Originally created 02/15/02

Smooth returns with online purchases



Wanda Love is tall and knows that it can be tough to find pants that fit properly. So when a pair of black leather slacks she recently ordered on-line arrived and were too short, she didn't hesitate to ship them back to the Internet retailer.

The customer service representatives at the e-tailer, Danier Leather Inc., got her measurements, searched through their stock of slacks and mailed her back another pair to try on, slightly cheaper but still in the same $200 price range. This time they fit.

"It's very convenient," says Love, 38, a regular on-line shopper in Calgary, Canada, who works in radio sales, takes cooking and French classes, trains for a half-marathon and often travels with her husband.

"I just have a busy life . . . I don't like crowds, and this way you save time."

Welcome to the world of on-line returns, certainly not a hassle-free zone but one that e-tailers are learning to size up.

Following the hectic holiday season, many merchants are busy with cyber-returns. And they're finding that shoppers like Ms. Love are typical in that they return apparel more than any other type of goods bought on the Web.

Love, for example, has ordered books, CDs, home decor and gift products on-line but has yet to return anything but clothing.

What is more, consumers often use the Web as a virtual change room, snapping up three sizes of a pair of shoes and then returning the two that didn't fit.

"It is a big problem for apparel retailers," says David West, a retail consultant at J.C. Williams Group Ltd.

Apparel returns can make up 30 per cent or more of on-line sales, he says, and shoe returns can be even higher. On the other hand, returns of these store-bought goods can be 10 percent or less.

Returns of goods that don't involve size or color choice, such as CDs and books, are closer to 5 percent and not dissimilar to those rates at the stores, observers say.

There are other problems tied to cyber-returns. Consumers returning on-line purchases usually have to pick up the tab for mailing back the item (although in Ms. Love's case, Danier paid the freight because she is such a loyal customer).

Alternately, the shopper can head to the store, which gives the retailer the chance to try to entice the person into shelling out more money for something else. Merchants, naturally, tend to prefer the second option.

Michael LeBlanc is one of those e-shoppers who recently returned an on-line purchase to a bricks-and-mortar store. He had ordered a $300, top-of-the-line bicycle helmet from SportChek.ca, only to have it arrive dented in packaging that wasn't sufficiently padded.

LeBlanc took the helmet back to a Sport Chek outlet, looking to exchange it but the model wasn't in stock. He ended up ordering it again on-line. This time, it came in proper shape.

LeBlanc knows all about Internet returns. He heads the on-line operation at hbc.com, which is the site for the Bay and Zellers (both owned by Hudson's Bay Co.).

Hbc.com carries almost no apparel or shoes, a conscious effort to avoid the pitfalls of high returns in those items. The site's highest rate of returns - up to 25 percent - is in electronic goods. They were popular at Christmas but many of them were returned after consumers couldn't get them to work, LeBlanc says.