Despite reports of trashed stores and disorderly crowds, Black Friday shopping excursions are actually dwindling. Preliminary data from Thanksgiving weekend indicates that both net sales and shopper visits to brick-and-mortar stores fell this year. Last year, in-store sales fell by about $1 billion, according to ShopperTrak, a retail-research firm. As those with with Black Friday fatigue move to shopping online from the comfort of their homes, they’re attracted not just by deals and promises of free shipping, but also by the increasingly common safety net of free returns.
But neither of these services is really free. Much has been written about how much “free” shipping actually costs retailers, and as the ability to return goods at no cost becomes an increasingly normal part of online shopping—particularly during the holidays—that service too is becoming more burdensome for merchants.
A survey by the National Retail Federation last year found that the return rate for all merchandise purchased around the holidays is 2 percent higher than the average rate during the rest of the year. That’s especially burdensome for online retailers whose holiday sales figures are climbing. And according to sales data from Adobe, this year’s Black Friday online sales grew by more than 20 percent to $3.3 billion, with Cyber Monday sales hitting $3.4 billion. For online shopping, the return rate is estimated to be much higher in general, but particularly around the holidays. “The annual retail return rate is around 8 percent, but can reach up to 30 percent for e-commerce sales, especially in categories like apparel,” Tobin Moore, the CEO of Optoro, a company that specializes in returns, said in an email. “With so much of the Thanksgiving through Cyber Monday sales coming from online transactions, we anticipate that over 10 percent of items purchased during this period will be returned.”