Zara has quietly decided to charge its customers for returning orders placed on the internet. Managing returns is a logistical headache for e-commerce companies and an environmental scourge.
Returning an online Zara order now costs 1.95 euros. An announcement that may seem harmless, yet this change of strategy from the world’s first fast-fashion brand marks a turning point.
The Spanish brand, based in France since 1990, has discreetly added a short line on its website stating that all “returns related to orders placed from April 28, 2022” now “have a cost of 1.95 euros, deducted from the refunded amount”.
At a time when major clothing brands are making free returns a marketing argument, Zara’s decision is surprising. For the time being, it only concerns the Spanish brand, the other companies of the Inditex group (Bershka, Pull&Bear, Oysho, Massimo Dutti, Stradivarius) will continue to offer the costs for returning products.
That is also what makes this policy change surprising. Zara is the leading brand of the Inditex group and also the most profitable with its 2,000 stores worldwide. In 2021, the brand generated 19.6 billion euros in turnover from Inditex’s 27.7 billion euros. The group therefore takes a risk by experimenting on Zara with paying return fees.
A logistical puzzle and an ecological plague
But e-commerce companies don’t really have a choice anymore, as the volume of parcels has exploded since the health crisis and the temporary closure of physical points of sale.
Managing product returns is a real logistical headache, as these return flights multiply short trips and overload storage space.
Unlike traditional deliveries, which can be centralized to optimize distribution, returns are often made individually, thanks to pre-printed labels included with delivery. The items are then picked up by truck and transported piece by piece to the warehouse. Extra kilometers that cost and involve a lot of pollution.
As proof that this process is targeted, Zara will only charge a fee for returning items to a drop-off point. Returning an order to the store is free. The same system at H&M, which charges 95 cents for return costs at a relay point, except for loyalty program members.
Lots of urges
Free returns have been popularized by online fashion giants such as Asos, Boohoo and Shein, which do not have physical stores. A way to entice consumers who are used to trying on clothes in the cabin before buying them.
The German site Zalando goes even further and offers to try before you pay. “You dreamed of being able to try it without counting! With this new service you can order, receive, try on and pay for items only for the ones you keep,” says Zalando.
But the free return of items creates drifts. According to Narvar, a company that provides delivery and returns tracking, 41% of consumers buy multiple versions of a product to try it out with the intention of returning it.
More and more brands are therefore offering size guides with accurate measurements to better guide buyers and reduce the share of returns. Some brands, such as Levi’s, also provide detailed guides on product fit.
In addition, companies are also confronted with the phenomenon of ‘gardrobing’. A term that refers to buying an item, putting it on without removing the tag, for example to take a photo for social media, then return it and demand a refund.
These practices, the logistical and environmental issues are all reasons that could prompt other brands to follow in the footsteps of Zara and H&M when billing returned items.