Retailers say this habitual online shopping trait is forcing them to raise prices

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Amy Swales
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Plenty of us do it, but those who buy in bulk when shopping online, fully intending to send back the unsuitable items, are apparently hiking up prices in some UK retailers.

Whether you’re buying a vast selection of outfits in the hope of finding one you like, or ordering the same item in several sizes, you’re one of the ‘serial returners’ – shoppers identified as purposefully overbuying.

And a survey of 308 UK retailers has six in 10 claiming the practice negatively affects the business, with one in five even raising prices to cover the cost.

The Barclaycard survey also questioned customers, and estimates that 30% intentionally overbuy before returning items.

So what drives a serial returner?

Size, for one. It’s well known that clothing sizes fluctuate frustratingly from shop to shop, especially in women’s fashion, and when buying online it’s even harder to know if what you’re ordering is actually going to fit.

Almost half of those surveyed said that standardised sizes would stop them from ordering multiple items, and a quick straw poll of the Stylist office reveals similar motivations.

Helen Bownass, Stylist’s entertainment editor, says: “I frequently buy things in a couple of sizes from places like ASOS, where they have a really good delivery and returns policy.

“It’s normally one of two reasons: it’s for something like a wedding and I want to treat my bedroom (or the work toilet) like my own personal changing room, or I’m ordering something really last-minute and am too impatient to risk it not being in the right size.

“However, I always buy with the intention to keep at least one size – I don’t just do it for the sake of it.” contributor Anna Pollitt agrees: “While I don’t shop online, I often take two sizes of the same clothing into the changing rooms. So if people can afford to pay double, it seems a sensible way to try on clothes as they would on the high street.

“I know people who overbuy regularly – essentially using their bedroom as they would a changing room. I think it's fair play. If a retailer has an open returns policy allowing customers to return items simply because they've changed their mind, I think they should be able to use that system to make sure they have the correct piece of clothing when they want it.”

Almost six in 10 of those surveyed said a retailer's returns policy influences whether they shop there and almost half (47%) of those would actually not order something if they had to pay to send it back.

The other main issue is that of assessing quality – something that can only be done in person. Items turning out to be shoddier than the glossy picture made out is clearly such a common frustration that some retailers actually list ‘quality’ as a reason on returns forms.

And when you chuck colour perception (enter The Dress) into the equation, of course shoppers are taking advantage of free returns policies. writer Harriet Hall says: “So often I go shopping, try something on and love it, only to find that when I get home it goes with nothing I own.

“Additionally, online retailers are partly to blame because they shoot the items on models and pin back garments, which gives an inaccurate representation, or they don’t shoot from all angles or have adequate close-ups – you just don’t know until it arrives what it’s like or if it really fits the way it does in the picture.

“There’s no such thing as one size fits all so it’s only fair women can try everything on to ascertain what’s right for them.”

As our contributors mentioned, essentially what many shoppers are doing is taking the shopping experience into their own homes (or indeed, work loos) for convenience.

Where once we would have tried something on in changing rooms, with their tricksy mirrors and flattering lighting, we now take to our bedrooms to make the decision (and rarely queue for the privilege).

And one might argue that, for online-only retailers at least, taking returns on the chin is fair pay off for not having actual premises and all the related costs; jacking up prices because they're in shock over customers unwilling to buy blind seems unreasonable.

Sharon Manikon, director of customer solutions at Barclaycard Global Payment Acceptance, said of the survey: “Today’s time-pressed shopper expects the process to be fast, easy and free – and that applies to both buying goods as well as returning them.

“Online spending will continue to rise and the need to keep pace with customer demands presents a dilemma for businesses needing to protect their bottom line.

“From developing universal sizing to offering virtual dressing rooms, the key for today’s businesses is to determine which innovations work best for them while ensuring they don’t lose out to their more savvy competition.”

That’s not to say there’s not an interesting point to be made on our relatively recent reliance on digitally-enabled fast fashion.

ShortList content marketing manager Victoria Gray says she never shops online, and believes that creates a connection with the things she owns – she only buys what she really loves, as opposed to the numbers of us with a £5 pink nylon something hanging in the wardrobe that didn’t seem worth the post office trip.

“I go and visit items at least three times before I commit to buying.

“I suppose I’m old-fashioned, as I like the idea of shopping being an experience, with customer service and all that. It means you really care about the things you own rather than just accumulating stuff.”

Images: iStock


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Amy Swales

Amy Swales is a freelance writer who likes to eat, drink and talk about her dog. She will continue to plunder her own life and the lives of her loved ones for material in the name of comedy, catharsis and getting pictures of her dog on the internet.