Last month I wrote about my return to the NRF Big Show. As a quick recap, a crowd of nearly 37,000 people flocked to the Javits Center in New York City to see what new solutions and innovations software suppliers had in store for 2023 and beyond. This year, the recurring theme was all about customer empowerment and how this leads to a positive customer experience. I tackled a number of technology areas in my original article. Today, I am going to discuss the second part for customer empowerment – returns management.
As e-commerce continues to grow, so do returns. When these returns come into a store, retailers need to get the item back in a selling channel as soon as possible, hopefully without having to mark the item down. Some studies have indicated that online orders are three times more likely to be returned than in-store purchases. For this reason, more and more retailers are making returns management part of the forecasting process. According to my omni-channel returns management research, 57 percent of retailers make returns management part of the forecasting process.
A number of companies showcased their returns management processes and technologies, and I will share a few of those here.
Over the last few years, FarEye has been working to streamline the growing complexities of deliveries. A big part of what FarEye was demonstrating at NRF was is customer experience tool kit, which focuses on visibility and flexibility. However, FarEye has also launched a returns management initiative. The company uses an artificial intelligence enabled business process management (BPM) engine to initiate, consolidate, and complete the final return.
FarEye focuses on orchestrating how the return will happen. Customers are able to personalize the experience by choosing from a variety of returns methods, as well as the day they want a return picked up or dropped off. The returns management engine is integrated with payment gateways, so the customer can track their refund status in real-time, similar to how they would track a delivery.
Happy Returns by PayPal has a returns management portal that offers two distinct returns methods. The first is the standard in-store return. When a customer brings the item to the store, a store associate can process the return on a handheld device, and that item joins the store’s inventory. For apparel, if the return is due to a sizing issue, the customer can be offered a different size if it is in stock.
Happy Returns was also the pioneer behind package-free returns. The company has what it calls Return Bars located across the country. In fact, there are currently more than 5,000 Return Bars. A customer initiates a return through the returns portal, and brings it to the Returns Bar. The customer does not need to package the item up or print a return label. Instead, the returns are aggregated across merchants and shipped together to a Return Hub. The Return Hub then sorts, labels, palletizes returns to be bulk-shipped back to the merchant, saving money on shipping.
Finally, Zebra Technologies was demonstrating what it calls the Modern Store at NRF 2023. The modern store uses handheld devices to enable store associates to perform all their required tasks while remaining on the store floor. But the company also had a few interesting demonstrations for returns management. Zebra partners with Optoro on returns; essentially, Optoro is the brains behind the Zebra device for returns. Customers are able to choose their preferred return method; they can see a map to the closest store for a return, or a map to a third party returns agent. Once they choose the method, the return is initiated and they can bring the item to the appropriate location.
Zebra also demonstrated its recently acquired Fetch Robotics, where the Fetch robots would bring totes to warehouse workers for picking items. Well, the robots can also work in reverse. On the returns management side, the returned item(s) get scanned, put in a tote, and a robot picks up the bin. The robot brings the tote to an associate to scan in the item and return it to the inventory pool. This helps to streamline the process for human workers.