Summer sale returns turn up the heat for retailers 

Genefa Murphy, CMO at Five9 explores the impact the rise in the cost of living is having on the retail industry as consumers look to tighten their outgoings. 

With soaring temperatures echoing the UK’s soaring rates of inflation, experts are warning that retailers are facing a challenging summer. Trends indicate that retail spending is falling in the wake of the cost of living crisis, while major online brands are reporting customer returns rocket. Retailers must work harder than ever to win and retain customers who are making increasingly harder decisions when it comes to spending their hard-earned money.  

 Despite many retailers working hard to claw back customers and revenue in the post-lockdown period, 40% of UK customers say that customer service has worsened over the last 12 months and half say they will leave a brand following a poor customer experience. However, with the summer sales period heating up, savvy shoppers will be keen to snap up a bargain but as all retailers know, a purchase is not always the final point of the transaction.  

Meeting expectations now 
UK shoppers are clear that unmet expectations will be met with short shrift; over a third of UK consumers left brands they had previously been loyal to in the last year and nearly half (44%) were very unlikely to be willing to do business after a poor customer experience. During these challenging times, retailers must take every opportunity to ensure the customer experience is as stressless and seamless as possible. While no brand wants customers to return purchases, ensuring the process is smooth when they do provides another positive touch point that will encourage customers to return to the brand again and again.  

Where a returns procedure is complicated, expensive, or slow it can turn what was a positive online shopping experience into one the customer will not want to repeat. Transforming the returns procedure is an essential step in building a customer experience journey that paves the way for ongoing loyalty. 

Contact centres under the spotlight
Despite the prevalence of online shopping, many customers still turn to the phone as their primary channel to communicate with brands. When wanting quick answers to urgent or sensitive issues, over 65% of UK shoppers pick up the phone. 

However, customer contact centres as often experienced as disorganised or disjointed; callers passed from one representative to another, waiting far too long to reach a representative who is skilled in addressing their issue. Positive experiences come from getting helpful answers from an agent, even if it takes more time. That means not siloing returns issues. 

For routine matters such as returns, many retailers are turning to next-generation intelligent virtual agents (IVAs) to provide the correct answer through the channel customers want. 40% of UK consumers are already using virtual agents where available, and while nearly a fifth haven’t yet used them, they are open to it. This demonstrates the considerable opportunity contact centres have to capitalise on virtual agents to provide a better experience. 

Bright ideas for smooth returns
While returns are often seen as “boring but necessary” operations, retail analysts at Forrester highlight that this is a key differentiator for retailers in 2022: 

“Returns directly influence consumer choices; online consumers have told us that fear of returns has outright discouraged them from buying online. Customer-obsessed retailers and brands will invest to upgrade returns (locations, streamlined processes, refund issuance, internal returns processing) and, will work to share data internally.” 

The returns process is often at risk of siloing, where retailers, drop-off touchpoints, and couriers can all be the weak link in the chain. However, customers will always look to the retail brand as the face of the transaction. If a problem with the courier arises, the customer’s relationship with the brand itself is at risk. Brands must have visibility into the entire returns process and listen carefully to customer concerns when they are raised – whether that is via traditional channels such as phoning the contact centre, or through social listening. 

 One of the most potent differentiators for online returns is proactive communication. Brands must be ready to put themselves in the customer’s shoes. Once customers have taken items to drop-off points, they expect instant updates, receiving a text or email notification that drop-off has been logged, for example. If a return is delayed, the customer can be alerted so that they are not left in the dark. If there are bumps in the road, it is a ripe moment to offer discounts for future orders to reward loyalty and patience. 

Such strategies, of course, rely on data. You can’t act on what you can’t see. Further, if retailers harness that data, refunds become another tool for greater personalisation.  Take on board why the customer returned an item, for example ‘table too small’, and offer an alternative that fits their needs. Data is a portal through which brands can consistently provide valuable communications, including reminders, new offers, and personalised suggestions for similar products where an item is out of stock.  

With the current economic climate squeezing consumer spending, brands must seek to explore any point of differentiation. As summer sales tempt shoppers to splash out it is inevitable that some purchases will result in returns. Making it a pleasant process not only serves shoppers in the short term but provides a foundation of long-term loyalty for brands too.  

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