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Trend Alert: Product uncertainty is fueling your shoppers’ bracketing behavior leading to even more returns

How brands and retailers can adapt to rising returns caused by shoppers buying with the intent to return.

We’ve all done it – we see an item online that we’re interested in but we’re not sure if it’s the right size, color, or functionality and so we fill our cart with multiple sizes, versions, and colors of the same thing with the intent of returning the ones that don’t work. 

This common consumer shopping behavior is called ‘bracketing,’ and while it may seem like a harmless way to figure out which products are the best, it’s actually having a significant impact on brands’ and retailers’ bottom lines. That’s because bracketing increases the number of items that need to be returned – and returns are costly for companies to process.

We’ve  taken a closer look at this new shopping trend and its impact exploring why shoppers are using this strategy more often. Outlining the challenges brands and retailers face in dealing with increased returns, we offer suggestions on how companies can adapt. 

Why has bracketing skyrocketed?

Bracketing is known as the practice of over-ordering online in pursuit of the right product, size, color, or style. It’s become a common habit for online shoppers who fill up their carts with multiple sizes, options, and colors of the same items, sometimes across multiple brands and retailers. The plan is to try them on or test them out at home, decide what they like, and then simply send back the rest. 

There are several factors that are responsible for the rise in this latest shopping trend. 

  • Bracketing is becoming more and more prevalent as shoppers have become more comfortable purchasing products online. 
  • The pandemic accelerated eCommerce since shopping in stores was not an option. That behavior has stuck, even as stores have reopened their doors. 
  • Returning products purchased online has never been quicker, easier, more convenient, or less expensive (49% of retailers offer free return shipping).

Bracketing remains high at 58%, even as shoppers are able to return to in-store shopping.

Bracketing’s impact on brands and retailers

Bracketing is wreaking havoc on retailers’ bottom lines. It increases the number of items going back to fulfillment centers; the backward flow reduces capacity to hold other inventory. Returns, particularly free returns, are costly for companies, requiring more labor and space, without any guarantee that returned items can be resold. As more and more customers engage in this practice, it puts a strain on resources and ultimately drives up costs for everyone involved.

While customers have come to take free shipping and returns for granted, retailers struggle to deal with such a costly process. The process goes something like this: 

  • Companies get items back from customers via carriers like UPS, FedEx, or the US Postal Service.
  • They sort through the items to determine whether they’re the correct product and whether they’ve been used. 
  • The company then needs to decide whether the product can be resold. 

The company loses money along the way: on packaging, the labor it takes to fulfill the order in the first place and process the returns, and the freight costs of transporting that product to and from your door. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the process can cost $10 to $20 per return, not including shipping.

Related article: The Rising Cost of Returns

Discovering solutions  

With bracketing on the rise, there are some ways to prevent or discourage customers from making so many returns.

1) Providing better product descriptions: A high rate of returns is caused by  customers lacking comprehensive product information that would allow them to purchase with confidence. In fact, 43% of shoppers cite poor product descriptions as their top irritation when researching products online. 

For example, simply labeling clothing as ‘size 6’ is of very little value since sizes can differ between brands. Instead, include a comprehensive guide that lists the average dimensions for each size, including chest, waist, hips, and leg length, depending on what is relevant to the garment. If you’re stocking multiple brands through your store, you should provide a dedicated size guide for each and a place where consumers can rate if it runs “true to size,” “small,” or “large.” 

Other examples of detailed product information that can reduce returns: 

  • List use cases – is it great for travel, on-the-go, everyday use
  • Describe who the product is for and who it is not for
  • Provide a detailed list of features, materials, dimensions, whether batteries are required / provided
  • List pros and cons of the product

With 48% of customers stating that their top irritation post-purchase is that the product didn’t meet their expectations, managing expectations during the purchase process would go a long way to relieving this common frustration.

2) Use product imagery to inform: Use professional product images that are high resolution, have contrast with the background, and can be magnified. Baymard research found average consumers want to see between 3 to 5 images of a product to better understand what the item has to offer before making a purchase.

A growing number of brands have begun listing the height and clothing size of their models on product pages, allowing consumers to gauge much more accurately how a certain style will look. 

3) Capitalize on video:  Visual content plays a large–and growing–role in the path to purchase for most of today’s shoppers and there’s nothing better than a well shot product video. In fact, 80 percent of consumers say a video showing how a product or service works is important. And, four times as many consumers would rather watch a video about a product than read about it.

Videos not only let your shopper see your products from many different angles, but also help them get a better sense of the item which means they will make a better, more informed purchase decision. 

With 48% of shoppers relying on bracketing when they can’t picture product sizing, videos are crucial for giving shoppers the detailed information they need to make an informed purchase. Overall, video information on a product can help shoppers make a better decision on what to buy the first time.

4) Employ the use of experts: Let shoppers hear from experts who know about the products and actually use the products themselves. According to Neilson, 85% of shoppers seek out trusted third-party experts when considering a purchase and 67% say unbiased, expert recommendations make them more likely to purchase.

Related article: How Expert Videos Can Connect Your In-Store + Online Shopping Experience
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While purchasing products online can’t fully make up for the ability to see, touch, smell, and try a product in person – through a variety of digital best practices you can help your shoppers make more confident decisions that lead to fewer items returned and a better experience for brands and their customers. 

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