The critical customer insight gap that is killing retail profits

The most dangerous information gap currently facing retailers is a robust and realistic view of why a customer really returned their purchase. Not why they said they did. Or why you suspect they did – but robust, quantifiable and most importantly actionable insight.

Ecommerce return rates of 30% to 40% are common for some retail categories, with tens of millions of pounds of stock locked up every day for large retailers. It is not a sale until the customer decides to keep it. But whereas pre-purchase literally every click the customer makes is scrutinised, the causes of returns are typically assessed from a few codes on a returns form, along with an organisational assumption of the product or delivery likely being at fault.

The purchase to return insight black hole is intimately connected to damaged profitability. Returns have a disproportionate impact on the bottom line – so reducing a return rate by just 1 percentage point can boost gross profits by 1.6% and operating profits by a massive 15%.

Returns are not inevitable or unavoidable – if measured and understood they can be managed and reduced, resulting in increased profits and increased customer satisfaction and loyalty. And once fully understood, they can be reduced without impacting top-line growth.

But trying to solve the problem without deep insight around cause and customer motivation is inefficient, speculative and risks that the customer’s profitability is jeopardised.

Specialist returns insight is essential, because this is a highly complex interplay of customer, product and marketing causes requiring cutting edge big data analytics. Clear Returns have done nothing but returns data modelling and analysis for almost 5 years and we’ve learned a few important things I’d like to share for those thinking about tackling this in house.

With the DIY approach to returns analysis, 3 things typically happen:

  1. The retailer usually looks to the product and its depiction first – because looking to the customer is far harder and complex. Low hanging fruit can be found, but change can be slow and insights can’t usually be generated and actioned fast enough for a big commercial impac
  2. A lot of effort then goes into attacking the symptoms not cause – eg fault testing, new returns reason codes, delivery or policy changes, sizing and fitting room technologies. This can be costly, time consuming and yet the ROI remains elusive. You’re very busy dealing with returns but still not seeing those efforts translate to the bottom line
  3. Most marketing efforts continue to focus solely on the sales conversion without realising the real point of purchase – the new final stage of the sale – is the keep/return decision that is made in the customer’s home. Therefore marketing efforts can drive returns even higher and profitability downwards. And at the same time, there is often internal resistance to targeting for keeps or enforcement of returns policy in case you’ll damage the top line and send customers elsewhere.

Not true……you can improve both the top line and operating profits if you truly understand the causes and impacts of returns.

We’ve learned – after trillions of data points and hundreds of thousands of iterations of our predictive models – that the secret to solving returns and boosting profits is shedding illumination into the knowledge black hole that represents the customer and product interplay that occurs between purchase decision and return decision.

Clear Returns uniquely and specifically focuses here because prediction and very early warning means that once fully understood, returns can be strategically and proactively managed to boost customer profitability without impacting top-line growth.

Talk to us to learn more about Clear Returns Insights and data technology – Our CEO Vicky Brock will be demo-ing in London on the 8th and 9th February so drop us a note if you’d like to meet up!

 

 

Returns & why they should be on the retail CSR agenda

It really pains me, and I know it pains many people, to see the sheer amount of packaging and waste that goes into a delivery of a product ordered online.

I realise there’s a trade-off between the amount of packaging in the box and the quality of it on arrival. You don’t want to compromise on the packaging to the extent that the delivery arrives damaged, so it’s safer to over-package.  But of course, that has a huge cost and environmental impact.

These hidden social costs are even extreme when there is a return involved.  E-commerce returns for fashion in the UK average 30%. They can exceed 60% in Germany. You’ve got the customer opening all of this, so the packaging is very rarely in a condition that can be reused or salvaged for a future despatch. Not only that, if there is a return in that package, the shopper is going to be repackaging or bundling it up to go back in a van to go back to a warehouse where it’s got to be opened, cleaned, repackaged and finally made re-available for sale. That may involve it having to be transported to a different warehouse or back to store.

There’s potentially a significant loss of margin in that process. Packaging, road miles, you know, environmental impact, social impact all the way through this process of a return, yet alone the business impact from things like reduced margin, poor customer experience, and impact on profitability.

CSR and returns

It is this aspect of the social, economic impact, environmental impact of a return that both the shopper and the business are failing to give adequate consideration.

