The peak of holiday returns usually hits in early January, as retailers and shipping companies brace for a surge in thanks-but-no-thanks packages. But for the first time, National Returns Day -- the faux-holiday you didn’t even know you were a part of -- has arrived days before Christmas. UPS is expecting to ship and process a record 1.5 million returned packages on Wednesday alone. A second wave isn’t expected until Jan. 3, when UPS anticipates 1.3 million returned packages.
There are a few factors at play. Retailers rolled out steep holiday discounts before Black Friday, pushing some shoppers to get an even earlier jump on their gifting. Companies are amping up the competition for fast and easy shipping options. And merchants know that easy return options make for happy customers who will keep coming back themselves.
There you have it: Christmas (returns) came early this year.
Over the past few years, National Returns Day has been inching toward December, said Kathleen Marran, UPS' vice president of U.S. marketing. UPS looks at historical data and collects feedback from retailers to anticipate when returns will spike.
“It’s crossed over, finally” Marran said.
Last year, UPS' National Returns Day fell on Jan. 3, when the company handled 1.4 million return packages. Marran said UPS will deliver 800 million packages over the 2018 holiday season.
The shopping bonanza between Thanksgiving and New Year’s is on track to reel in massive sales. The National Retail Federation expects sales in November and December to increase between 4.3 and 4.8 percent over 2017 results, to as much as $720.89 billion. November retail sales alone increased 5 percent over 2017.
Shoppers are clearly spending more, but they’re also buying earlier. Retailers are increasingly kicking off their 5-day holiday shopping spree on Thanksgiving Day. Market research from Adobe Analytics found that online prices on Thanksgiving were as low as they were the next day. And shoppers took note: Thanksgiving Day is now the fastest-growing online shopping day, with a 28 percent increase over 2017 results, according to Adobe.
Souped-up shipping options also locked customers in early. Amazon expanded free shipping to all of its customers through the holidays, with no minimum purchase required. The retail giant also gave Prime Members free same-day delivery on millions of items. Target, for its part, is offering free two-day shipping with no minimum purchase or membership required. Walmart is continuing to offer free two-day shipping in the U.S. on purchases of $35 or more.
To keep holiday shoppers hooked, retailers have to make it easy to buy an item online -- and send it back. Optoro, a technology company that helps brands optimize returned and excess inventory, found in a 2017 survey that 71 percent of shoppers said a good returns experience encouraged them to shop from the company again. This year, that number jumped to 97 percent. Eighty-nine percent of shoppers said they were less likely to shop again from a retailer that gave them a bad returns experience.
Making returns as simple as possible presents a learning-curve for retailers, but they’re learning. Carly Llewellyn, Optoro’s senior director of marketing, said retailers should offer in-store and online returns, as well as free return shipping. An Optoro survey of 50 large retailers found that only 44 percent offered free return shipping.
But as for this December, shoppers don’t seem all that discouraged when it comes to sending their gifts back.
“You’ve got buyers buying earlier,” Marran said. “And when buyers buy earlier, they have a longer time frame allowing them to keep it or return it.”