Earlier this month, fashion retailer Zara began charging its UK customers £1.95 to return items online. Returns direct to store remain free.

The move has divided opinion. Some customers have criticised the change given that it comes as the cost of living hits a 40-year all-time high. Other corners of the internet have highlighted its potential positive impact in helping people become more conscious of what they buy.

Regardless of which side of the fence you sit on, it’s not hard to see why Zara has joined the likes of Next and Uniqlo in reconsidering its returns model.

Returns specialist ReBound claims that one in three fashion items bought online is sent back, double the rate for shop-bought goods. And research from delivery software company NShift highlights that returning a parcel costs an average of £20 once shipping, storage, repackaging, and discounting are accounted for. Despite the online sales boom over the past two years, the volume of returns is seriously eroding profit margins.

There are rumblings that people could begin to shun retailers that don’t offer free returns. After all, Q1 2022 data released by GWI late last week shows that 39.4 per cent of UK adults consider easy returns a key factor when considering buying products online. While the cost of returns isn’t currently measured by itself, the fact that free deliveries consistently remain Brits’ top consideration reinforces the impact that cost plays in whether we do or don’t buy from a retailer.

However, the harsh truth is that going into a physical shop is no longer an option for fans of many brands. TM Lewin, Debenhams, Topshop, Oasis, Warehouse, Coast and Karen Millen are just some of the high street names for whom eCommerce is now their only channel.

So, what can online-only fashion retailers do to help their communities order smarter and send back less? Here are my top three recommendations:

True representation

The fashion industry is notorious for its lack of inclusivity. Strides have been made in recent years – for example, New York Fashion Week’s Spring/Summer 2022 runways showed 48 plus-size models according to The Fashion Spot  – however, as modelling agents have highlighted time and time again, the majority of plus-size campaigns still have an hourglass body shape. It really is time to embrace the human body in ALL its various shapes and sizes.

Show products ‘IRL’

But this goes beyond inclusivity. While a lot of retailers are using straight-forward, front-facing images nowadays, it’s not a consistent practice. I just adore this Bored Panda article recreating the weird poses in which Zara models have been positioned!

Incorporating (unfiltered) videos alongside still images is an easy solution because they demonstrate how items might fit and move in real life. It’s therefore not surprising that the latest study by Animoto says the video is the number one helpful form of content in making an online purchasing decision. As more and more brands integrate social selling into their Commerce strategies, intelligent video content is key for engaging tech-savvy fans.

Here fashion retailers could also learn from the beauty industry. The likes of Maybelline, Bobbi Brown and MAC Cosmetics (and a whole host of other make-up brands) embraced virtual try-on services at the start of the pandemic to help their communities better experience their products online, turning transactions into a form of entertainment.

Hyper personalisation

This brings me to personalisation.

We’ve known for a while that personalised experiences increase buying intent. Companies such as Stitch Fix are already using machine learning to curate personalised wardrobes – why can’t companies use data to learn what items we’ve returned in the past to give us advice on the colours, shapes, styles and labels that we probably WON’T like?

Now, I fully appreciate that seems counter-intuitive. But if brands were honest that not every item will hit the mark (instead of communities having to share their sizing hacks on TikTok), couldn’t that generate a whole new calibre of brand loyalty?

These recommendations might not be immediately feasible for brands to implement. But what they do highlight is an ambition to change brands’ mindsets to one in which helping their communities prevent disappointing and/or unwanted purchases is just as important as attracting them to a site.

Without that shift, the headache of not being able to try-before-you-buy just isn’t going to go away any time soon. And the returns will continue to stack up.