Retailers Brace For Hefty Holiday Returns of Oversize Goods
Growing purchases of furniture, appliances and other bulky items are expected to add a new dimension to the annual ritual of returning unwanted holiday purchases. Retailers Brace For Hefty Holiday Returns of Oversize Goods
A flood of online orders for furniture, fire pits and other bulky consumer goods during the coronavirus pandemic is set to add outsize new complications to one of e-commerce’s biggest holiday-season headaches: returning unwanted items.
Retailers are setting up dedicated handling sites and striking deals with specialists in reverse logistics on expectations that an upswing in hefty returns will swell once consumers see their bigger, heavier gifts and purchases in the postholiday light.
Come January, said Erik Caldwell, president of XPO Logistics Inc.’s last-mile business unit in North America, “You’re going to have the mother of all returns seasons for heavy goods.”
About 25% of all e-commerce purchases get returned, according to Forrester Research Inc. Bulky purchases tend to have a lower return rate than more portable items such as apparel, hovering around 10%, industry executives say.
But this year there are far more exercise bikes, lounge chairs and office desks being delivered to homes as people redesign their lives and residences around lockdowns and work-from-home orders aimed at restricting the spread of the coronavirus.
At XPO Logistics, which handles home delivery and returns for customers including fitness-equipment retailer Peloton Interactive Inc. and Whirlpool Corp. , heavy-goods shipments this summer outpaced last year’s holiday volumes. The rate of returns has also increased since the pandemic, from about 10% to “around 11% on much higher volumes,” said Mr. Caldwell.
Cheap and easy returns have become a critical piece of marketing for e-commerce retailers as they try to lure customers. Online clothes shoppers routinely order multiple sizes and colors, shipping rejects back or dropping them off at a nearby store.
Returning a 200-lb. sleeper sofa or a flat-pack desk that’s now fully assembled is more complicated, and more costly.
“It’s not as simple as buying a pair of shoes and putting it back in the box,” said Zach Pollock, chief operating officer of Pilot Freight Services, which arranges transportation of heavy and bulky items for customers including Bed Bath & Beyond Inc., Walmart Inc.’s Sam’s Club and Dick’s Sporting Goods Inc.
“When you’re picking up valuable items that are unpacked, inside people’s homes, it takes time,” Mr. Pollock said. “Getting it back into that factory packaging can be quite a chore.”
Last year delivery giants FedEx Corp. and United Parcel Service Inc. added $24 fees on packages weighing more than 50 pounds and lowered the surcharge threshold from 70 pounds. Both carriers also charge extra for shipments that exceed certain dimensions.
Research group IBISWorld said in February that the domestic online furniture market has been growing at a double-digit rate in recent years and would reach $45.7 billion in 2020. That was before the pandemic sent consumers online in big numbers, however.
As of October, Pilot’s consumer e-commerce volumes were up about 37% this year compared with the same period in 2019, Mr. Pollock said. “More shipments are being returned as a percentage of year-over-year growth” among top-tier accounts at Pilot, he said.
Retailers face extra headaches for returned goods.
Once an unwanted item is packed up and removed from the customer’s home, retailers must assess its condition and decide whether to resell it, liquidate it or send it to a landfill. Rejected goods may end up traveling hundreds of miles back to a warehouse, tacking on considerable transport costs.
Some brands have dedicated last-mile delivery operations where returned goods from one company are consolidated locally and shipped. In other cases, unwanted products flow through terminals that handle freight for dozens of clients.
Some merchants are setting up regional returns centers as higher sales volumes increase the expense of dealing with unwanted items, said David Commiskey, vice president of customer solutions at freight brokerage and logistics firm GlobalTranz, which helps furniture companies and retailers manage home-delivery shipments of oversize items and also advises them on returns policies.
“You have to understand their network and what the cost is to bring something back from North Carolina to California,” Mr. Commiskey said.
