Online Shoppers Say They Rarely Return Purchases. Why?

Jun 8, 2018
Originally published on June 11, 2018 9:17 am

When you follow retail, there are a few things you hear about a lot, and one of them is returns, because processing them costs stores a lot of money.

"Well over 10 to 11 percent of goods get returned," says Larisa Summers. "In some categories 20 to 30 percent of goods get returned."

Summers knows what this looks like from the inside. She's an executive at a company called Optoro, which is built around returns: It helps retailers re-purpose or resell all kinds of things that people send back.

"E-commerce has a much higher return rate than traditional brick-and-mortar stores do," Summers says. By Optoro's estimates, shoppers returned $385 billion worth of inventory last year alone.

But according to a new NPR/Marist poll, 91 percent of American online shoppers said they "only rarely" or "never" return things they buy online. And even more — 94 percent — said they "only rarely" or "never" make an order expecting to return at least part of it.


"That surprises me," says Stacey Steiner from Jacksonville, Fla. She says she tends to order clothes online in batches. Recently, her birthday was coming up, so she bought about 13 dresses from JCPenney, tried them at home and picked three to keep.

"I could just cycle through the website and filter through — I know I want three-quarter length sleeve and this type of dress," she says. "If you go to the store, you have to wander around and go, 'Oh, is this long-sleeve?' ... and then you're looking through shirts and pants, and all these other things that aren't anything you want to do with."

Steiner has an idea why people might say they don't return things: "They're just like, 'Ah, whatever, I don't want to deal with returning it.' "

And she's right. According to the NPR/Marist poll, free returns are a big factor in where people chose to shop. But a majority of online shoppers say they've kept purchases that they actually intended to return, mainly because returns are a hassle.

Katie Burns is one of them.

"I have a whole basket in my apartment labeled 'returns' and have had things in there for months," Burns, from San Francisco, wrote to NPR. "I cannot seem to get it together to get things back in the designated window, and then I talk myself into keeping the items even if they weren't exactly what I wanted."

And then there are people who don't return items for an even more straightforward reason.

"I don't enjoy shopping. It's not my favorite thing to do," says Pat Novak, who lives north of Grand Rapids, Mich. She says she only shops online when she can't find something locally — something she can examine closely. She spends time finding exactly the right thing that would last her as long as possible.

In fact, Novak's current problem is wishing she didn't have to return something. Her husband had ordered a $40 fuel tank for a camp stove, but instead, the company accidentally shipped an $800 5-foot cooler.

"They won't take it back!" Novak says and laughs. She says the company apparently only allows returns for defects or warranty issues, not wrong shipments. "So we have this thing sitting in our basement that we can't get rid of," she says. "We don't want it."

This is certainly a unique reason for not returning an item — but that still didn't seem to fully explain why most online shoppers claim to barely ever return things.

Could it be that polling people about the frequency of returns was just prompting them to put the best foot forward? Like asking them whether they floss every day?

"I understand the skepticism, but I've done surveys for a very long time," says Barbara Carvalho, director of The Marist Poll. She says polling accounts for this kind of calculation, giving people a range of answers instead of a "yes" or "no."

And more importantly, Carvalho points out the other side of the findings: the 9 percent of online shoppers who admit to making returns "often" or even "very often."

"That 9 percent doesn't sound like a lot," she says, "but it actually translates into almost 16 million adults in the U.S."

In other words, a small portion of shoppers creates big headaches for stores with costly returns. And the retailers' biggest concern is fraud: people who return items that are, for example, stolen, worn or used. Most major companies work with a designated firm that tracks the frequency and value of individual shoppers' returns to spot fraudsters.

But some shoppers say they get caught in the middle. The Wall Street Journal has recently reported on consumers who argue Best Buy and Amazon had unfairly blocked them from making purchases by interpreting their return behavior as suspicious.

"Amazon doesn't tell customers in its return policy that their return behavior can get them banned," the Journal reported. "but the company says in its conditions of use that it reserves the right to terminate accounts in its sole discretion."

