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  • Has e-commerce turned us into entitled consumers?
  • Has e-commerce turned us into entitled consumers?
    Disruptivo (2019) ©

What makes online shoppers become ‘serial returners’?

While most people consider the ability to return any purchase a consumer right, the rise of ‘serial returning’ is becoming a problem for many retailers. Canvas8 spoke to Dr. Jason Sit, a marketing lecturer at the University of Portsmouth, to understand the drivers behind this phenomenon.

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E-commerce has not only transformed the ways that people discover and buy items, it’s also changed how they deal with unwanted purchases, giving rise to a new type of consumer dubbed the ‘serial returner’. These individuals are usually identified by the high frequency and value of their returns, with some sending back more items than they keep.

According to research from Barclaycard, almost half of all online consumer spending on clothing in the UK ends up being refunded by retailers. [1] This habit reportedly costs retailers £60 billion a year, with 29% having increased their prices to cover the cost of managing and processing returns. [2][1] Brands are also responding to this behaviour, with Diesel, for instance, releasing a tongue-in-cheek ad that recognised a growing propensity among fashion shoppers to ‘enjoy before returning’.

To understand the behavioural drivers behind serial returning, Canvas8 spoke to Dr. Jason Sit, a senior lecturer in marketing at the University of Portsmouth. “Returns are [seen as] part of great customer service,” he says. “We see it as our consumer right to return, exchange, or refund goods, even if the product is not faulty.” [3] But what factors, both psychological and societal, drive people to send back so many of their purchases? And are they entirely at fault for this behaviour or are brands also guilty of fuelling unsustainable shopping habits?


Buying for the thrill of it
When Marilyn Monroe said that “happiness is not in money, but in shopping,” she accurately described the ‘buyer’s high’ – that feeling of euphoria produced by the act of buying something new. For most people, this is a relatively benign emotion, but for others, the dopamine hit can lead to addictive shopping behaviours; 89% of American adults admit that they’ve succumbed to impulse shopping online, as have 78% of Britons. [4][5] According to Dr. Sit, this biological response similarly influences returns, as there is “some degree of compulsion or addiction with [serial returning] behaviour.” [3]

The thrill associated with returning stems from two sources. One is about the process, which Dr. Sit says is “very much linked to the compulsive buying process – the thrill of the choosing, the paying, the ordering, the receiving, the unboxing and the trying.” The other is the thrill of getting away with it. “After you have tried and used the ordered item, you can actually return it. It’s like doing something naughty, but legal. You know you’re doing something wrong and it’s unethical, but not illegal.” [3]

However, addiction highs are coupled with lows. More than one in five (21%) Britons bought something on Black Friday/Cyber Monday 2018 that they later regretted. [6] So, returns create a win-win situation for compulsive consumers. Sending back items sustains the initial pleasure from the purchase and also “helps alleviate the negatives of compulsive buying – guilt, remorse, and the paying pain,” says Dr. Sit. [3]

Free returns ease the financial strain for frequent shoppers
Free returns ease the financial strain for frequent shoppers
Kelsey Marie (2019) ©

Non-committal status signalling
While some shoppers are serial returners because they struggle to moderate their spending, others make frequent returns because they’re eager to signal their status with new purchases. The picture-perfect lifestyles shown on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter are driving some to spend to keep up with the (online) Joneses, with American Gen Yers ranking social media as the most negative influence on how they manage their money. [7] The result? Roughly a tenth of UK shoppers admit to having posted a photo online of themselves in a new item before sending it back. [8]

This behaviour has been termed ‘wardrobing’ and involves wearing items or posting them on social media before returning them. According to Dr. Sit, the act of sharing photos allows consumers to “be admired and complimented even though it is superficial and momentary.” He explains that the phenomenon is linked to the fact that “fashion is changeable and consumers feel the need to constantly update their image. But they don’t want to own it – they want to try it and experience it.” [3] Indeed, 58% of London-based Gen Yers surveyed by Westfield claimed to be interested in renting clothes, suggesting a desire for experience over ownership. [9]

Although research shows that social media does impact spending – 57% of Gen Yers say they’ve made an unplanned purchase because of something they saw online – it is still unclear how these platforms affect serial returning. [10] Dr. Sit is hesitant to blame the networks entirely: “Instagram has contributed partially to the behaviour of serial returning, but we cannot conclusively say the Instagram generation is likely to become serial returners.” [3]

The selfie generation is embracing access without investment
The selfie generation is embracing access without investment
Adam Hoang (2019) ©

Curbing confusion by over-ordering
There are other, more practical, factors affecting serial returning. The convenience of online shopping appeals to those with fast-paced lifestyles – 55% of consumers are willing to pay more for simpler experiences. [11] “People want easier or effortless products or experiences. We enjoy doing things when it’s easier,” says Dr. Sit. “Think about the ready-to-cook, ready-to-eat meals, all these two-in-one skincare products.” [3]

Features such as one-click shopping and click-and-collect encourage on-the-go spending, with mobile users now able to browse and buy while waiting for a bus or in a queue. “[Brands] make it easier, more convenient and more effortless for people [to buy] and, therefore, people enjoy it and are encouraged to do it more,” says Dr. Sit. [3] Yet while the ease of m-commerce has had a positive impact on sales – smartphones and tablets accounted for 40% of online retail sales in the US in Q3 2018 – there are some limitations in what it can offer customers, contributing to serial returning behaviour. [12]

Notably, online shopping doesn’t allow people to try on items or handle them physically, leading to occasionally unmet expectations regarding size, colour, or quality – 91% of online shoppers in the US say they’ve ordered clothes that didn't fit properly. [13] Brands are partly responsible for this, with Dr. Sit noting that a “lack of or poor sizing information” contributes to returns. [3] Differences in sizing across brands also add to consumers’ confusion – 71% of American women say that clothing sizes are inconsistent across brands, with 63% feeling frustrated by this. [14] As a result, shoppers seeking well-fitting items for underdeveloped sizing categories, such as wide-fitting shoes or plus-size apparel, may struggle to make the right choice on the first go.