At reverse-logistics specialist goTRG, which handles returns for customers like Walmart and Lowe’s Cos., “the size of the units returned is up by 200%” since the pandemic, goTRG Chief Executive Sender Shamiss said.
For one home-improvement retailer, he said, the average return size went from 0.6 of a cubic foot to 1.4 cubic feet. Mr. Shamiss said one retail customer went from about 300 trucks of returned items per week to between 600 and 700 trucks.
The returns rate at Wayfair Inc., which IBISWorld estimates has 9.4% of the online furniture market, has held steady at about 5%, with no “meaningful change…during the pandemic,” a spokeswoman said. Still, the online furniture retailer’s sales are rising so fast that even a steady rate of returns likely means the company has a lot more unwanted merchandise on its hands.
Wayfair’s U.S. net revenue jumped 82.5% in the second quarter and 66.5% in the third quarter from the same periods in 2019, to $3.65 billion and $3.27 billion, respectively.
Detroit-based online furniture retailer Floyd Inc., whose sales have also jumped during the pandemic, has a similarly low return rate of around 5%. “But with any rate of returns it’s still a challenging and expensive process,” said Aaron Turk, the company’s vice president of operations and corporate development.
Typically Floyd’s returns travel the same way they shipped out. Most items don’t get returned to stock because the packaging has most likely been damaged, Mr. Turk said, so the company sells them off at an annual sale at its Michigan warehouse.
“We haven’t been able to do that this year” because of the pandemic, he said. “So inventory is piling up.”
Black Friday Was A Bust For Many Stores, Better For Online
Foot traffic plunges by half amid coronavirus pandemic while online sales jump; consumers turn to Amazon and big-box chains that offer one-stop shopping.
U.S. shoppers went online to purchase holiday gifts and score Black Friday deals they once crowded into malls to grab, as the coronavirus pandemic accelerated the yearslong remaking of the U.S. retail landscape.
Roughly half as many people visited stores on Black Friday as they did last year, according to research firms that track foot traffic. Meanwhile, online spending jumped 22% from a year ago, making it the second-best online shopping day ever measured by Adobe Analytics.
It is unclear whether an early start to the holiday shopping season, the online Black Friday surge and an expected record day on Cyber Monday will be enough to offset the money lost from in-person shopping for many chains.
Heading into the critical season, U.S. consumer spending has been strong despite the economic shocks and shutdowns tied to Covid-19. The National Retail Federation, a trade group, has forecast that holiday sales will increase at least 3.6% to about $755 billion, including at least 20% growth from online shopping to about $202 billion.
This year, web shoppers on Amazon.com Inc. or Best Buy Co. could get many of the same deals that stores once dangled only to those who lined up overnight. Those who did venture out made fewer stops and increasingly turned to big-box chains like Walmart Inc. and Target Corp. that sell everything from lettuce to Legos, according to the foot-traffic data, shoppers and retail analysts.
Christina Preza was browsing Christmas decorations inside a Walmart store on Black Friday. The 60-year-old executive from Woodstock, N.Y., has been spending more money at Walmart since the pandemic started, she said, because she is trying to limit her time inside stores for health reasons and is shopping more online. “It’s easier to buy all in one shop because I’m going about every two weeks,” she said.
The well-worn formula of one-stop shopping has proven especially lucrative during the pandemic. Big-box stores with groceries were deemed essential and allowed to stay open when department stores and malls were closed. Plus, Walmart and Target already offered curbside services in addition to online ordering.
Some of the big-box stores’ pandemic advantages were on display over the Black Friday weekend. This year many retailers closed on Thanksgiving Day, instead offering holiday deals both online and in stores as early as the first week of October. Online sales have jumped, favoring Amazon and those chains with robust e-commerce operations.
On Black Friday online sales hit $9 billion, up 22% from last year, according to Adobe Analytics, which measures 80 of the top 100 U.S. e-commerce sites. The gain was near the low end of Adobe’s forecast, which had projected growth of between 20% and 42% from last year.
