John Hearne says retailers are deactivating the accounts of online shoppers who routinely return goods they’ve bought to trial at home
Are you a serial returner? Do you routinely send back goods you’ve bought online, even though there’s nothing wrong with them?
Several UK retailers are reported to be clamping down on serial returners, either by blacklisting them or by simply deactivating their accounts.
Meanwhile, according to retail technology company Checkpoint, global retail returns have grown steadily over the last two years to reach a staggering €642.6bn last year. While many of these returns relate simply to the quality of the product, the wrong size or second thoughts, the rise of what is known as ‘wardrobing’ has become a major concern for online clothes retailers.
This is the practice of buying something, wearing it once then sending it back, and is regarded as a form of returns fraud.
Recent research conducted by Barclaycard in the UK has found that a quarter of online retailers have seen a significant increase in goods being returned in the last two years. A fifth of these say that they plan to make returns policies stricter and more stringent this year, with a further fifth planning to do the same thing next year.
Of the businesses that have now tightened up their policies, four in 10 say that this is because far too many customers are over-ordering items knowing that they will return the majority, while three in 10 claim shoppers are actually using items and then returning them.
Consumers are feeling the impact of retailers becoming stricter in implementing their returns policies, with 14% saying they have been penalised by a retailer for their returns behaviour, from warning emails to account deactivations. Penalties have also been incurred for returning too many items, sending back purchases that have been used, returning goods without the right packaging, or missing the returns deadline.
This is especially true of millennials, who are more than twice as likely to fall foul of the small print.
Earlier this month, online retailers ASOS announced that it was ‘toughening up its returns policy’ and said that it would take action against shoppers who buy with the intention of returning. The company also increased the returns period from 28 to 45 days; but after that, a customer will receive a gift voucher instead of a refund.
We’ve also seen reports of ASOS deactivating customer accounts as a result of their returns activity.
Anita Liu Harvey, director of strategy at Barclaycard, points out that consumers have now come to expect free returns as standard. If they don’t get them, they shop elsewhere.
“As a result, we are seeing retailers implementing stricter returns policies to try to clamp down on serial returners in a bid to reduce the impact that returns are having on their business. These more stringent policies have begun to affect consumers, with some retailers starting to send warning emails to customers about accounts being deactivated, should unusual or suspicious behaviour continue. On the flip side, it does seem shoppers are becoming more mindful about the purchases they make and the impact their returns could have on the environment.”
The good news from an Irish point of view is that under EU distance-selling regulations, you have a right to return online purchases for any reason at all if you do so within 14 days.
There is a long list of things that fall outside the remit of the EU’s regulations — concert and travel tickets, hotel booking, digital content to name a few — but clothing is not one of them. So if you order an item of clothing online from an EU-based seller, then change your mind, you can send it back within two weeks for a full refund.
That said, Martina Nee of the European Consumer Centre (ECC Ireland) does point out that the regulations don’t apply to any clothing that has been custom-made or personalised: “For example, if the consumer’s specific measurements are used to make the dress fit her body, or any other custom-made work which means that that the seller would have a hard time reselling it.”
She adds it’s vital to return the goods in good condition. Another key point in all of this is that while we’re all used to free returns policies, the online seller is under no obligation to extend this courtesy.
“Consumers should, therefore, read the terms and conditions to check the returns policy, to see that the trader has stated their rights in relation to the 14-day
cooling-off period/right of withdrawal and if they have to bear the cost of returning the goods.”
Nee goes on to say that the centre has had complaints where traders have told consumers that the 14-day period starts from the time that the purchase is made.
“This is not correct. It is always advisable for consumers to check the terms and conditions to see if it complies with the Consumer Rights Directive and/or contact the trader to ask what the returns policy. The trader’s willingness or not to respond could also be a factor in a consumer’s decision to purchase or not.”
The elephant in the room is, of course, Brexit. ECC Ireland says that if you purchase an item before Brexit, you should, in principle, be covered by the same rights enshrined in EU consumer protection law. These have been written into domestic legislation by all the EU member states, including the UK, and can be relied upon even if those rights are exercised after Brexit. So if you buy a product before a crash out, only to discover afterwards that it already had a defect when you bought it, you should be OK. By the same token, the right to return for any reason within the cooling-off period should remain if the crash out happens during that period.
If and when the UK leaves the EU, you will no longer automatically enjoy the same rights that you have under EU law.
While UK domestic legislation is currently aligned with EU consumer protection law, this could change in the future.
So if you purchase a product online from a UK trader after Brexit, it’s vital to pay special attention to the terms and conditions. For added protection, always pay using a credit or debit card in order to avail of chargeback — which is a procedure by which a card issuer can reclaim your cash in the event of a disputed transaction.
After Brexit, consumers who have a dispute with a trader based in the UK will no longer be able to seek redress through the European Consumer Centres Network (ECC Net) online dispute resolution platform.
And in the event of a hard Brexit, the UK ECC will cease to be a member of the ECC-Net, which means they won’t be able to assist with complaints involving consumers or traders from the UK. The European Small Claims Procedure would also cease to operate in the UK in such a case.
For the moment, however, you can continue to shop at all of your favourite online retailers without fear.
— Anita Liu Harvey, director of strategy at Barclaycard