With the holiday season in full swing, shoppers are buying like crazy, especially online--Internet sales during Thanksgiving increased by an impressive 26 percent from last year, just to paint the picture. But a lot of those purchases might find their way right back to the sellers.

The serial returner wreaks havoc

In an article for the BBC, business reporter Katie Hope discusses so-called serial returners. These are people who make a habit of buying items and then returning them in person or via shipping options. They can spend hundreds of dollars a month on different goods only to keep a small percentage of them. This is bad news for companies any time of year, because even if the buyer pays the return shipping costs, there usually are additional expenses related to restocking and inventory management. During the holidays, these costs can balloon as habitual returners play around and explore seasonal gifts or try to find bargains for themselves. Small or mid-size companies can be hit especially hard because, even as they try to provide flexible options, they often don't have as much money to handle these overheads. 

What makes them do it

In some cases, returns happen simply because the product doesn't work for the buyer. Clothes and footwear, for instance, routinely get sent back because the fit or texture isn't quite right. But habitual returners engage in the behavior most often because of the physiological response that happens when they get their packages. They get a rush of dopamine when something is delivered and, subsequently, they feel happy. This is similar to traditional shopping addiction.

But ecommerce pours fuel on the fire. With delivery personnel usually able to come right to the door, it's more convenient than ever to keep the process of buy, regret and return going. At the same time, unlike with traditional in-person shopping, online shopping requires you to wait for delivery. Referencing the well-known work of neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky, behavioral psychologist Dr. Susan Weinschenk argues that this builds more anticipation, which results in an even more intense response in the brain's reward system.

How to help others (or yourself) curb the habit

As a traditional or online retailer, there are a few things you can do to slow habitual returners down.

  • Create and implement a clear shopper policy that states consequences for returning too many items. The consequence could be delayed delivery, increased shipping fees or even an account ban--Amazon makes use of the last option, although it won't say how many returns is too many.
  • Consider an exchange only policy.
  • If the goods returned are low-cost, consider providing a refund but not accepting the item back. You still have to shell out some cash here, but it can be less than the cost of shipping the item back, and the potential for clutter to pile up can discourage shoppers from going overboard.
  • Check your product descriptions to make sure they are as accurate and informational as possible. Newer tools such as AR are changing the game for what customers can experience ahead of time.
  • Employ better customer service in more channels to make sure customers can get questions answered prior to ordering.
  • Go to in-store returns only, if possible.
  • Use a program that rewards customers with points, gift cards, discounts or other incentives for a certain number of items not returned in a row. These kinds of "keep rewards" actually are promoted by researchers from the University of Eichstätt‐Ingolstadt and the University of Luxembourg. They don't have to be offered at the expense of a free return policy.
  • Create customer categories and apply different return policies to each. For example, accounts with no or minimal returns might get a month to return goods, whereas accounts flagged for excessive returns might only get a week.

If you tend to be a habitual returner yourself, remember that your biggest driver is likely that hit of dopamine the purchase and delivery gives you. So your first order of business is to find other pleasurable, healthy activities that can substitute and prevent the boredom that can spur a spree. If you still have an issue, try some of the frequently recommended tips such as only spending cash, buying from a list or adopting a wait-a-day rule. If you can't identify a clear purpose for the item, don't put it in your cart.

Published on: Dec 4, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.