Retailers are already gearing up for a huge returns season

With fitting rooms and in-store makeup testers almost obsolete, shoppers have been trying on clothes and products at home — and returning what they don’t want to keep.

The holiday season is still in full swing, but retailers are already preparing for an influx of returns at the end of the month — and it’s expected to be bigger than years before.

Nearly two years into the coronavirus pandemic, in-store fitting rooms and makeup testers have become nearly obsolete, leaving shoppers to try on clothes and products at home with plans to return what they don’t want to keep. While that’s convenient for shoppers, it poses a booming problem for retailers left to process — or discard — unwanted goods.

“Every year as e-commerce grew, [returns were] becoming a bigger problem,” said Praveen Adhi, the lead of retail operations for the Americas for the consulting firm McKinsey. “Then, in March 2020, there was a giant step change, and suddenly retailers had no choice because more people started shopping online and have remained shopping online. It became too much a part of the business to ignore.”

From Thanksgiving to the end of January, $120 billion of goods is expected to be returned, according to the reverse logistics technology company Optoro, up by about 4 percent from $115 billion last year.

“The focus on returns has definitely intensified,” said Bill Inzeo, a global retail technology strategist at the retail technology company Zebra Technologies. “Retailers are looking for ways to lead customers to solutions to help align how they’re thinking about returns.”

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Meredith Guerinot

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