Returns are typically viewed as costly and problematic for retailers, particularly with shoppers who abuse return policies. But can legitimate returns be used as a way to build stronger relationships with customers and increase profits?

Professor James Abbey, in conjunction with Michael Ketzenberg and Rich Metters in the Department of Information and Operations Management at Mays Business School, highlight this concept in their recent MIT Sloan Management Review Article, “A More Profitable Approach to Product Returns.”

According to Abbey and colleagues, retailers are missing out on a large group of consumers who never make a return when they find a product unsatisfactory. These, often, one-time purchasers simply never return in every sense: no future purchases and no returned products. Using recent advancements in data analytics, the research team discovered that retailers can use legitimate returns as a profitable marketing tool to better meet the needs of these unsatisfied shoppers.

“Roughly 50 percent of customers never make a return. We refer to them as ‘non-returners.’ They make a couple of transactions, then poof – they’re gone. It’s as if they never existed, but you don’t want to lose these customers,” explained Abbey. “What we’re learning is they’re finding a flaw with the product or they don’t like something about it. Yet, these customers never give the retailer a chance to provide a better option.”

The researchers pose the question: What if companies took these dissatisfied non-returners who walk out the door, and convinced them to become occasional returners who continually come back as regular customers?

“A customer is someone who makes repeated purchases. They are the lifeblood of any business. Retailers incur substantial acquisition costs to attract new purchasers. One-time buyers may often cost the retailer more than they make from the sale,” added Kelli Hollinger, director of the Center for Retailing Studies at Texas A&M University.

Abbey’s team suggests that retailers look at non-returners as an opportunity to upsell or cross-sell a product to better meet the customer’s needs, which can lead to an increase in customer satisfaction and retailer profitability. In effect, focus on building a long-term relationship using returns as a selling tool.

“The people who never make the returns provide only a small fraction of the profit compared to customers making frequent returns. If you could find a way to create more loyalty and build a stronger relationship to get them to try more products, you can train these customers to be occasional returners,” Abbey noted.

“The question we’re really posing is not that continual abusive returners aren’t a problem. On the contrary, such abuse can cost millions of dollars per year. Rather, we’re thinking of how to re-engage with customers who don’t make returns. Retailers need to entice them to come back,” Abbey explained.

In order to convince these shoppers to come back, retailers need to understand their consumers. Abbey’s team advocates that data collection and analysis of transaction patterns of shoppers can be valuable tools in figuring out a path to draw these customers back. These factors could include more competitive pricing, targeted incentives, easier return options, or availability of complementary products.

“It’s really gotten easier to understand a customer, to understand their patterns, and understand what it means to get them back in the store,” said Abbey. “If a person truly does not return products and you see this in their pattern, and you can say hey, look if you waive your right to return, we’ll go ahead and give you an extra 10 percent off. This technique is already in action at WalMart’s online portal Jet.com.”

For some non-returners, such a discount could build loyalty because it rewards their preference to avoid returning items.

“In the end, the vast majority of customers who make returns are significantly profitable. In fact, the data shows that customers making sizable returns generate the greatest profit,” Abbey concluded. “Instead of considering all returns as a failure or undesirable outcome, there’s an opportunity to tailor your return options for customer’s needs as a means to form a long-term, profitable relationship.”

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