The Returns Period: A Year-Round Strategy

In this piece, Nikki McDonald, content director, O’Reilly Media, highlights how retailers can prepare for the January returns period – and what they need to be doing each year to ensure their systems are able to cope with increasing workloads – whilst ensuring customer satisfaction is not ruined.

The child inside each and every single one of us eagerly awaits the excitement of unwrapping our presents each year at Christmas. Yet, whether it’s a pair of socks, or a gadget you’ll never use, at some point in your life you’ve received a present that you’ll never get out of its box again. Think about clothing that doesn’t fit, something that simply isn’t your style, or something you’d never in a million years buy for yourself, buying the perfect gift can be difficult. The good news is that you can most likely always return your unwanted presents with ease, if your retailer has the right systems and strategies in place.

As we return to work and get ‘back to reality’, retailers are bracing themselves for the return of thousands of unwanted Christmas gifts and boxing-day sale impulse buys. It has to be noted that this may be one of the most stressful periods for retailers as the influx of people and goods can be matched to that of the Christmas period.

Whilst the Christmas period is a critical time for retailers – January is no different. This is something that retailers need to keep in mind to help businesses run smoothly. Retailers should, therefore, be laser-focused on the reliability of their systems, rather than gambling on new software or code updates. Any problems or unplanned downtime during this crucial period will cost retailers millions in lost sales and ruined reputations. In fact, according to a recent study by the Royal Mail, 60% of online shoppers will not use a retailer again if they have a difficult returns experience. That’s why wise retailers halt technology initiatives long before this period rolls around and keep changes to the bare minimum. ‘Playing it safe’ when it comes to dealing with new returns technologies is paramount to ensure that a minimum number of customers are lost. Essentially, keeping brand reputation intact is key. As soon as customers feel disappointed with their retailers, there is no doubt that they will purchase items elsewhere next Christmas – and for the rest of the year.

In addition to postponing systems updates, there are other ways retailers can prepare their websites for the all-important returns season. For instance, removing the human factor as much as possible through automation, testing code functionality, performance, and security, and constantly monitoring the increased load on their systems. Technology has now become a key part of our daily lives; and this is no different when it comes to trying to facilitate the best processes for your business. For your business to remain competitive amongst others, optimising your processes with smarter technology can aid your business in the long run.  

However, despite all these proactive efforts, systems can still fail unexpectedly. Chaos engineering is a practice that can help identify any weaknesses through a series of experiments run when conditions are normal. If a weakness is uncovered through these experiments, it helps create a target for improvement before that behaviour manifests in the system at large. Prevention is key. Rolling out these tests before the returns period is what will ultimately ensure disaster doesn’t strike in the weeks that come to follow. 

Businesses must see the busy returns season as part of a year-round strategy and plan new technology initiatives and systems updates to give sufficient time to sort out problems. Retailers need to view Christmas and the returns period simultaneously. One must come after the other and strategic plans must be put into place to ensure both of these periods are handled efficiently and smoothly.  

These efforts must be implemented and tested in good time, if they are to work successfully, before this crucial part of the shopping experience. Therefore, the key date in retailers’ calendars shouldn’t be the first working day of the new year, but rather 27 December – when planning for the returns period technology strategy should begin for the following year.

Returning unwanted gifts is inevitable. As a result, retailers need to be prepared to try and tackle this particular influx period with expertise. January is the busiest time of year for returns; and having a hassle-free returns process will ensure retailers maintain their reputation. After all, we all remember our bad experiences, so the time for retailers to act is now.