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Money: As online retailers get shirty with returns policy, are you a boomerang buyer?

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As shoppers, we appreciate the convenience of sending something back if it isn’t quite right.

But, with some people stretching the rules, retailers have started to clamp down on their returns policies. Some have been sending warning emails to customers about their behaviour.

Retailers estimate 10% of items sold online and 9% of all items sold in-store are returned by customers.

A fifth of retailers say they have taken steps to make their returns policy more stringent in the past year, with a similar proportion, 19%, planning to do so in the next 12 months, according to a survey by Barclaycard.

But why are retailers changing their policies and what does means for customers…

Why have some retailers toughened up their returns policies?

Three in 10 retailers (28%) in say they are dissatisfied with the quantity of items returned by customers. Among businesses tightening up their policies, four in 10 (41%) say it’s because too many customers are over-ordering items, knowing they will return the majority. Three in 10 (31%) claim shoppers are using items and returning them.

Many customers admit to deliberately ordering items they know they will send back. Three in 10 (29%) shoppers order items they intend returning – rising to nearly half (48%) of millennials aged 25-34.

How is this affecting customers?

One in seven (14%) says they’ve had their knuckles rapped for their returns behaviour – such as being sent warning emails by retailers. Those returning too many items, sending back purchases that have been used, returning goods without the right packaging, or missing the returns deadline have fallen foul of the rules.

How do returns policies influence where we shop?

The returns culture means many people have come to think of being able to send items back, for free, as a standard part of their shopping experience. More than a third (36%) of consumers say they would be less likely to shop at a retailer if they made their returns policy stricter.

Nearly half (49%) of consumers say a retailer’s returns policy influences where they shop, and nearly a fifth (18%) will only choose retailers offering free returns. And six in 10 (61%) retailers say they currently offer free returns.

So, where do you stand if you’re not happy with a purchase?

As well as complaining to the retailer directly, other organisations may help, such as Citizens Advice, Which?, or free-to-use complaints website Resolver.

Martyn James, consumer rights expert at Resolver, says the huge growth in online shopping means it’s seen complaints jump.

“With retailers locked into a never-ending cost-cutting battle with competitors and the industry losing millions through delivery costs, it’s inevitable retailers are introducing new restrictions on customers who they feel are misusing their services,” says James.

“However, they can’t change their obligations under the law. The rules state that if you order goods online you have 14 days to return them. The retailer then has 14 days maximum to refund you.”

You may also be able to get your money back if the goods later turn out to be faulty. Bear in mind, though, there may be exceptions and shopping rights online are different to those in store.

And what if you’re upset that your favourite retailer has had enough of your returns behaviour?

James says that, while retailers can legitimately clamp down on those they feel are abusing the system, he also expects stores to adapt to our new way of purchasing.

“Expect to see department stores evolve into “experience sites”, where you can try on goods in-store you’ve ordered online, get a meal or glass of wine and mooch about pop-up stalls,” he adds.