A retail store associate processes an online return in the store room
By Kevin Tapscott | January 27, 2021

Shoppers Say Retailers Need to Improve the Returns Process or They May Not Return to Those Stores

Fortunately, intelligent workforce management, task management, and prescriptive analytics software solutions provide real-time insights into opportunities to streamline and optimize the returns process. Find out how.

With the new year often comes a sense of change and renewal – a plunge into the unknown. But for much of the retail industry, 2021 looks to continue the acceleration of trends that have persisted for years.

Customers still want a simple and frictionless retail experience, with many choosing curbside pickup and buy online pick up in store (BOPIS) to keep their shopping relatively contactless. As online shopping gains momentum, an omnichannel ecosystem is shifting from a want-to-have feature to table stakes, with shoppers looking to connect with their favorite brands online, in stores and over social media. Digital transformation continues to be essential as retailers look for innovative ways to streamline the shopping process and implement new, experiential retail concepts.

And with the holidays having come and gone, it’s clear that the returns process is another area in which current trends are persisting. Zebra’s latest Global Shopper Study notes that over 75% of shoppers want to get in and out of the store quickly, and 76% of customers prefer retailers that offer easy returns. This places an additional burden on front-line associates who have to process returns: 57% of them feel significantly challenged by the increased pressure that managing returns places on their workflows.

An unintuitive returns process sends a massive ripple effect through your store operations, deeply affecting both employees and customers. Front-line associates and warehouse employees who are feeling confused or overburdened may struggle with low morale and decreased productivity, both of which could compel them to seek jobs elsewhere. Considering that labor is retailers’ greatest asset, greater effort must be put forth to improve the associate experience. In addition, COVID-19 is still prominent in the minds of retail customers, meaning that spending too much time in stores and interacting for too long with front-line associates are major concerns. Efficient returns processes are so important today that customers may not return to stores with a reputation for prolonged return queues.

The good news is that crafting a better, more streamlined returns process doesn’t have to be painful or cumbersome. With intelligent workforce management, prescriptive analytics and real-time task management technology, you can empower your employees to quickly process returns regardless of origin, and inventory can be quickly re-shelved either in store or at a warehouse.

How Intelligent Workforce Management Software Empowers a Better Returns Process

Even the most knowledgeable and productive front-line associates can forget to complete critical tasks if they have a ton of items on their to-do lists. If they have to restock shelves, put up signage, tidy up promotional displays, and complete a dozen other tasks, they might forget to process online returns or re-shelve merchandise. The same is true of warehouse employees. Excessive workloads can prolong return sorting and delay customer refunds, leading to unnecessary email and phone inquiries into your support teams.

Inadequately staffed locations may also find customer service queues excessively long during peak returns season, which is frustrating both for customers who are worried about COVID-19 and want to shorten the time they spend in stores and for employees who are unable to provide the exceptional – and speedy – in-store experience that customers now demand. In other words, an inefficient returns process ultimately damages customer loyalty and lowers employee morale.

What’s an easy fix for this?

Leveraging intelligent workforce management software to automate labor forecasting as well as the scheduling process. Just be sure that you invest in a solution that accounts for all key drivers that could impact labor needs, including anticipated return volume as well as employee metrics such as availability, skillset, and alternate work sites.

Integrating artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning capabilities can also improve the accuracy of labor forecasts, reducing the need for last-minute changes and improving employee productivity.

Store managers with an intelligent workforce management app on their mobile devices can change schedules and approve employee scheduling requests from anywhere in the store. There is no need for them to spend hours in the back office working on schedules, and the increased flexibility of this technology empowers them to multitask with other duties.

In conjunction with prescriptive analytics and even task management software – which can measure the efficacy of store execution – an intelligent workforce management solution ensures that you can quickly and accurately align labor with the projected return volume.

