The average returned purchase in the UK passes through seven pairs of hands before it is listed for resale.
Every day thousands of these packages begin their costly journeys between processing centres and warehouses where products are cleaned, repackaged and readied for new owners.
But by the time they make it back to stores, products are often out of season and sold at a discount.
That is the challenge facing many of Britain’s top retailers which, after a Christmas shopping season that saw an unprecedented shift to the internet, are being forced to improve reverse supply chains to cope with the fallout from returns.
For many, online shopping is already a many-headed monster. Chains have had to invest heavily in their internet capabilities, as well as wrestle with problems around stock levels, distribution and delivery options to provide the service customers demand.
Clear Returns estimates that returns cost UK retailers £60bn a year, £20bn of which is generated by items bought over the internet. As the proportion of online purchases increases, so will the cost of returns.
“All your margin is consumed in the process of handling and repackaging,” says Ms Brock. “Because of Black Friday, retailers went into peak trading this year with warehouses full of returns that can take a good six weeks to process — by which time they are surplus stock you have to sell at a lower margin.”
She adds that the proportion of shoppers who are “hedge spending” — buying items at full price in the knowledge that they can return them if they are then discounted later — is increasing because of the ease of checking and comparing prices online.
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