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New ways to return online purchases that just aren't right

Taj Sims Taj Sims | Photo: AP.

April 08, 2017 04:07 PM

NEW YORK (AP) — As online shopping surges, so do the returns — and the hassles for shoppers trying to get rid of items that aren't right. A few startups dedicated to online returns as well as changes at some big stores may make it easier.

With the contest for shoppers' loyalty intense, retailers need to keep them happy — and returns can be a key part of that. Online purchases get returned at about twice the rate of in-person selections, says internet consultant Sucharita Mulpuru-Kodali. And fewer than half sell again for full price, according to research company Gartner Inc.

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Some stores have long allowed people to return to a store merchandise they bought online. Flash site Gilt Group lets shoppers take returns to Saks Off Fifth stores, since they have the same owner. The new options allow shoppers to drop their items off at dedicated mall kiosks, or even have things picked up at their doorstep.

"Retailers have to be competitive, whether it's free shipping or free returns," said Tobin Moore, CEO of Optoro, which helps retailers find the best re-sale price when a product is returned.

Here are some of the new ways returns are getting less painful:

BYPASSING THE LINES AT STORES: Target is redesigning its stores to have a separate entrance for shoppers in a hurry, which will take them straight into a service area where they can make returns — including for items bought online. The company plans to implement the redesign at about a third of its stores in the next three years.

Nordstrom has introduced a "Drop & Shop" service in Manhattan for online returns from its discount division Nordstrom Rack and its Hautelook flash sale site. The company says it's been encouraged by the shorter waits and positive feedback from shoppers. It's testing the service elsewhere at its Rack stores and working toward expanding it this summer, says spokeswoman Kendall Ault.

EXTENDED DEADLINES: Plenty of stores are lengthening the timeframe for returns. Target extended the deadline to one year on items in its more than 30 exclusive brands, for a full refund. The previous limit was 90 days. Online shoe retailer Zappos has long offered a 365-day return policy, but as part of its loyalty program it now has no time limit for top-tier customers.

LABEL-LESS RETURNS: Companies are getting more accommodating to shoppers who don't have printers at home and find it harder to produce return labels. UPS, which has more than 100,000 U.S. drop-off locations, said it tested a program last year that allowed people to present a barcode on their phones at UPS. It's now expanding that feature. "We want to make it simple. We want to make it more convenient," said Jim Brill, a UPS marketing manager.

RETURN IT AT THE MALL: Logistics company Happy Returns is building a network of return bars at malls in a partnership with several online-only retailers. Shoppers can make returns in person and get a full refund right there.

"Our research shows that people don't want to pay for the cost" of the postage, said David Sobie, CEO of Happy Returns.

The company is working with mall operators Macerich, Westfield and Simon at seven malls in five cities. Those include Tysons Corner outside Washington, D.C., and the Westfield Center Mall in San Francisco. The retailers include custom shoe company Shoes of Prey, fashion brands Eloquii and Everlane, and marketplace seller Tradesy.

HAVE ITEMS PICKED UP: High-level members of the Zappos loyalty program can get free UPS pickups for their returns. The startup Deliv offers same-day delivery and returns for retailers such as Macy's, Pottery Barn and Williams Sonoma and operates in about 18 geographic markets. Retailers set the return fees. Macy's and its upscale sister Bloomingdale's, for example, charge $6.95 for returns. Deliv will collect an item from someone's home and bring it either to UPS or the retailer where it was bought, whichever is most efficient.

"Where is shopping going?" said CEO Daphne Carmeli. "We believe that fundamentally the epicenter of shopping is moving toward the home."

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By ANNE D'INNOCENZIO

(Copyright 2017 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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