Retailers are struggling to cope with the volume of refund requests, which they feel obliged to grant, despite items being unfit for sale.

Merchants are stuck between accommodating shoppers’ demands and balancing their bottom line, with almost six in 10 (57%) giving refunds regardless of product condition to maintain a positive relationship with customers, according to research by Barclaycard.

Not including faulty or damaged stock, retailers estimate that a quarter (26%) of goods refunded are unfit for resale.

This is resulting in stockrooms filling with unsellable items, including products which have clearly been used (48% of unfit items returned), are marked (29%) or have parts missing (28%).

Sharon Manikon, customer solutions director at Barclaycard, said: “In the 21st century, where we can buy as much as we please at the touch of a button, shopping is no longer just a necessity, it’s a well-loved hobby.

“Retailers are faced with the difficult task of ensuring they can manage the influx of returns which comes hand-in-hand with online and impulse shopping, without compromising their bottom line, or their relationship with customers.”

Radical measures – but at a price

Accepting that the issue is not going away, a fifth of retailers have introduced a new system to dispose of stock they cannot resell. One in ten have partnered with a reseller to resell items on at a loss, but such is the volume of stock that 8% have even moved to a bigger warehouse to store unwanted goods.

On the other hand, some retailers have opted to restrict their policies in a bid to cut the level of returns, particularly for online purchases. Driven by the buy-and-return habits of so-called ‘serial returners’, almost four in ten (37%) merchants admit that they do not offer free returns as a way to discourage shoppers from returning non-faulty items.

A further 12% have stopped offering this service because it became too expensive.

Meet the fashion stashers

Despite retailers’ struggle to manage the existing volume of returns, it could be worse: one in six shoppers, nicknamed the ‘fashion stashers’, have, in the last 12 months, kept items they have never used and failed to return.

Out of the items consumers intended to return, but never got round to it, clothing topped the list (55%), followed by shoes (30%) and kitchen gadgets (17%). One in five (22%) of these stashers kept the item because there was a cost attached to returning it, whilst 39% felt it was too much hassle to return it. Another 44 per cent missed the window to return as defined by the retailer.

How can retailers help?

Retailers’ decisions to restrict returns policies could ultimately be having a negative impact on their business. Over a third (36%) of consumers claim they would be put off shopping somewhere if there was a charge to return items by post or courier, making this more important to shoppers than quick delivery (in contrast, only 15% would be discouraged by a delivery taking more than 3 days) and lack of online customer support (18%).

Consumers are also looking to retailers to provide multiple options for how to return items (49%), refunds instead of credit notes (46%) and a long window for returns (40%).

Ms. Manikon added: “Our research demonstrates that offering a good returns policy can help retailers attract and retain customers. However, it’s also crucial to be clear on when customers can and can’t return items to limit the amount of unsellable stock.

“This will be particularly important in anticipation of major shopping events such as Black Friday, when retailers are likely to see a spike in sales and, subsequently, returns.”