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Taking the Pain Out of the Return Process

Online retailers are making it easier to give back items — in person

Online retailers are making it easier to give back items — in person

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Retailers and start-ups are making it more convenient to return items purchased online.

Online shopping has made purchasing a lot easier — one click and your item is headed toward your door, sometimes on the very same day — but returning unwanted items has remained as inconvenient as ever.

But as the post-Christmas return flurry gets underway at stores across the country, that might be changing, too. Recently, online retail giant Amazon started accepting in-person returns at select Kohl’s outlets as part of an overall marketing partnership with the national brick-and-mortar department store chain. For the launch, a dozen Kohl’s locations in Chicago and Southern California will be accepting Amazon returns, and there are plans to soon expand the program to additional Kohl’s outlets.

The process is simple — just drop off your items at Kohl’s, and store employees will package and mail them back to Amazon for free. Your account will be credited upon the return. It matches the returns system Amazon put in place at all Whole Foods locations after it finalized its purchase of the supermarket chain earlier this year. That’s right — hundreds of Whole Foods stores now also accept Amazon returns, handling packaging and shipping at no charge.

With studies showing that about half of all U.S. consumers still prefer to make returns at an actual physical location, even as more and more people do their shopping online, Amazon isn’t the only company trying to streamline the give-back process. Wal-Mart recently announced that its latest mobile app update includes a new system that will make it possible to return items in-store in as little as 30 seconds.

And Happy Returns, a new California-based startup, is popping up at malls across the country, providing an easy way for customers to return online purchases. The company — which currently has kiosks in 40 malls across 13 states, with plans to add 10 more by the end of 2017 — accepts returned items from about a dozen retailers, including Eloquii and Tradesy, and offers free shipping and instant refunds. All you need is the email address you used to order the item, or the order number.

Customer convenience isn’t the only reason for retailers to be on-board with simplifying the process. What a return costs customers in time often costs businesses in dollars — with many offering free shipping on returns during the busy holiday shopping season, every mailed-back package affects their bottom line, in addition to processing fees around each refund. A recent World Business Research survey found that as many as 30 percent of online purchases are sent back, nearly three times the rate for in-store purchases. For clothes and shoes bought online, the return rate is even higher, nearly 40 percent.

So making the return process for online orders easier benefits both sides of a transaction. "It's been a friction-filled part of e-commerce that has held back online shopping," Happy Returns CEO David Sobie recently told The Wall Street Journal. "People expect returns to be easy and free because that's what's expected in a store."

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