Holiday Series: Let’s Talk Returns

Disappointed Woman Unpacking Online Purchase At HomeWith online selling being so competitive, especially around the holidays, it’s important to get every advantage you can. One area in which you can differentiate your business is returns.

Beat the Brick-and-Mortars

In fact, your returns policy may also help you better compete against brick-and-mortar stores, not just other online sellers, says longtime merchant Kathy Terrill. While there are many ways Terrill works to stand apart from B+Ms (and her online competitors) for Terrill’s customers, returns are “no problem.”

And that’s a good thing. With all the gift giving during the holidays, buyers will be looking for the piece of mind that comes with knowing they can return a product if it doesn’t work out for some reason.

Buyers Want You to Take Returns

Sometimes returns aren’t cut and dry. Additionally, customers and online merchants may have differing opinions (go figure) on what constitutes a good returns policy.

Now, we’ve been both online buyers and sellers for 16 years, and as buyers we always look at the return policy carefully. For expensive items, especially, we look for a liberal policy offering returns for 30 days. If a seller will not accept returns at all, that can be a turn off. We’ll either move on to another seller or, in the case of unique items, do our due diligence even more carefully than we would otherwise.

There are exceptions, though. We sometimes buy comic books online that are graded by an outside company, CGC. As buyers, we know CGC-graded comics are in the condition the seller says they are. So in these cases, if a returns policy is less flexible, that’s understandable. (Unless, of course, there’s a problem with the plastic case the comic is encased in. A crack would certainly justify a return no matter what!)

Of course, we’re not the only shoppers looking for generous return policies.

“As a shopper, I will not buy items online with no clear return policy,” notes Quincy Smith of “I don’t want to risk having something not fit, work or arrive not as advertised unless I am able to return it.”

Returns Can Be Tricky

Ina Steiner, the editor of, points out that “returns are tricky particularly for sellers of highly valuable or unique items.”

“Many sellers claim they receive damaged or inferior substitutions of their items when buyers request returns,” she says. “Returns are also a problem for clothing sellers who say some shoppers make a habit of wearing items and returning them to sellers stained, expecting a full refund.”

It makes sense that not all items are meant to be returned with equal ease, especially if the item is susceptible to the normal wear that using the product causes. But even this example seems to come with its own caveats.

We spoke with Randall Robert, owner of Grapple Gear, who emphasized the importance of return policies for his particular niche, athletic apparel used for grappling sports such as Jiu Jitsu and MMA.

“We’ve actually gone above and beyond in our returns policy, with great results,” he says. “Most companies will only pay for one-way shipping and expect their customers to foot the bill to return the product. However, grappling apparel is difficult to size and determine the right fit, as every manufacturer seems to have a slightly different idea of what the sizes mean in terms of length, width and weight.”

Allen Walton of SpyGuy Security has very solid reasoning as to why there is not a returns policy of any kind for the surveillance equipment his company sells.

“Because of the nature of our products, we have a no-returns policy on our hidden cameras in our GPS trackers,” he tells us. “Customers can sometimes find that difficult because they’re not used to buying the sort of product we sell. We have a very good reason for this policy, though. We get customers who buy our merchandise, use it and then want to get a refund even after they get the answers they need.

“We’re not the rental company and we can’t stay in business that way,” he continues. “I think we make a good case for not having a returns policy on those items, and a lot of customers definitely understand why. It’s just sometimes hard to close the sale.”

Don’t Take it Personally

As we’ve suggested, all things being equal, you want to be able to offer as generous a returns policy as you can. Additionally, you can’t take returns personally.

“If you get upset every time a customer returns one of your items, this business is not for you,” says veteran merchant Cynthia Carrejo.

So if you can, accept legitimate returns and maintain a positive attitude about it. That way, everybody’s holidays are happier! 

Our thanks to Ethan Schepp, who provided research help for this article.

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