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Retail Reflections: Heavy price paid for ‘taking it back’; raised voices and smart assistants

Alan Monahan writes: I once worked in the same office as a young woman who thought nothing of ‘buying’ a dress on a Friday and returning it to the store for a refund the following Monday.

Challenged by colleagues about this practice – which also extended to having pieces of jewellery on approval – she defended her amoral attitude by telling them that her weekend ‘party dresses’ and bits of bling were ‘borrowed’ and it didn’t harm anyone.

But it did then – and it does now.

People like her are costing our retailers £7bn a year, according to back office support firm Brightpearl. In a recent survey of 2,000 consumers across the UK it discovered that the North East is the worst region for serial returners, with 36% of all shoppers there admitting to buying multiple items with the intention of returning some.

The study shows that 40% of retailers have noticed a marked increase in serial returns over the last 12 months, and more than half of retailers (52%) are seeing their profits severely impacted by the process of managing these returns.

The North-East was closely followed by Wales and then the South-East (35% and 33% respectively). However, consumers from the East Midlands are more likely to keep hold of the items they’ve bought, with just 18% of shoppers in the region identifying themselves as a serial returner.

The findings also show that more than half of all 18-24 year olds fall into this bracket. And with that generation’s buying power increasing year-on-year, Brightpearl CEO Derek O’Carroll believes it is only a matter of time before serial returner behaviour becomes the norm.

Unsurprisingly, online shopping has fuelled the fire and e-tailers are hit harder, with 30% of all products ordered online being returned, jumping by an extra 15% during holiday periods, including the lead-up to bank holiday weekends.

While offering free returns is resulting in a loss of revenue for retailers, many see the policy as key to their customer experience strategy. The survey found that 85% of consumers expect retailers to provide returns for free, and although retailers are now looking at ways to tackle the problem, figures from the research show that over two-thirds of them don’t use any technology to manage returns.

You will, of course, want to know the top 10 worst regions for serial returners: they are – 1 North-East; 2 Wales; 3 South-East; 4 London; 5 North-West; 6 Yorkshire & Humber; 7 East Anglia; 8 Scotland; 9 South-West; 10 Northern Ireland.

I was surprised to learn that more than a third of online shoppers are using AI-driven smart assistants like Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri to support their online shopping – and another quarter expect to do so in the next couple of years.

I only engage with Alexa when I want to hear favourite music tracks or a new release from someone like Neil Young or Bob Dylan, so I doubt that I will be rushing to swell their number. That said, a few years ago I never thought I’d be buying things on eBay, but now I’m a convert. Indeed, I have been planning my 20-mile journey to collect a stone Victorian planter which will take pride of place in my rockery. So, who knows?

But enough of that: new figures from Wunderman Commerce company Salmon reveal that so-called voice commerce has fast established itself as part of the digital retail mainstream, finding favour with shoppers looking for ever more convenient and intuitive ways to buy online.

For its latest report into eCommerce trends, The Future Shopper: 2018 and Beyond, Salmon found that almost three-quarters (72%) of online shoppers in the US and UK show a preference for outlets that are digitally innovative, while the same proportion wish more brands and retailers were making use of disruptive technologies.

You may not agree, but Salmon believes that ‘voice’ offers ‘another reason to engage with, rather than try to battle, Amazon’, which has helped pioneer the voice commerce concept and is the first to build a comprehensive end-to-end ecosystem for it. ‘Listings with Amazon are now a prudent means of entering the voice market,’ it adds.

But although voice offers convenience, seeing is still believing in retail. The 89% of shoppers who say they would still prefer to see a product while using voice assistants suggests screens still have a role to play. Perhaps eventually the use of smart assistants on mobile devices will become the key trend in voice commerce.

Wunderman Commerce’s head of innovation, Naji El-Arifi, posits the thought that brands need to be thinking about what their offering is going to be in the next couple of years when voice becomes a major interface.

‘You have to have a plan of how customers are going to interact with your brand using voice,’ he says, as this will completely change the dynamic between the two.

Finally, I see that Visa, MasterCard and a number of US banks have proposed a $6.2bn (£4.7bn) settlement of a long-running lawsuit brought by merchants over the fees charged on credit card transactions.

As late lamented comedian Tony Hancock used to say when expressing surprise: ‘Swipe me!’ Seems appropriate.