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  • Writer's pictureKimberly Reuter

Returns and the Virus

Updated: May 27, 2020

Retail operations all over the US are starting to peek out from behind the COVID19 restrictions. A sigh of relief for many “retail-therapy” believers, myself included. Personally, I can’t wait to step into the dressing room and try on something new...but wait! Has it been tried on before? Did someone sneeze on this amazing blazer?

This is our new environment. This is the new retail and ecommerce. As many of you have been reading, many retail locations are taking precautions for just these concerns; sanitizing dressing rooms, quarantining items after customers have handled them. Reasonably straight forward even if a touch bizarre.

But what about ecommerce? What happens when I return a poorly fitting pair of jeans? How about that beautiful undergarment that just gapped a little at the arm? Did someone else already try on these items? Am I at risk?

Returns are already the redheaded stepchild of ecommerce. Hundreds of millions of dollars of inventory sit in “return” status all over the US every day, every minute…and right now, there are piles of it. Piles of proverbial dollars just waiting to be handled, evaluated, and resold.

This presents two problems –

1. How do companies unleash that inventory quickly and safely?

2. How do customers trust the product they are receiving is ready to use and new condition?

Wow, right? Two big issues that, by the way, were already the forefront of the return channel. Now, even more, complicated by a highly communicable disease.

Here are the early thoughts and suggestions for managing returns in the world of latex gloves, face shields, and hand sanitizer.

1. If you aren’t treating your returns just like any other inbound inventory flow, you already have a huge problem. Call me. The return channel must be measure, manage, and optimized, just like any other inventory flow. Anything short is a failure.

2. Quarantine – Many companies have announced they will quarantine returned products for X number of hours or days. However, the science on how long the virus can live on different types of surfaces is still pending. At best, as of today, the official answer is it depends on temperature, humidity, and airflow. So kind of iffy. In addition, while the returned product is in quarantine, you can’t sell it! Leading to more locked up inventory in “returned status.”

3. Steam – Steam pressing is used ubiquitously in the retail industry. As such, grabbing the garment steamer is a quick and simple solution. The product is ready to sell in 10-30 minutes. Easy-peezy. Not so fast…Steam could work, maybe…There isn't substantial proof that steam works. It may help “clean” the garment or surface, but we don’t yet know if it kills the virus. In addition, some products cannot handle heavy steaming – electronics, delicate fabrics.

4. Disinfecting – Probably the most popular remedy today. All over the world, stores and public spaces are spraying disinfectant to reduce the spread of COVID19. For the most part, this approach has proved to be effective, quick, and low cost. However, just like steam, some products can’t withstand a misting of disinfectant.

5. UV Light – UV light has been used in the medical, water treatment, and cosmetic industry for ages. Next time you go for your pedi or hair trim (hopefully soon), spy that little toaster oven with blue lights…yep, that is a UV box disinfecting the tools of the trade. UV has been used to treat contaminated water from backpackers to municipal waste treatment plants. UV light is scalable and can treat multiple products at once. And better yet, the process is relatively quick and gets that returned product back in sellable status in a jiffy. There are some trade-offs – the light must reach all surfaces to be effective, so folds in fabrics would be problematic. Large UV treatment devices are not cheap and require repeated exposure to UV light for employees. And most perplexing, will it fade colors…Hhhhhmmm.

So while the science is still pending on the most effective method; no matter what method a company chooses, the customer needs confidence. The customer needs to know when their products arrive; it is safe to use, try on, and gift to loved ones. Clear, precise, and honest communication that the utmost care has been taken is nothing short of an absolute requirement.

Here are some solutions.

1. Safe Stickers – Once a returned product has been sanitized, a “clean” sticker can indicate a safe product. Communicate with your customer about what this sticker means and how “clean” has been established.

2. Sealed bags – This is especially important for garments. Placing disinfected products in sealed and labeled bags achieves the same goal as the sticker but more applicable to soft or unboxed products

3. Wash before Use – As some products may not lend themselves to disinfecting before shipping or handled directly in transit, communicate to your customer that disinfecting on arrival will be required. Even better yet, provide the customer with anti-viral wipes or sprays to use.

4. Communicate, communicate, communicate – Did I say communicate? Above all else, you must explain to your customer how you are addressing potentially contaminate products and how they should handle the product upon arrival. Nothing drives down customer loyalty as quickly as the lingering question…”Is this safe?”

While we are entering an unknown world for ecommerce and retail, the one truth is that consumer confidence will always drive the bottom line. And the second truth is that unsellable inventory will sink a business faster than an iceberg in the middle of the Atlantic. Our buying and selling world will be a little scary for the foreseeable future, but with care, honesty, and focus on safe customer experiences, we will bounce back, better, and stronger.


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