It was the second biggest online-sales day, after Cyber Monday 2019 when sales hit $9.4 billion, according to Adobe. The firm expects this Monday to set a new record, with online sales of at least $10.8 billion or growth of at least 15% from last year.
Meanwhile, foot traffic to stores on Black Friday fell 48% this year from last year, said RetailNext, which provides cameras, software and analytics to thousands of U.S. stores and shopping centers. Sensormatic Solutions, another tracking firm with cameras in stores, said in-store traffic fell 52% on Black Friday compared with last year.
Both companies said their data showed spending outpaced foot traffic because shoppers purchased at the stores they did visit.
“Customers, if they chose to shop in stores, they chose to be a little more thoughtful about where they wanted to shop,” said Brian Field, a senior director at Sensormatic.
Spending at physical stores fell about 30% on Black Friday, estimates RetailNext, with apparel, footwear and jewelry all down more than 50%. In-store spending fell the most in the Northeast, down 52%, and least in the South, which fell 42%.
Black Friday was a continuation of a trend that has emerged since Covid-19-related restrictions in March. Cautious consumers are making fewer trips out of their homes and stocking up when they do. Some are adding higher-margin items such as clothing and cosmetics to their carts in the same places they buy groceries or household essentials.
“Am I spending more at Target? Yes, exclamation point, yes,” said Amanda Romeo, a 39-year-old inside a Target in upstate New York with her 11-year-old daughter on Black Friday.
Ms. Romeo discovered Target’s curbside pickup service for online orders early in the pandemic and is now a heavy user, she said. She goes to stores, often Target, as an occasional outing, she said.
“There is a little something for everyone. I can get milk. I can get toilet paper,” she said. “I can get this princess dress for my niece,” she said holding up a red velvet dress embellished with Disney characters.
The pandemic winners and losers were clear when a parade of retailers released earnings reports in recent weeks. Target said comparable sales, those from stores and websites operating for at least 12 months, rose 21%, boosted by a 155% surge in online sales. Walmart, the country’s largest retailer by revenue, reported comparable U.S. sales up 6.4% as online sales nearly doubled.
In contrast, many department stores, apparel and specialty retailers, already weakened before the pandemic as more shopping shifted online, are now mostly weaker. Macy’s Inc. comparable sales fell around 20% in the most recent quarter. Kohl’s Corp. sales declined 14%, and T.J. Maxx parent TJX Cos., which had strong sales before the pandemic, reported a 3% decrease.
Shoppers are still gravitating to retailers that align with pandemic shopping trends, such as comfy clothes and home goods, said David Bassuk, global co-head of the retail practice at AlixPartners. But big-box retailers are gaining market share by offering products “the way the consumer wants it—accessible, easy—and they are able to make more money at it.”
Permanent store closures hit a record in the first half of the year and several chains, including J.C. Penney Co. and J.Crew Group, filed for bankruptcy protection.
Penney is closing hundreds of stores and selling most of its business to two big mall owners while J.Crew emerged with new owners. Meanwhile, many small retail businesses have also struggled to grab the same percentage of business without robust e-commerce supply chains and technology.
Retail executives and industry groups are pushing to keep stores and malls open as coronavirus cases surge across the country. They are trying to avoid, in the critical holiday season, the restrictions and closures that crippled many chains during the spring.
“Consumers have evolved their purchasing behavior,” said Matthew Shay, chief executive of the National Retail Federation, an industry group. “They are trying to limit the number of trips they make and bundling purchases. Nevertheless, those retailers who have a particular expertise are finding ways to compete.”
Beleaguered department stores have a role to play in a post-Covid-19 shopping world, said Macy’s CEO Jeff Gennette. “There is room for us,” he said in an interview before Thanksgiving. “Customers need help developing their styles. They look to us to help them do that.”
Stores Are Getting Your Christmas Returns Back On Shelves Fast
Retailers work to make returned products quickly available for resale to offset supply-chain snarls and adjust to rising e-commerce sales.
