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Harrods, ShopDirect, Unilever bemoan lack of customer centricity in online returns

Harrods

Online delivery has rapidly evolved to accommodate customers but online returns policies are struggling to catch up, according to executives from Harrods, Unilever and ShopDirect.

Speaking on a panel at Ecommerce Expo, Simon Finch, director of distribution at Harrods, said that the last five years had seen a dramatic evolution of choice in delivery options.

“There was a time when I started when there wasn’t much choice for a customer.

“We certainly weren’t involving the customer in the conversation around delivery.”

He said that this had changed thanks to “phenomenal” innovations by couriers, including the likes of in-flight options. Retailers no longer face a dilemma between free or fast, but can just do what customers want them to do.

Chris Haighton, head of outbound logistics at ShopDirect, soon to become Very, said that the carriers had given “visibility and control” to the process.

However, the panellists were less confident in the state of returns. Audience member Edward Osborne, associate director of supplier management at Wayfair, asked whether with the delivery landscape smoothing out the battleground was starting to move to returns.

Bhav Suchak, head of customer services and logistics at Unilever summed up the returns situation as being “the exact opposite of delivery”.

“There’s a huge element where that choice is of the company rather than the consumer as it is with delivery.”

Haighton gave an affirmative answer to the question, saying that the customer “has to be able to shop with confidence.”

He said ASOS’s recent announcement that it planned to police returns was “brave”.

“I’m not sure I’d be out there telling customers that they’re abusing my processes. On the other hand, a tiny proportion of customers do abuse processes. You have to be on top of that and you have to look out for the brick you get instead of the mobile phone [they are supposed to send back].”

He highlighted the problem ShopDirect faces as a department store selling different types of products which require different returns methods.

Receiving a label to affix to a return was very convenient for fashion, responsible for the majority of returns, but doesn’t work well for electricals or furniture, he said.

ShopDirect also offers the option to register a return online using a portal and then have a team sent out to collect it. The portal has the added benefit of letting ShopDirect know in advance that a return is coming.

Finch of Harrods said that returns processes were improving. Domestic returns are free at Harrods. However, he added that “the service isn’t very good,” saying that this is a problem for a brand that prides itself on luxury service.

Despite Harrods facing “an internal battle” over what returns options to offer, he said that returns were as important as price and customers make purchasing choices based on many factors.

“There is so much to do in this space.”