Guiding Store Managers and Front-Line Associates with Real-Time Insights

Now that you’ve got the right people in place to handle returns, you need to ensure they know exactly what to do with those items. Should they be re-shelved in the store or sent to the warehouse? Do prices need to be adjusted before they are entered back into the active inventory catalog? Considering that 15 to 30% of online purchases are inevitably returned, and almost 60% of customers still prefer to return purchases in a store, these are questions that associates must have the answers to if you want to improve the execution of in-store and e-commerce operations holistically. There are so many items that need to be sorted and either re-shelved or shipped to warehouses daily that, absent some sort of guidance, front-line associates will struggle to consistently and successfully process returns at the speed needed to maximize inventory availability and minimize overstocks of less popular – or often returned – items.

Without detailed task guidance, associates may not know how to properly process returns or underestimate how quickly returns need to be processed. Or they may neglect to follow policy, such as processing non-receipted returns for items that actually require receipts. It’s also challenging to keep up with changes to return policies stemming from unpredictable crises like COVID-19, such as restricted returns. Yet, all these issues can compound in turbulent, difficult times, and can lead to disastrous results.

However, retailers who use prescriptive analytics and task management solutions find it easy to alleviate these issues and mitigate high-risk errors as they enjoy real-time insights into how well staff are processing returns.

Associates who have a history of processing returns incorrectly, whether processing a restricted item or conducting too many non-receipted returns, can be flagged by the prescriptive analytics system for follow-up by a store manager, who can address the noncompliant behavior almost instantly. Alerts are also sent out to store managers’ mobile devices when returned merchandise shows a pattern of being improperly tagged or handled, giving them an opportunity to coach front-line associates on proper return protocols.

My colleague Guy Yehiav was telling me about a footwear retailer that wanted to get better visibility into returns compliance at a store level. It deployed a pattern via the Zebra Prescriptive Analytics inventory module to monitor individual stores for high damage claims. Shortly after deployment, the pattern alerted a regional manager to a store that had reported 256 units as damages in a single day, amounting to more than $11,000.

The regional manager went to the store to investigate and found that the units were e-commerce items that were returned instore over the past few days. Two new associates had improperly scanned the returns to damages, simply because they didn’t know how else to process them. The perfectly sellable products were now on their way to a destruction facility. Thanks to the real-time alert from the prescriptive analytics solution, the regional manager was able to intercept the shipment and return all products to the store for sale. The associates were also retrained on unit scanning to avoid such problems in the future.

Many Reflexis customers have also been pleased with how effective task management software has proven at helping associates manage returns. It gives front-line associates the essential information they need to expedite returns and send all returned items to their correct destinations, even if it’s their first day on the job. In that sense, it becomes easy to onboard seasonal hires. The mobile app can also alert associates when they need to head to the returns desk to help customers without requiring audible overhead calls for help and will even notify them when they’re able to leave the returns desk to complete a critical task elsewhere. Since managers have real-time visibility into what tasks each employee has completed, they can provide targeted feedback on task accuracy and compliance and be retrained on tasks that they may have done incorrectly, such as re-shelving items that were supposed to be sent back to the warehouse.

Ensure Success by Optimizing Your Store and Warehouse Operations

With COVID-19 supercharging many of the challenges that have been straining retailers for years, there’s more pressure than ever before to optimize your store and warehouse operations.

When it comes to processing online and in-store returns, the right technology is the key to success. If employees have schedules that both account for their preferences and the projected return workload, it’s easier for them to consistently process returned items correctly and provide an excellent customer experience. If front-line associates have real-time task guidance tools at their fingertips, then they’ll know exactly when they need to process returns quickly and correctly. And if store managers have real-time insights into the performance of all staff, they can correct patterns of noncompliance before they make a detrimental impact on your organization.


Editor’s Note:

Visit the Zebra website to learn more about how workforce management, task management and prescriptive analytics solutions work together to improve the collaborative execution of critical returns processes in retail stores and warehouses.

Kevin Tapscott
Kevin Tapscott

Kevin Tapscott is Vice President of Solution Consulting for the Americas at Reflexis, which is now part of Zebra Technologies. He leads a team of retail operations experts who help retailers simplify their operations and optimize their labor with intelligent task management and workforce management software solutions.

Kevin has helped shape the Reflexis ONE product and its direction, working with hundreds of retailers over 14 years with Reflexis. Previously, he spent 15 years in retail operations across North America as a strategist leading teams of customer care specialists and operational experts focused on growth.

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