Find what you needed this year? It might be because you got someone else’s return.
More retailers are working to quickly get like-new returned items back into their systems for sale. They are hoping to fill shelves and websites, as supply-chain snarls limit the availability of some new inventory, and reduce the cost of handling returns overall, a bigger expense in recent years as e-commerce sales climb.
A product sold online is more likely to be returned than one purchased in a store where a shopper can see and touch it first.
Retailers such as Walmart Inc. and American Eagle Outfitters Inc. are investing in automation, software and new warehouse systems that help cut the time it takes for returned products to become salable inventory.
American Eagle focused on streamlining returns last year after the pandemic shut down stores, the company’s main return channel, said Shekar Natarajan, chief supply-chain officer for the Pittsburgh-based apparel chain.
That strategy has paid off, as supply-chain problems this year delayed shipments of some of the company’s bestselling products, such as jeans and leggings, said Mr. Natarajan.
“We have used the pandemic to try to maximize the value of the inventory,” said Mr. Natarajan.
The company set up more warehouses to receive, clean and repackage returns, he said, and employed new technology to gauge product demand to determine in advance which warehouse should process a return and which items are worth fast-tracking back onto shelves.
For example, American Eagle gives priority to leggings, which have been harder to import because of manufacturing delays in Vietnam, said Mr. Natarajan.
Returning a product to shelves, depending on its priority status, now takes the chain six days or less, down from about 14 days before, and costs around half as much, he said. Company executives said they were well stocked for the holidays during an earnings call in November.
Overall, the volume of returned holiday goods is expected to rise this year, in line with sales, but not as fast as last holiday season when buying shifted rapidly online during the pandemic, say retailers and firms that handle returns for them. Some data show that more shoppers returned to stores for holiday shopping this year, helping to lighten the return load.
A lack of inventory to meet demand has been a problem for some retailers in recent months, especially smaller ones that don’t have the resources to work around logjams that chains like Walmart or Target Corp. do.
Gap Inc. took a sales hit of around $300 million in the most recent quarter because supply-chain disruptions led to a lack of inventory, the company said last month.
The apparel retailer has focused on more efficiently processing returns for years, a spokesman said, but accelerated those efforts during the pandemic when e-commerce sales surged and physical stores closed.
In March the company added new automation that helps return products to “in stock” within an hour of arrival at a warehouse, he said, versus a couple of days with the previously manual process.
Some data show returns linked to holiday purchases are happening earlier this year after many retailers kicked off their holiday deals season in early October.
GXO Logistics Inc., a Greenwich, Conn.-based supply chain and warehousing company that handles returns for several large retailers, saw the volume of returned goods surge in November for some e-commerce categories, a spokesman said.
At one large electronics retailer, return volume for November rose 46% from a year earlier, he said. At a large apparel brand, returns rose 36% this November compared with last.
Such figures are in line with e-commerce trends. Online sales rose in October and early November, compared with the same period last year, then fell in late November and early December, according to data from Adobe Inc. October e-commerce sales rose 8% to $72.4 billion and November e-commerce sales rose 13.6% to $114 billion.
Walmart, the country’s largest retailer by revenue, has been returning more like-new items to shelves as well as looking for ways to sell gently used products, a spokeswoman said.
Walmart already sells refurbished electronics on its website but is now selling those products in some stores as part of a test, she said, both to become more efficient and help reach the company’s sustainability goals.
Before the pandemic, many retailers aimed to get shoppers to return items at physical stores so they would buy more, said Amit Sharma, chief executive of Narvar Inc., a technology firm that manages returns for retailers and brands that sell directly to consumers. Now many are focused on convenience, efficiency and faster return processing, he said.
Narvar is testing a service in 10 large cities that lets retailers, including Brooks Brothers and Crocs Inc., offer to pick up shoppers’ returns to get those items back to warehouses faster, said Mr. Sharma.
