A large part of the festive season is buying gifts for friends and family, as well as ourselves, with the November to January period being retail’s most profitable and chaotic time of the year. With inflation and the increased cost of living causing drawbacks in spending in the European and UK market since February, retailers and e-commerce players alike have been anticipating the gifting season to boost yearly sales and revenue. Something that retailers also have to contend with each year is new gifting trends, basket loading, and increased returns; creating a tornado where retailers try to meet consumer demands as well as keep their heads above water regarding returns and sustainability efforts. Ahead of the festive season, we’re exploring gifting trends, how e-commerce and brick-and-mortar stores can better manage returns, and other aspects of this time period.
Gifting trends for 2022
Shopping and finding inspiration on social media
Instagram, TikTok and YouTube aren’t just platforms for people to share their holiday photos and video tutorials. They’ve become multi-billion Dollar virtual businesses that push content using algorithms to make sales. Social commerce, as it is now called, is expected to be valued at $1.2 trillion by 2025. Users of the platforms are not only shopping from them, but they are using the platforms for gifting inspiration. The same way people use online reviews as a testing ground for a product, more and more consumers are using social media to research a product or brand. In fact, according to a Sprout Social report on the common ways people find the perfect gift, 40% of consumers are seeing organic posts from brands and another 34% are researching a product on the platforms.
Limits on spending
This year, the average consumer in the US and the UK will spend roughly €1,100 on holiday gifts, while shoppers in France, Germany and Spain will spend approximately €405 on gifts during this season. These numbers are still considerable, however, it is a far cry from what families used to spend in the years leading up to the pandemic. According to a new survey done by Retail Economics, 51% of shoppers are imposing spending limits on gifts for Christmas this year; while 90% of low income shoppers are setting limits as opposed to 68% of the most affluent shoppers.
After facing and surviving the life-and-death reality of a global pandemic, many people are turning to personalised gifts for loved ones to show how much they care. This includes engravings on jewellery, imprints of initials on leather items, sandblasted champagne flutes, handmade gifts and more. The personalised gifts market is set to grow by 7.8% per year over the next five years, reaching €36.9 billion in 2027.
Who’s offering extended return policies over Christmas 2022?
Because retail is so reliant on the festive season for hitting targets, moving inventory and making profit, shoppers have more power than ever when it comes to returns over Christmas and New Year’s; enjoying extended return policies. And, what many retailers and consumers may not know is that leniency on time actually reduces returns more than any other returns policy factor. Here are just some of the companies offering extended return policies:
- ASOS, an online clothing and accessories retailer, is giving shoppers up to 2 months and 10 days to return an item. If you shopped between 14 November - 24 December 2022, you have until 24 January 2023 to make a return.
- Amazon’s Christmas returns extension is from 7 October - 31 December 2022, offering shoppers up to 31 January 2023 to return.
- H&M allows purchases between 14 October 2022 - 3 January 2023 to be returned until 31 January.
- GHD, a global hair care brand, allows purchases between 1 October - 24 December to be returned until 14 January 2023.
- Patagonia has no deadline for purchases being returned.
- Banana Republic allows returns for purchases made between 1 November - 31 December 2022 to be returned until 31 January 2023.
- Ralph Lauren’s extended returns policies allow purchases
Investing in technological upgrades can reduce the rate of returns
The process of a shopper returning an item has never been an easy and affordable part of the logistical chain. For many years, the industry-standard of offering “free and easy returns” has fulfilled consumer demands, however, it has left an ever-increasing hole in the pocket of D2C brands and retailers; so much so that global brands are ushering in a new era of limited or charged returns. In recent weeks, Zara, J. Crew, LL Bean and Dillard’s in the UK began charging a fee for mail-in returns, while Kohl’s in the US has stopped paying for a return’s shipping costs. CNN Business reports that some retailers are considering refunding shoppers for their return and letting them keep the item because the cost of a return is too much. In addition, these same retailers don’t necessarily want returned stock because they have mountains of excess inventory already, from gym apparel to home decor. In the US alone, the cost of shipping returns amounted to $751 billion, according to the National Retail Federation, while the number for online shopping alone is $218 billion.
Although free returns remain a top factor for choosing a particular retailer, some consumers are enjoying the Black November discounts and the extended returns policies so much that they’re ordering one item in various sizes or colours, such as a coat in medium and large, and then logging a return on the size that doesn’t fit. This practice is called “Bracketing” and it is the result of shoppers taking advantage of free returns; not trusting sizes online; or opportunistically buying an outfit for a single event and then returning it (which is also known as wardrobing). If every shopper did this, retailers would be paying for one return on every order with their free returns policy. On average, the returns process costs twice as much as the delivery process, making bracketing and wardrobing unsustainable for a business and even more so for the environment.
So, how can retailers minimise the cost of returns? The obvious reason would be to start charging for returns, which would cut down on bracketing and wardrobing significantly. However, the less obvious choice that also improves the customer experience would be to invest in technological and informational upgrades on products online. Dr. Heleen Buldeo Rai, an author and researcher at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Belgium, who has researched and written extensively on the topic of sustainability within e-commerce, shares in a literature review entitled “Return to sender? Technological applications to mitigate e-commerce returns” that using internet-enabled tools and data analysis to improve product information may result in fewer returns. For example, some D2C beauty brands are making use of an AI tool that allows a buyer to take a photo of their skin tone in real-time to match it with an exact shade of foundation. A case study Dr Buldeo Rai references sees online clothing stores in China make use of virtual fitting rooms where you can try on an item of clothing using an AI model with your personal measurements. In this case study, returns decreased by 56.8%. Other technologies include colour swatches, video product reviews, and zoom technology, which has shown that just one unit increase of zoom usage leads to a 7% decline in the odds of a consumer logging a return.
By focusing on improving the customer experience with technological upgrades and features, fewer returns will result in lower overhead costs and a lower impact on carbon emissions.
Christmas spending may be lower in 2022, while a better returns system is on the horizon
Christmas shopping in 2022 is not expected to be as abundant as previous years due to ongoing inflation and increased living expenses, however, retail can still expect shoppers to make good use of discounts, extended Black November sales, free shipping and free returns. As a pull-in for customer loyalty, it is understandable why retailers would want to keep free returns as an option. However, unless retailers and e-commerce pure players prioritise a new customer experience to reduce returns, it will continue to be an expensive headache, totalling $642 billion per year as it currently stands. Overhauling the returns process will also improve retailers’ environmental impact. A study conducted by Dr Buldeo Rai shows that just under 80% of consumers are willing to wait longer for a delivery or to collect their own purchase. With this kind of information, retailers can offer better delivery and returns options that are easier on their pocket and the environment.