It's the season of returning holiday gifts that didn't quite meet expectations. So if you're a retailer with a friendly return policy, it's a stressful time of year. That return policy, however, may be the key to winning the trust of online shoppers.

According to an analysis of 20.8 million shoppers (894,400 transactions) from Granify, a software-as-a-service consultancy, a strong return policy is the most important decision-making factor for online shoppers of clothing and apparel. 

In fact, the study found that in many retail categories, a strong return policy and positive customer reviews are more important to customers than price--showing that trust is an important element of the consumer online experience.   

Testimonials and Customer Support Also Come Into Play

Granify divided its analysis, which took place from Oct. 1 to Nov. 15, into several retail categories.

In the apparel category, return policy was the most important factor for online shoppers. Social proof--Granify's term for convincing testimonials about the products--was second. Price came in third. 

In the category of home-building supplies, price didn't even crack the top three. Return policy, again, came in first. Shipping costs were second. Customer support was third. (Check out the full report here.)  

Online Retailers Are Still 'Miles Behind' Offline Retailers

If pricing isn't always the top priority for online shoppers, what else are e-commerce sites getting wrong?

"There is a misconception with most online retailers that A/B and multivariate testing--'letting your customers design your site for you'--will provide the best customer experience," explains Brady Cassidy, who heads Granify's digital marketing. "However, each online retailer has different types of buyer personas that shop from their site and each of these buyer personas has a different hierarchy of values and objections."

Online retailers need to improve in catering to these individual buyer personas. "Online retail is still miles behind the offline world, in terms of customer experience," says Cassidy. "If you ask any half-decent sales professional, they will tell you to always listen and ask questions before you try to sell. Now, go visit any online retailer and you will see something like this: 'Here's our newest product--buy now' or 'Here's our best product--buy now.' All without any contextual understanding of the shopper. Trying to create aggregate solutions for individual shoppers is based on a completely outdated way of thinking about e-commerce."

A Matter of Trust

In short, online retailers need to show that they can cater to customers' individual concerns. Clearly communicated return policies and trustworthy customer testimonials are one way to do this. They help to build trust, in the absense of face-to-face assurances. Ted Ammon addressed this in a recent post for HubSpot. "The most effective way to build trust with your e-commerce customers," he writes, "is to address their particular pain points and offer a solution." Ammon's post offers several tips for building that trust. Here are two of them: 

1. Don't always be closing. "Instead of pushing the hard sell all the time...start teaching your customers. Post instructional videos to show how buyers can get the most out of your products...Maybe one of your products has several different possible uses, like those scarves that can be worn in twenty different ways. Wouldn’t buyers love to see how-to infographics or videos to learn how to make the most of their purchases?"

2. Request reviews. "Letting your buyers contribute content to your site is a great way to engage them while also showing new customers that your products are universally adored," he writes. "Sharing honest reviews from consumers shows you have nothing to hide."