Considering that an estimated 1.66 billion people worldwide purchased goods online in 2017, it’s safe to say that the e-commerce sector is alive and well. There’s arguably no more convenient way to shop, as consumers can place orders in their pajamas from the comfort of their homes, rather than navigate crowded malls and shopping plazas. Growing customer demand has drawn attention to the wasteful practices that allow us to get our packages at lightning speed, prompting some people to eschew online retail for local alternatives. But while e-commerce still has a ways to go insofar as embracing sustainable practices, at least many brands are prioritizing the customer experience by making the dreaded return process a little bit easier to navigate.
Data shows that 40% of U.S. internet users made purchases online several times each month during 2017 — a habit made easier with free shipping incentives (Amazon Prime among them), electronic payment options, and the overwhelming amount of choice that currently exists. But of course, all of those purchases — many of them with speedy shipping upgrades — come with a cost. With the majority of customers expecting packages to arrive the same day as they order them (or the following day), brands and shipping providers have had to scramble to meet customer demand. Orders on Amazon come in multiple shipments in order to prioritize arrival times, meaning that more packaging is wasted. Although we might cherish plastic devices made from processes like reaction injection molding, single use plastic packaging undoubtedly ends up in landfills. Emissions associated with transportation for online orders aren’t doing us any favors, either. And when customers opt to buy several sizes of an item or impulse buy a product just to meet the free shipping threshold, only to return unwanted products later, that all adds to the negative environmental impact.
In fact, studies have found that those who order products online have a return rate of 25% to 30%, as compared to the 6% to 10% return rates found among those who buy items from physical stores. Although some brands will offer free in-store returns, this option isn’t available for all consumers or for all stores; having to ship these items back most certainly adds to environmental consequences.
It also leads to customer frustration. And that, more than the concept of protecting the planet, is what’s driving certain brands to make changes to their return processes. Target and Walmart already allow customers to return online purchases in their stores (and since these chains are fairly ubiquitous nationwide, this represents less of a burden for the consumer). Amazon recently expanded its partnership with Kohl’s, which allows Amazon returns to be made in any of the 1,100 Kohl’s locations that exist nationwide. Nordstrom has also created service hubs in New York and Los Angeles that let customers pick up or return their orders without a shipping hassle. And Walgreens has teamed up with FedEx to provide online customers with shipping labels and the ability to drop off their internet orders to any one of their stores across the country. There’s also startup called Happy Returns, which has partnered with roughly 30 different online retailers (including Cost Plus World Market, Everlane, Eloquii, Draper James, Rothy’s, and others) to create “return bars” that allow customers to bring their parcels back and obtain an immediate refund, rather than waiting for weeks to have online returns processed.
At this point, the online shopping experience might not be able to get much easier — especially now that brands are making an effort to streamline returns. But in a world that prioritizes convenience and affordability over almost everything else, maybe focusing a bit more on sustainability wouldn’t hurt.