The age of the ‘serial returner’

The age of the ‘serial returner’

What retailers can do to buck the trend


Coined by Napoleon as a ‘nation of shopkeepers’, the great British high street has long been the everlasting backbone of the country’s economy.

Yet while the landscape of UK retail continues to adapt and unfurl, so does the way consumers choose to shop as the omni-channel experience makes the market highly competitive. In addition, with uncertain times ahead for the British economy, consumers are more conscious than ever before when it comes to parting with their hard-earned cash. So much so that within the past few years, Barclaycard research shows shoppers have returned £7 billion worth of purchases to unsuspecting retailers. But is careful spending or a simple change of heart really what’s sparking this never-ending spiral of returned goods? We observe the trend of the ‘serial returner’, and what businesses can do to deter it.

Size matters

Whether it’s a shiny pair of work brogues or the summer holiday wardrobe, footwear and clothing retailers have been hit the hardest when it comes to the ‘phantom economy’; almost four in 10 shoppers have reported a steep rise in refunds since its emergence in 2016. It’s thought that inconsistent sizing across brands plays a large part in driving this culture of excess returns, with some retailers conforming to European sizes or even their own unique system. With the average Brit spending £313 on clothes shopping ‘off’ the high street, online shopping trends are also influencing the serial returner movement. Remarkably, a third of online shoppers order items expecting their garments to be ‘unsuitable’ before they’ve even left the cellophane. In other words, for every £313 spent on a new wardrobe, consumers actually end up sending back £146 worth of clothing. But what is making it so easy for serial returners to ‘slip under the radar’, and is erratic sizing the true culprit?

The lure of free returns and the ‘hashtag moment’

While positioned as an incentive for most retailers looking to encourage a purchase, ‘free returns’ come without the true commitment to buy; more crucially, if the customer has a change of heart, they can return the item without being out of pocket. For some shoppers it may come down to sizing, or just wanting to view the physical product in their hands before buying. However, when it comes to the new season collection – many avid social media users will take this as an opportunity to model the latest threads free of charge, before heading to the post office. This 'snap and send back' trend has seen almost one in 10 shoppers order clothing just to pose for their ‘outfit of the day’ Instagram posts, before swiftly bundling tagged garments back in the bag.  Perhaps surprisingly, 35-44 year-olds are the biggest ‘offenders’ when it comes to creating the hashtag moment; the ‘try before you buy’ policy adopted by some retailers is also backfiring as a result.

Make way for the ‘fashionmistas’

With fashion-savvy consumers keen to model the latest look at the very best price, one in 10 men admit to being embarrassed should they be spotted in the same outfit twice, compared to seven per cent of women. This makes male shoppers more likely to wear clothes with the tags on in case they decide to return their garments (15 per cent), while 11 per cent of female consumers would hold snipping the tags. Barclaycard research has also shown men to be the biggest spenders as far as the high street catwalk is concerned; the average male spends a total of £114 on clothing and footwear every month, which adds up to more than £300 per person per year in comparison to women. According to recent figures from Mintel and the British Fashion Council, the men’s clothing market has been predicted to grow 12.4 per cent by 2021, with an estimated value of 16.2 billion pounds. IBISworld also anticipates the men’s online clothing market to follow suit, with an average growth of 14.2 per cent from 2015-2020.

Redefining the ‘return’ on returns

With free returns fuelling the serial returner movement – combined with consumer demands for the best quality, price (and desire to show the world) – could this mark the end of a unique selling point for brands? Over the past two years, additional Barclaycard research shows more than a quarter of retailers (26%) have reported an increase in the volume of goods being returned to their shelves. While free returns can, in many cases, bolster brand loyalty, encourage repeat purchases, and spur customers to be ‘spontaneous’ with their spending (and commit to buying as a result), it is ultimately impacting the bottom line for retailers. So what can be done?

Anita Liu Harvey, Director of Strategy at Barclaycard Payment Solutions, notes that retail businesses are beginning to implement more stringent returns policies: “We are seeing retailers implementing stricter returns policies to try to clamp down on serial returners and reduce the impact that returns are having on their business. These more stringent policies have begun to affect consumers, with some retailers starting to send warning emails to customers about accounts being deactivated, should unusual or suspicious behaviour continue. On the flip side, it does seem shoppers are becoming more mindful about the purchases they make and the impact their returns could have on the environment.”

With 52 per cent of retailers having already provided more detailed information about their products, 48 per cent making their policies clearer, and 29 per cent increasing the price of goods to cover the costs associated, it would seem there is light at the end of the tunnel for retailers. By updating current policies to include better transparency and making provisions to cover the losses suffered by retailers, free returns are likely here to stay.