In the NPR/Marist poll, a quarter of online shoppers said they "only rarely" return worn or used items; 74 percent said they "never" do so. Only 2 percent said they make such returns "often" or "very often."

One thing that this reporter would still like to know is: Who are the other roughly 90 percent of online shoppers who, according to the poll, also pretty much never regret their online purchases?

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Now for a story most of us can probably relate to. You buy something online, and then you change your mind. So what to do - keep it, regift, send it back? Well, Americans had interesting things to say about their return habits in a new NPR/Marist Poll, so interesting that some of the responses surprised our retail reporter Alina Selyukh.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: When you follow retail, you hear a lot about returns - that online shopping produces a ton of them.

LARISA SUMMERS: It was $385 billion worth in one year last year.

SELYUKH: That's 385...

SUMMERS: Billion dollars, with a B, returned inventory.

SELYUKH: Larisa Summers works for a company called up Optoro which is built around returns, helping retailers repurpose or resell the stuff people send back.

SUMMERS: In some categories, 20 to 30 percent of goods get returned.

SELYUKH: I went to Summers for a professional reality check because I'm trying to make sense of some fascinating results from the new NPR/Marist poll. Ninety-one percent of American online shoppers told us they rarely or never return things they buy online. And my immediate thought was, where are these people who never return things?

PAT NOVAK: My name is Pat Novak, and I live north of Grand Rapids, Mich.

SELYUKH: Novak rarely returns things for this straightforward reason.

NOVAK: I don't enjoy shopping. It's not my favorite thing to do.

SELYUKH: Not her favorite thing to do. Novak likes finding exactly the right thing before buying it so she doesn't have to shop again. Katie Burns from San Francisco has another reason why people don't return things.

KATIE BURNS: I do have a basket in my apartment of things that I fully intend to return that have been there for more than a year, probably, that I have not gotten around to.

SELYUKH: And now she's missed the return window for most of them. In our survey, a majority of online shoppers say they have indeed kept purchases they'd meant to return mainly to avoid the hassle. Now, another number in the polls surprised me the most. It has to do with how I personally shop, which is buy bunch of sweaters in different sizes, return what doesn't fit. Almost everyone - 94 percent of online shoppers - told us they rarely or never make a purchase expecting to return part of it. Am I really in such a tiny minority?

STACEY STEINER: That surprises me.

SELYUKH: Hey, there are two of us, me and Stacey Steiner from Jacksonville, Fla.

STEINER: I'll go every once in a while, save up money, and then I'll just do a huge batch order.

SELYUKH: Recently she wanted new dresses for her birthday.

STEINER: So I think I bought, like, 13 dresses or something.

SELYUKH: Oh, wow.

STEINER: And I was able to try them on. And I picked three that I kept.

SELYUKH: And guess who else shops like Steiner and I - director of the Marist Poll, Barbara Carvalho.

BARBARA CARVALHO: I agree. The expectation was that we were going to see a very large proportion of people that return things.

SELYUKH: But remember; we had 91 percent say they hardly ever returned things. My theory - asking about the frequency of returns was like calling people and saying, do you floss every day? But Carvalho says the poll accounts for this by suggesting a range of answers instead of a yes or no. And more importantly, I lost sight of the other side, the 9 percent of online shoppers who admit to making returns often or very often.

CARVALHO: It actually translates into almost 16 million adults in the U.S.

SELYUKH: A small percentage of shoppers giving retailers big headaches with costly returns. But sometimes the retailers have themselves to blame. Remember Novak from Michigan who doesn't like shopping? Last year, her husband ordered a small fuel tank for a camp stove but instead received a 5-foot-tall cooler.

NOVAK: If I could return it, I would return the stupid cooler. They won't take it back.

SELYUKH: She says the company only allows returns for warranty or defects, not wrong shipments. So now that's another reason why Novak does not return things. Alina Selyukh, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.