I believe a retailer serious about its CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) will be arguing to the rest of its organisation, arguing to the board, ideally even educating some of the customer base, that returns at their current level are not sustainable. You are not doing anybody a favour –  including the customer when you are incentivising them to return and shop with the intention of returning  – because there are all these hidden costs.

These hidden costs are not necessarily borne by the retailer. They’re not necessarily borne solely by the shopper but they are ultimately borne societally. The cost of a van going two or three times to deliver a parcel because customers are frequently out, the cost of then picking that parcel up from the post office, or from the customer, back to a central warehouse, the cost of all the stuff that’s going on at the central warehouse, the product then being shipped by road to another warehouse where it gets back into the supply chain. The cost of buying more stock than required, simply to keep availability due to the sheer amount of stock out on loan.  And the waste involved in packaging and re-packing the same item time after time.

Potential impact on consumer behaviour

It is common to see returns having  a £30+ cost associated with them and that’s just direct costs of the handling, delivery and packaging, let alone externalities of environmental impact and waste. What I would like to see is organisations like John Lewis, Marks & Spencer’s and IKEA, who’ve been very forward in talking about CSR, environmental impacts and how they’re doing ethical sourcing, to also start talking about ethical returning.

Incentivising people to buy more and more, and return more and more is not, in my view, sustainable or ethical, and I think if the shopper was more aware of how much product goes literally into landfill, the r0ad miles generated, how much packaging goes to waste, how much stock gets cleared off the jobbers for disposal at a fraction of the cost price – they would be concerned and they would probably look at their own returning decisions.

Focussing the CSR agenda to include returns

I work in this industry, I’m obsessed with the data and I’m aware of what’s happening – but very, very few people are. So, it’s really important to me that returns get on the agenda of corporate social responsibility and that this is one of the things that CSR directors and retailers are talking about in the coming years.

Because returns at this level are not sustainable for anybody, not at business level, not on an environmental level and not at a wider society level.

Clear Returns build up to Customer Returns Summit 2015

Clear Returns CEO, Vicky Brock, discusses her attendance at the 2015 Customer Returns Summit in London on the 21st-23rd September.

Building on the success of 2014, The Customer Returns Summit is back for 2015 and is bringing together the most senior reverse logistics experts from leading retailers that include Debenhams, Shop Direct, Tesco, Panasonic, Argos, Sony and more. Clear Returns is pleased to be a sponsor at the event in 2015.

Clear Returns, CEO, Vicky Brock on why this is a significant event in the retail calendar:

“I think it’s incredibly important that there’s a retail industry event focused on what I believe is the biggest challenge for retail right now, particularly distance selling retail like e-commerce and TV shopping.

Returns globally is a £425 billion problem, £221 billion of which have been identified as preventable, which means if the retailers do something about it, if marketing is tackled, if customer processes/delivery is tackled, there is £221 billion worth of additional retained revenue on the table for retail profits.

Clear Returns are the industry leader in returns intelligence. It’s an absolute no-brainer for us to be there. Our absolute specialism and remit is that we help retailers identify, tackle and ultimately, prevent returns, and we do that by looking at the products, the customers, the marketing and the service processes that are driving up return rates, and more importantly, the interplay of those things.

Clear Returns are delighted to be attending the Customer Returns Summit once again and are looking forward to discussing many key aspects of developing customer experience and retail profitability in a multichannel retail context.  We look forward to meeting others in the retail and supply chain who have reducing returns to a manageable level on their corporate agenda.”

Returns kill retail profits. Clear Returns offers a pro-active solution. So, why not get in touch?

Contact Us HERE

OR

Email: info@clearreturns.com
Phone: 01415544175

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Changing the retail mindset around reducing returns

Over the last three years, Clear Returns has been leading the way in retail returns analytics and using these findings to help retailers solve their ever increasing returns problems. Vicky Brock of Clear Returns explains how the company are trying to change the internal mindset of retailers when it comes to tackling returns.

How Clear Returns are starting to change the thinking about returns within retail teams

One of the really big challenges retailers face when tackling returns is getting internal buy-in from colleagues. The owner of the returns problem and the owner of the means to solve it are rarely in the same department, yet alone the same person.

