, most online retailers allow for free returns these days. But what is a boon for me becomes a burden for the businesses then need to find efficient and economic ways to process these returns. 

Yes, I’m talking to you, business owners. You waved your shiny free shipping and returns policy in my face, promising a hassle-free, streamlined experience should I need to send any of my Covid inspired impulse-buys back. Well, the debt has come due and it’s time to pay the Piper. It will come as no shock that returns are up this year to the tune of 76%.

Reasons behind this increase include an increase in eCommerce, shipping delays and likely some pandemic-related economic reasons. But the fact of the matter is, when a company offers free returns, they take a hit. Returns involve shipping, labor, logistics. They are a pain for eCommerce companies. And no matter the satisfaction guarantee offered by a specific brand, they would prefer you just kept your gift, smiled, and went about your day.

Alas, that is not the world we live in, returns are a necessary evil for the retail industry. Some stores have tried to recoup losses by doing in-store returns at brick-and-mortar locations, presupposing that maybe once you are in the store, you’ll buy something else. Others have strategically set up one or more hoops (by design) that consumers must leap through before successfully returning an item, hoping they will wear you down in a war of attrition and you simply won’t bother. However, despair not my friends. There is a better way to process returns without betraying customer trust or sending your books too far into the red in Q1, and it all begins with a text.

Rethinking the status quo

Consider how a return works for say, a pair of jeans. Your author may have had a few too many cookies this winter season and had to return a pair of size 34 Levi’s. I printed off a return label (annoying) boxed the pants back up, walked to the post office, and dropped them off. Between the trip to Staples to use a printer and the deceptively long walk to the post office, I almost just gave the jeans to my younger brother. A still-active New Year’s resolution to be more mature held me to follow through with the return process. I would rank this a 4/10 on my non-scientific consumer pain index.

Now, the above example referenced a standard American pair of blue jeans that weighs roughly 13 ounces and fits in a small bag or box. What if I needed to return a large tv, an area rug, a beautiful Weber Grill for searing a medium-rare steak on an (eventual) sunny summer day? Now we’re talking logistics companies, trucks, phone calls, confirmations, photographic evidence, blah, blah, blah…I hate it. Brands need to think of ways to rethink this customer experience.

Alternatively, SMS and digital transformation can solve many of these problems and save businesses big money. We know customers are clamoring for contactless experiences. But additionally, digital transformation can save money. A customer service rep that calls you to schedule a pick-up costs money. An automated text that accomplishes the same feat costs a fraction of a human being. It is also exceptionally efficient. In addition to my generation’s refusal to speak to a stranger (or friend for that matter!) on the phone, SMS scheduling is substantially quicker.

Picture an SMS that presents this scenario.

“Available pick-up times.

1. Thursday at 1 pm

2. Friday at 11 am

3. Saturday at 9 am”

I press one. 

CUT TO Thursday at 1 pm.

“A truck is here to pick up your grill. Please leave it outside for your contactless return.”

Great, I wheel out the grill, the friendly truck driver scans a bar code and now I’m set for SMS updates on the status of the grill until it has been successfully returned and my account credited. Anyone who has ever dropped a return off at the post office for their wife will appreciate this. (No, I didn’t wait for a receipt. The line was too long.)

Creating engagement opportunity with digital transformation

But why do I mention the blue jeans scenario? Surely SMS, can’t simplify the straight-forward online return that we have all grown accustomed to over the past few years?

There you would be wrong. Sometimes SMS is just the best way to relay information. Only 16% of brand emails are opened. 98% of SMS are opened, regardless of the sender. Do you think that most consumers are making it to the second page in the fine print to find out their return options?

Let’s say just for the sake of argument, there was a phone number to text on the same box my blue jeans arrived in. I fire off an SMS to that phone number that says “RETURN” and am greeted with the following message.

“Hello, to return this item please click here to print a return label and drop it off at the post office OR scan this QR code and drop it off at location X.”

This is a contactless experience I can get behind. Maybe going to the store’s physical location would be more convenient for me. Perhaps this specific brand processes physical returns all over the place. (We have seen this with brands such as Amazon and Kohls)

Alternatively, maybe I will get a response that says.

“We appreciate your loyalty, keep the jeans, we’ll credit your account. We know you’re too lazy to return them anyway.”

The copy might need some work, but alas some brands might be hip to the fact that it isn’t worth it to re-ship, re-stock, and re-sell certain items. Do they take a hit in the short term? Sure. But do they gain a customer for life? Maybe!

At Mitto, we talk all the time about thinking strategically, building loyalty, and making the most of every customer touch. Processing a return is a great opportunity to engage with your customers. We preach adding value at every touchpoint. Informing your users of their options, sparing them painful customer service calls, and saving them some time as well? That’s a home run. Add in the fact that you are saving your company money and enhancing your customer experience? Well, that’s a long-term recipe for success.