In 2018, Americans returned $400 billion worth of clothing purchases to retailers. That number was up 53 percent from 2015, and it’s continuing to grow. For businesses that sell clothing online, it’s a chicken-and-egg problem. Consumers generally won’t trust an online purchase unless they know they can return the garment for a refund. Returns are no small expense for retailers. Between refunds, shipping costs, and re-shelving (or more often, disposal) of returned items, 44 percent of retailers say their margins are strongly impacted by returns.

Returns are even a problem for big brands like J.C. Penney, so it’s a safe bet that up-and-coming fashion designers, Shopify retailers, and even successful indie brands need to understand why the volume of returns is so high, and how to curtail it. 

Customers Don’t Know Their Size, So How Can Retailers?

Size “10” and size “Medium” are no longer examples of useful, standardized metrics. Those figures have been warped to mean something different for each of countless brands available to internet shoppers.

BodyBlock AI surveyed 1,200 consumers and found that 91 percent of those who ordered clothing online were not satisfied with the fit. This explains why so many shoppers order three pairs of jeans in different sizes, then return two.

Retail companies can address the sizing problem by embedding third-party sizing tools into their websites that require minimal effort on the part of the customer. One option is Size.ly, which is a subscription-based tool that helps you create and embed custom size charts into your online clothing store. Alternatively, Virtusize is a tool that will allow your customers to compare the size of your product to that of a product the customer has bought previously. Assuming the customer can recall a relevant, previous purchase, this option is much less labor intensive than a typical size chart. Simpler still is SizeCharter, which simply asks the customer what their size is at another store and translates the answer into a size recommendation for the current brand.

The Burden of Detail Falls on the Retailer

Another common reason customers return online purchases is because their order arrived “differently than expected.” Read as: “The customer picked the wrong color.” Perhaps the customer ordered a blouse photographed on the beach, but she thought she was ordering the model’s flip-flops. Many customers don’t read full product descriptions or check the fabric specifications. Retailers need a good web designer to force the shopper to consider these details without asking them to read too much written instruction or click through too many windows.

AliExpress, a massive Chinese retailer comparable to Amazon.com, has designed its digital experience to prevent a purchase before the customer has specified all of her preferences. Typically sellers will photoshop the product image to show different color variations in lieu of written descriptions. AliExpress’ web design is an excellent case study in organization as a solution to a language barrier. Retailers can learn from AliExpress by using returns as opportunities to improve the visual communication of their web stores.

Return Policies Are a Safety Net, But Reviews Create Real Trust

According to a survey by Olapic, 74 percent of American shoppers said that they would be more likely to follow through with an online purchase once they have seen a positive review, particularly a review that includes a user-submitted photo of the product. Even reviews with constructive feedback or less than five stars are statistically likely to inspire sales because shoppers are more likely to trust a review that appears to come from another consumer instead of a paid recommender.

While many clothing stores pay to integrate a review system into their web stores, it’s more practical to refer customers to a third-party review portal so that the customer reviews can be viewed by other users of the review site who might not be familiar with the clothing brand. Restaurants often “nudge” their customers to leave reviews by placing stickers on their windows that say “Review us on Yelp” or by including links to their Yelp page on receipts and coupons. Similarly, retailers can encourage their customers to leave reviews for a third-party review sites such as shoptrilliant.com for clothing and accessories or consumerreports.org for wearable technology and home goods. A review on a third-party website will make the customer feel like they’re seeing a recommendation from a friend instead of an advertisement.