Product, Service & Design Innovation
How eCommerce Can Reduce Both Shoe Returns and Their Environmental Effects

Retailers and brands that view themselves as leaders in a customer's online shopping journey, and want to keep their trust in sustainability initiatives, need to solve the root of the return culture problem: Fit. Sizeable advancements in AI and machine learning have put the perfect fit in the hands of everyone.

Ten years ago, the majority of shoppers only felt comfortable buying shoes in person. Local shoe stores had a selling opportunity within a 20-mile radius. In a world of free returns, virtual sizing experiences and online reviews, shoes can now be bought online, from anywhere in the world, with ease. The problem? They can also be returned with ease.

While it’s easy to blame consumers for buying multiple items, keeping whatever fits and sending back the rest, the reality is not all returns are shopper-driven. In fact, the majority (73 percent) of returns occur due to a retailer-controllable action, according to Incisiv’s 2021 Retail Returns report. There is an active opportunity for retailers and brands to reduce the nearly 6 billion pounds of landfill waste and 16 million tons of CO2 their returns contribute to annually.

During the pandemic, many trends that were already taking place in retail — trends including appointment scheduling, virtual fittings, curbside pickup and contactless payments, to name a few — sped up and benefitted shoppers by making their experience more convenient, seamless and safer. Yet, one negative uptick for online consumers, retailers and the environment has been free returns due to inconsistent sizing. Both of these factors have helped create the return culture when it comes to online shopping.

The return culture emerged and became such a significant factor in environmental waste because retailers started offering free shipping for purchases and returns to stay competitive; and customers now expect it before making a purchase. And as Susan Cullinane, a professor at the University of Gothenburg's School of Business, Economics and Law, points out: "Almost no one dares to charge for returned goods." Her 2018 report, Substantial Environmental Impact From Returned Goods, explains that return culture began as a result of free return policies coupled with inconsistency in sizing, both harming the environment and customer satisfaction.

Shoe-fit measurements are a challenging task. Online shopping, inconsistent sizing and free returns have turned homes into private fitting rooms filled with multiple sizes and styles. As a result of this, the average e-commerce return rate is 2-3 times higher than in-store. Over-ordering and free returns are not sustainable solutions for the environment, the customer journey or a brand's reputation.

So, what can e-commerce channels do? Those that can deliver an accurate online shoe fit can reduce returns. With the myriad of complex manufacturing processes, standardizing shoe sizes is nearly impossible. Instead, "retailers can apply digital technology to help customers make better choices while shopping," Cullinane says.

Sizeable advancements in AI and machine learning have put the perfect fit in the hands of everyone. We’re now in a world where online shoppers have the ability to accurately measure their feet with a mobile device and see what shoes best fit their unique measurements. These personalized recommendations provide a number of benefits to retailers — including more sales conversions, higher order values, improved inventory management and an enhanced customer experience.

By enhancing shoppers’ experience with accurate size recommendations, retailers help free shoppers from ordering multiple sizes, reduce packaging waste, and decrease overall vehicle time on the road — not to mention saving the unwanted inventory from ending its short life in a landfill. Retailers and brands that view themselves as leaders in a customer's online shopping journey, and keep their trust in sustainability initiatives, need to solve the root of the return culture problem: Fit.

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