Traditionally “people initiate the return online but still take a few days or up to a week to drop off that item in a store or at UPS, ” he said. Return volume at Narvar during November and December so far is up about 5% over last year.
In the past, returns were an afterthought, “just a last thing to be processed, and it takes a while to get back to in-stock or just goes to close out sale,” said Tobin Moore, chief executive officer of Optoro Inc. The logistics technology company counts American Eagle, Target and Best Buy Co. as clients.
“With the supply chain issues, we’ve been working with them to see returns as part of their inventory,” he said.
Retailers’ Many Unhappy Returns
Extended return windows and higher parcel costs threaten to cause a margin-eroding headache when shoppers send back holiday gifts.
As the holiday glow wears off and consumers return to their normal routines, they will start sobering up to the reality of those ill-fitting pants bought hastily at a holiday sale or that gifted necklace they will probably never wear.
They won’t be the only ones who are disappointed: Longer return windows and higher parcel costs mean returns could end up taking a bigger bite out of retailers this year.
$95 billion in 2019, according to an estimate from B-Stock Solutions, an online liquidation platform that allows retailers such as Best Buy and Walmart to sell returned or excess inventory to other, typically smaller retailers.
United Parcel Service expects to handle more than 60 million return packages from Nov. 14 through Jan. 22, a 10% increase from the previous year.
The percentage of merchandise returned has edged higher during the Covid-19 pandemic, in large part because online sales have return rates that are two to three times higher than sales at bricks-and-mortar stores, according to Pete Madden, a director in the retail practice at consulting firm AlixPartners.
Roughly 18% of online sales are returned, according to a 2020 survey conducted by the National Retail Federation and Appriss Retail. The same survey found that 11% of total retail sales were returned in 2020, a bump from the 8.1% recorded in 2019.
Returns could come with a bigger hit on margins this year. Both FedEx and UPS said their rates would increase by an average of 5.9% across most services in 2022—the first time in eight years that either company has had annual increases above 4.9%.
Higher wages mean it also will cost retailers more to process returns. For sellers of lower-margin or consumable goods, that will often mean shipped returns will cost more than letting consumers keep them.
AlixPartners estimates that so-called returnless refunds could be worth as much as $4.4 billion for 2021.
Timing is another element that could erode returns-related margins. While retailers have traditionally offered longer return windows for the holidays than the standard 30 days, the pandemic has pushed more of them to stretch past historical norms.
Walmart, Target, Macy’s and Bed Bath & Beyond are among those offering windows of 90 days, though each differ on which items qualify and whether that return window applies year-round. A winter sweater returned in March is worth much less than one returned in January, when a retailer might still be able to resell it without a steep discount.
The post-holiday surge in Covid-19 cases is something else to watch: Retailers might find it more difficult to persuade consumers to return items to stores instead of shipping them.
As more retailers bank on online sales for growth, investors should keep an eye out for innovations that could cut down on returns altogether. Gap, for example, last year bought Drapr, which provides virtual fitting-room technology.
Saks.com uses an algorithm that helps consumers find a size in a brand that is new for them by asking what size fits in a different brand, says Mr. Madden.
A fast-growing industry of resellers—enabled by platforms such as Shopify, or even resale marketplaces such as Poshmark —is another area to watch. Their proliferation is good news if it allows retailers to command higher prices for their returned or excess inventory.
Marcus Shen, chief operating officer of B-Stock, says that such resellers are thriving because consumers are “much more open and amenable to buying stuff that’s been opened or returned.”
In coming earnings seasons, retailers will likely boast about their healthy holiday sales volumes. Investors should also read the fine print on how the retailers plan to handle returns.
Holiday Gift Returns Are Choking Retailers And Landfills
Merchants won customers’ hearts with lenient return policies. Now the strategy is backfiring, with dire financial and environmental consequences.
As the warmth of the holiday season ebbs, Americans are taking a cold look at their Christmas gifts. Many don’t like what they see.
