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February 15, 2021

Clothing Returns & Covid: A 5-Step Guide For Small Fashion Retailers

By: Peter Gregory

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E-commerce is a great way for fashion businesses to make sales during lockdown, but it’s not without its pitfalls. Clothing return rates can be as high as 40% under normal circumstances (according to Statistica), and there’s some confusion over how long the virus can survive on clothing (which could potentially put you at risk).

In this article, we’ll look at the returns policies of some of the main clothing retailers here in the UK. We’ll show you where to go for the latest government guidance on running a covid-secure clothing business, and we’ll share 5 simple steps to running a covid-secure returns process

Consumer Returns: What The Law Says

There’s just one thing to mention  before we get started: you still have to allow customers to return goods. The right to return clothes is a basic consumer right, and coronavirus hasn’t changed this. The only time you don’t have to accept consumer returns is if you are selling underwear or face masks. 

There are lots of laws that cover consumer contracts, but the main one to pay attention to if you’re selling online is the The Consumer Protection (Distance Selling) Regulations 2000 (known as the ‘Distance Selling Act’). You can see the Distance Selling Act law for yourself here, but it’s not very easy to read — there’s a much simpler list of business-friendly instructions on the gov.uk website here.

Returns are a fact of life for clothes shops — especially online shops — so you need to do everything you can to keep your returns process simple, profitable and hygienic, regardless of what’s happening with the coronavirus emergency. 

Here are our 5 steps for running a covid-friendly returns process: 

Step 1: Describe Your Clothes In Detail 

The best way to keep your returns process profitable is to reduce the odds of clothing getting returned to you in the first place. You can cut the risk of unnecessary or avoidable clothing returns by drowning the customer in detail!

Use your product description box on your site to give the shopper as much information as possible about each garment. Explain everything about the fit and feel of the garment. Don’t just list ‘small, medium or large’;  measure the inner sleeve, outer sleeve, bust, waist and neck circumference and list those details in the product description. The more your buyer knows before they click that ‘pay now’ button, the better the odds that they’ll want to keep the item they’re buying from you. 

You can’t prevent 100% of returns — sometimes people just don’t like how a garment feels, there could be damage to a parcel in transit or they might just decide they can’t afford it. Just be as up-front as possible in the description field. If your buyer is genuinely interested in your product, then the added detail will get them even more excited about owning the item!

Step 2: Fight Back Against Bracketers!

‘Bracketing’ is the practice of ordering lots of clothes in different sizes and colours, trying them all on at home, then returning all but one item to the retailer. 

Bracketing is a returns strategy that costs retailers a lot of money under normal circumstances, but the coronavirus pandemic makes it a much bigger problem, because it’s still not clear whether returned goods can be safely re-sold (See Step 5).

There are two ways  you can reduce the chances of a consumer bracket-shopping your website. You can either add a per-item postage cost so that it ‘costs more’ to try on a lot of clothes, or you can set a limit on the number of items that a customer can add to their online shopping basket. 

Putting limits on an online shop might seem counterintuitive but it’s becoming more common in the current climate. A few major UK clothing retailers (NEXT & ASDA, for instance) are already placing daily limits on the number of orders that can be placed through their website. They have to do this to ensure that the people working in their warehouses can maintain social distancing and work safely. 

You might not have a problem with bracketing — you might even bracket-shop yourself from time to time — just remember that it has an impact on your available stock levels and your profit margins. If you want to allow bracketing on your site, consider getting online retailer’s insurance, just so that you’ve got some protection. 

Step 3: Offer Consumers More Time

Try increasing your returns window to 100 days or more. A longer returns window builds trust with your consumers, but more importantly it reduces the incentive for a covid-positive shopper to send back potentially contaminated clothing.

When researching this article we checked the returns policy of every major UK clothing retailer. A lot of stores have extended their returns window in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, while a lot of the retailers who were already offering a really good returns window of 100 days or more are honouring their existing terms:

If you’re worried about the cost of a long returns window, just remember that a longer returns window removes the urgency from the returns process. A larger number of customers could potentially send something back to you looking for a refund, but an equally large number of customers could completely forget to return items to you, simply because there’s no immediate rush. Have a think about it and consider running a trial on a few product lines if you’re concerned about affordability.

Step 4: Make Returns Safe & Simple For Your Customer

The covid emergency is a short-to-medium-term problem, and you’re in business for the long term. Remember this when you’re designing your returns strategy. Make the returns process easy for your customer, and it will pay dividends in the long run. 

If you can afford it, offer the customer a free return service. Royal Mail, Hermes and other courier companies can provide a tracked drop-off parcel service and/or a doorstep collection service. 

You should also do what you can to keep your customer informed. If there’s a chance that it could take a few extra days to process refunds due to the current lockdown, make this clear. Confirm, via email or text or even phone, when you have received a return. Confirm again when that return has been processed. 

Step 5: Treat Returns Carefully When They Arrive

The Covid-19 pandemic means that you have to be extra-cautious when handling returned garments. 

First off, when a returned garment comes through your letterbox, you should steer clear of the package for 3 full days. The chances of coronavirus surviving in clothing fabrics is very low (according to gov.uk, “dirty laundry that has been in contact with an unwell person can be washed with other people’s items.”), but the WHO say that the virus can survive on plastic for up to 72 hours

Next, you need to decide whether you’re going to resell the garment to another consumer. Businesses are rightly nervous about reselling returned items at the moment — the last thing anyone wants to do is spread the virus. Drapers magazine asked PHE for advice on covid-secure returns back in April 2020, but so far the response from authorities has been vague. At the moment, there’s no guidance to say you shouldn’t resell returned garments. We’re keeping an eye on gov.uk and we hope the guidance will become clearer soon.

The Good News About Returns

Returns can be heartbreaking — money you thought you had earned has to go straight back out the door, and you’re often stuck paying additional card processing and shipping fees out of your own pocket. It can feel like you’re worse off than you would have been if you had sold nothing

The good news is that there’s growing evidence that shoppers who return clothes are in fact the best customers (research from Accenture says “a retailer’s most valuable customers are typically responsible for the most returns. Research shows the highest quartile of returning customers produce 22 to 46 percent more profit on average after six months.”). Most of the time, the customer returning your product is doing so with the best intentions, and will buy something else from you (hopefully in the right size this time) in future.

Try not to see a return as a refund — instead, see it as just the next step on your customer’s journey towards an eventual purchase. Keep your returns process as simple and convenient as possible, and treat the customer how you would like to be treated. You won’t regret it!

Thanks for reading!


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