Goods returned to e-commerce businesses in the 2020 holiday season were projected to reach a value of $57 billion because of an existing increase in online sales and easier returns thanks to online systems. That’s an unprecedented demand and will put strains on people and companies that have been going at breakneck speeds to get holiday orders out the door.
Successfully handling returns requires planning, people, and proper communication. Getting things right helps businesses keep these customers and generate more significant sales over time, so here are four elements every team needs to thrive after the holidays.
Train during the holidays
Pickers and packers generally become product experts this time of year. They’re handling more orders and getting a better feel for what goes together, where things need to be protected, and what’s in demand. Take advantage of the increased focus with additional training for your teams specific to holiday sales and returns.
For smaller warehouses and ecommerce businesses, you’re often moving around space to meet demand surges. That might mean shifting where popular goods are stored or clearing space for cross-docking. Space allocation and dynamic use are plans that’ll help you have room for increased holiday returns and processing in January.
So, start training on adjusting to spatial changes, finding information on these shifts, and the correct way to verify inventory and orders in your system. Thankfully, it’s easy to add to this training some lessons on what products are acceptable in returns. Give teams guidelines for evaluating returns and show them how to handle it within your system.
When you shift your space to a returns-focus, post instructions for processing returns to help people stay fresh. You’re likely throwing a lot at them right now, so it’s good to provide reminders.
Loop in support and management
It’s easy to fall into the trap of keeping supply chain and warehouse teams separate from your sales, support, and management teams. However, returns require a complex communication structure that brings all sectors together.
Today’s returns often start with a specific return label you generate for customers. Once the package arrives, the return needs to be processed and evaluated, and added back to inventory, and the refund is processed. Support needs updates for each step so they can manage customer expectations and experiences. When return volume is high, your communication needs scale.
Thankfully, you can likely handle much of this communication within a robust WMS or ERP. Scanning systems can track orders and automatically update support teams or start the refund process. However, things break, and not every scan or automated element may work each time. Teach customer support teams about the process and show them how to work with your warehouse to minimize disruption while also speeding up customer resolution.
Management needs to be brought in to help watch for high-level concerns. Spikes in returns, multiple orders from the same address or locations, and people trying to circumvent your policies can harm your revenue. Limiting this fraud is a challenge, and management should be on hand to help with dispute resolution, fake returns, or possible account fraud.
Getting your leadership involved also helps ecommerce companies tackle another requirement for successful ecommerce returns management: having the people you need.
Monitor labor requirements
Every ecommerce business knows that returns increase at the start of the new year, but it often takes living through a difficult spike for leaders to realize the actual demands those spikes cause. It doesn’t have to be a lesson you learn the hard way, especially if you’ve got a sound tracking system or knowledgeable teams.
Stay on top of your current labor utilization and requirements. Look at historical data to understand your sales and returns from the previous holiday season. Scale that up or down based on your sales this season to avoid running a skeleton crew that can’t keep up – rushing makes people prone to mistakes and increases risks to the people who make your business as outstanding as it is.
The communication loop is essential here, too. When you determine the increased need for warehouse staff, share that with other teams. The spikes you see and understand may inform customer service and help them predict staffing increases. It goes the other way, too, with a surge in questions about refund and exchange policies likely meaning you’ll get a similar surge in warehouse activities.
Plan and train so you can depend on your teams to take the initiative and get this right.
Push your team, then thank them
Returns are likely to spike this year and deliver a high demand that can feel sudden and overwhelming to many smaller businesses and teams. You might face as much or more stress and time constraints than those final days filling orders for holiday season sales.
Your team needs knowledge, a clear plan, and practice to get it right. When the time comes and returns begin to flow, remind people of this, and push them to be excellent. They should be ready if you’ve given them the tools they need. Consider maintaining your holiday demands on speed and accuracy, giving them reach goals to pursue.
When the process starts, and when you finish these returns, it’s time to thank your warehouse teams in a big way. Treat them well during the rush and introduce your bonuses, holiday party, things for the breakroom, or other gifts to your team at the end. Handling a high amount of returns requires a reliable team that is ready to step up for you, and being grateful is one of the best ways to ensure your people are there and ready.
About the Author
Jake Rheude is the Director of Marketing for Red Stag Fulfillment, an ecommerce fulfillment warehouse that was born out of ecommerce. He has years of experience in ecommerce and business development. In his free time, Jake enjoys reading about business and sharing his own experience with others.