One in four Americans expects to return at least one holiday gift by next weekend, according to a report by UPS. That’s at least 60 million packages in a single returns season for the world’s largest package shipper alone, and a 10% increase over 2020 holiday returns.
As the costs of shipping and handling those returns increases, retailers and consumers are facing an expensive and unsustainable shopping future.
For generations, savvy retailers adopted lenient return policies as a way to project reliability and retain customers. They knew perfectly well that unscrupulous customers could exploit no-questions-asked or receipt-optional refund policies.
But the success of retailers like Nordstrom Inc. and Target Corp., both of whom have famously permissive return policies and loyal customers, highlighted the countervailing benefits. In a recent survey of apparel companies, 86% of respondents agreed that returns are a “necessary evil.”
Online retailers recognized the necessity early, adopting lenient return policies and free return shipping to build trust and loyalty with consumers new to e-commerce. Perhaps the most aggressive proponent was Zappos, the online shoe retailer now owned by Amazon.com Inc.
Early on, the company encouraged customers to order shoes in multiple sizes and then return the ones that don’t fit – and paid for the shipping. As far back as 2010, Zappos was happily telling reporters that its best customers are the ones who return the most products.
It’s an expensive way to gain market share. In 2020, U.S. consumers returned around $428.6 billion in merchandise, or 10.6% of total retail sales. Now online retailers, buffeted by picky Covid-era consumers, face return rates between 15% and 30%.
Refunds are just the start of a retailer’s costs. According to a recent analysis from companies involved in the returns industry, it costs $33 for retailers to process a $50 return item in 2021, a 59% increase over the previous year.
Several familiar factors figure into those rising costs during the Covid era, especially for e-commerce retailers. Rising transportation costs have made it more expensive to move returned goods to specialized processing centers and then to their final destinations.
Rising labor costs have pressured retailers in need of employees to open, assess and route returned products.
But the biggest costs, by far, are related to write-downs and liquidation of returns (on average, between $6.50 and $35.25 per $50 product). Few returned products are rerouted back into a retailer’s inventory.
The flood of returns is so heavy (and growing) that it’s simply impossible for retailers to assess whether each individual pair of jeans, porch furniture combo or Lego set is in resellable condition.
To manage the volume, retailers rely on a byzantine network of brokers, resellers, liquidators and – sometimes – themselves to wring value out of returns.
For example, Home Depot Inc. hosts online liquidation auctions of returned products with lot descriptions like “Truckload (18 pallets) of Outdoor Power Equipment, Vanities & More.” Winners sort and – hopefully – resell the products. But there’s no guarantee that everything will work (it’s a return, after all), and thus the reseller also takes on the burden of disposal.
That can be a heavy burden. In 2020, retail returns produced nearly 6 billion pounds of waste. Some of that is packaging. But much of it is returned product that can’t be resold.
In those cases, resellers and retailers, faced with an unmanageable flood of returns, are known to incinerate returned inventory or dump it in landfills. Retailers who fail to address the problem not only bear responsibility for the waste, but risk alienating customers.
The financial burdens are just as serious. Last month, the U.K. online fashion retailer boohoo Group PLC cut its sales forecast due, in part, to a ruinous 12.5% surge in returns over December 2020.
They’re not alone. In recent years, venerable retailers, including Nordstrom, have tightened up their once-liberal return policies in the face of rising costs. So-called “free” returns are being scaled back and consumers are being encouraged to deliver unwanted products to brick-and-mortar locations.
Solutions that avoid alienating consumers accustomed to free returns remain scarce. For example, many online apparel retailers have invested in virtual fitting rooms to assist online shoppers in purchasing right-fitting clothes. So far, the fitting rooms don’t seem to have had much of an impact on returns.
A better approach might be a retail-industry campaign that outlines the environmental and financial costs associated with product returns.
At a time when consumers and retailers are keen to burnish their sustainability credentials, an honest acknowledgement of what happens when consumers buy more than they need (or want) could benefit everyone.