As we have grown Clear Returns, continually innovating our technology, the most important step of all has been to help retailers make a shift their thinking around the scale of the commercial impact of tackling returns.

Working alongside our clients, one of the biggest shifts we have made is to stop talking about cutting returns and to start talking about helping the retailer, helping the shopper keep more of what they buy. Because, when you talk about cutting returns, or reducing return rates, it’s a really operational problem and it’s quite negative to the rest of the business. It has connotations of being stingy. The assumption is that a customer will only be happy with the most generous returns policy possible. And so you have a challenge as a retailer, how do I manage returns costs and processes, keep delivering excellent service to my shoppers, but still maintain profitability.

This is a flawed assumption. The idea that all of your shoppers are happy to have a return, and just giving them their money back is all it takes, is simply not backed up by the data. Just because you give them a generous returns policy and you make it free does not mean your shopper is happy. In a good 80% of your shoppers almost certainly wanted what they bought. It’s a minority, and I admit I’m one of them, who shop with the intention of returning. That group make their purchase decision at home and they’re not sensitive to returns. But the rest of the shopper base are different, including the group that actually hate to return. They will not shop with you again, regardless of a generous returns policy. They are angry at the fact that you, as a retailer, didn’t deliver on the promise.

There is a really important message for commercial, finance and operations teams to convey to their collegues – expecially to buyers, to trading teams, to marketers, which is “We’re here to help you ensure your customer keeps more of what they buy and keeps buying, because a return has an impact on future lifetime value, future spend, future basket size and trust.”

The operational cost of returns is important, the two-way cost of getting something there and back, the lost packaging, the handling, the cleaning, the lost margin because it’s now been discounted. All of that absolutely matters and is why we work to reduce and pre-empt returns. But overall to the retailer, the biggest commercial impact of a return is the customers you lose because they never buy again. So, our challenge all the way through and the thing that we probably advocate most strongly is this: it’s not a sale until the customer keeps it, and here’s how by tackling returns you can you help your customer keep more and keep buying.

Clear Returns are the solution. So, why not get in touch?

Contact Us HERE

OR

Email: info@clearreturns.com
Phone: 01415544175

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Why measuring retail sales & marketing performance has to factor in returns

Marks & Spencer have attracted unwanted publicity in the last few days, as they have quietly adjusted their figures to reflect that their online sales over the past four years were £500 million less than previously stated.

Why? It all comes down to returns and how the business attributed them internally. Clear Returns regularly see retailers assign the full upside to the online channel – revenue growth, record sales figures, stellar marketing conversion performance – yet barely factor in the extraordinary downside, in the form of high returns. Frequently we see retailers like M&S fail to account for the full online returns picture, so returns to store and all the operation-wide associated costs of returned do not get fully reconciled back to the online business.  This matters.

Returns from online are far higher than in store. They can exceed 35% for UK women’s fashion (and exceed 60% for fashion in Germany).  Some of these goods are returned by mail or Collect+ – thereby incurring two way postage costs. But where the retailer has the store base, as half of online returns – or more – will get returned in store.  These store returned goods rarely go straight back onto the shop floor – the store may not stock that range, the goods may need cleaning or repackaging, so they often require sending back to central warehouses to be processed which can take weeks.  In the case of certain product categories – like electronic goods – they simply cannot be resold as new.  Write-off rates are eye watering and this impacts the bottom line.

Clear Reurns marketing reconciliationYet depending on the level of information available internally around returns, the online channel may neither incur the costs for a high returning campaign or product line, nor see the data that would allow them to make changes to the way they buy or market goods in future.

And its worth remembering, that M&S’s £500million over the last four years doesn’t include the cost of marketing to acquire the sale that led to the return, it doesn’t include handling costs, it doesn’t include lost lifetime value from the customer finally fed up with having to return yet another order.

Clear Returns customers – and Marks and Spencer’s are not amongst them – do not have this problem.  They can reconcile returns back to the orginal marketing activity.  They can remove problem products from promotion fast. They can attribute refunds and returns costs to the correct channel. And they can make business decisions that grow retained revenue – thereby profits – across their whole business, rather than over-rewarding one channels performance at the cost of the whole business.  Find out more