Opaque sizing between brands fuels uncertain purchases
Opaque sizing between brands fuels uncertain purchases
Mattia Baldini (2019) ©

Insights and opportunities
Faced with surging shipping and processing costs, what can brands do to reign in returns? The easiest thing would be to provide accurate product information, including detailed size guides and clear imagery, thereby enabling people to buy in confidence and reducing the number of returned items. To this end, ASOS has introduced an AI-powered tool called Fit Assistant that aims to improve sizing information and recommendations for customers. [15] Meanwhile, luxury retailer Jules B has “in-house editors and photographers to ensure accurate product information is available online and that detail and model shots are provided when required,” says Bethany Hamer, online fashion editor at the company. [16]

Some brands are experimenting with stricter return policies to curtail their associated costs. Harrods, for instance, has resorted to blacklisting customers when there is an unusual pattern of returns. [17] According to Dr. Sit, retailers are too lenient as they “don’t just offer returns, they offer extended periods and many different options for how people return goods. With the refund process, there’s no high level of physical effort. People return more because brands make it so easy for them. Things are getting easier because of digital technology… people shop more and return more. With Amazon, you don’t even have to print any labels [to return].” [3]

Returns are [seen as] part of great customer service. We see it as our consumer right to return, exchange, or refund goods, even if the product is not faulty

Dr. Sit adds that “there’s no shame or embarrassment attached to returning. There’s no stigmatisation. Retailers need to take responsibility because they’re creating a monster for themselves.” Some online retailers have launched subscriptions that include free returns, with Topshop and ASOS both charging £9.95 a year for their premier delivery services, which include unlimited free returns. But Dr. Sit feels this encourages returning behaviour: “When you’ve paid for something with a free returns subscription, you feel you’ve already invested money in it, so you have to keep using it.” [3] Research backs up this point of view – 40% of retailers in the UK and US noticed a significant rise in returns over a 12-month period in 2017/18 when customers ordered a surplus of items because returns were free or inexpensive. [2] MyVerte is tackling the issue through an Uber-style system that lets brands rate consumers based on their returning habits. It sets up the expectation that shoppers must be considerate, careful, and sure of their purchases. [18]

Some brands, especially in the luxury sector, are making it harder for people to return items and setting stricter criteria for refunds. Dr. Sit explains that to return an item to Gucci, for example, people “must inform the brand of the intention of their return within four days of the date of delivery, either by directly returning the merchandise or filling out a form.” But even then, the brand warns that it “reserves the right to refuse return of any merchandise that does not meet [its] return requirements in Gucci's sole discretion.” [3] While brands may not be able to completely stop their customers from mass returning, they can introduce certain, client-friendly approaches to encourage more conscious and responsible decision-making from the get-go.

Related behaviours
Great Expectations: People are behaving like divas

1. 'Return to Sender: Retailers face a ‘Phantom Economy’ of £7bn each year as shopper returns continue to rise', Barclaycard (June 2018)
2. 'Online retailers face 'returns tsunami' as try-before-you-buy trend intensifies', Retail Gazette (March 2018)
3. Interview with Jason Sit conducted by the author
4. 'Constant cravings: is addiction on the rise?', The Guardian (January 2019)
5. 'Retail therapy and the power of the impulse buy', DAC (February 2019)
6. 'Black Friday statistics', Finder.com (October 2019)
7. 'Social media pressure deepens American debt', Canvas8 (June 2019)
8. 'The people who return most of what they buy', BBC News (November 2018)
9. 'An alternative to consumerism does exist: the performance economy', The Business of Fashion (August 2017)
10. 'Half of millennials say social media drives them to spend money they don’t have', CNBC (May 2019)
11. 'The world’s simplest brands', Siegel + Gale (2018)
12. 'Mobile commerce is on the rise in the US and it already accounts for most sales in several other countries', Business Insider (January 2019)
13. 'Consumers to return half of online clothing purchases this holiday season', PR Newswire (December 2018)
14. 'Henning: fashion fit for plus-size professionals', Canvas8 (September 2019)
15. 'Asos improves sizing assistance with AI technology', FashionUnited (November 2018)
16. 'Do people care about environmental returns?', Canvas8 (July 2019)
17. '‘Serial returners’: Confessions of shoppers who return worn clothes to retailers', The Independent (January 2019)
18. 'Project Verte launches MyVerte marketplace on the blockchain as an alternative to massive e-commerce platforms', PR Newswire (July 2019)

Featured Experts

Dr. Jason Sit

Dr. Jason Sit is a senior lecturer in marketing at the University of Portsmouth’s Faculty of Business and Law. His specialisms are in customer experience, customer value, and omnichannel retailing, covering various retail or business sectors from shopping centres to DIY to fashion.


Polina Norina is a senior behavioural analyst at Canvas8. She has a background in editorial project management and copywriting, and has previously worked on New York Times bestsellers in trade publishing and international comms projects for companies like Airbus. Outside of work, you can find her learning new languages, reading non-fiction or discovering new design innovations.