Retail brands fight back: will free returns soon be a thing of the past?

Online shopping fashion items opening box on a white background with copy space

Last month, it was announced that Waitrose delivery vans will start collecting John Lewis returns. Not only is this more convenient for customers, saving them a trip in store or to the Post Office, but it’s also more convenient for John Lewis, saving them money every time a customer chooses this option over free Royal Mail returns. This is John Lewis’s creative way of tackling one of the biggest problems affecting UK retailers today: free returns.

Although we take free returns for granted, they’re not working out so well for retailers. According to Barclaycard, UK shoppers spend an average of £313 on online clothes shopping a year and return 47%, while one in ten has bought something just to send it back after taking a snap for social media.

Serial returning is bad for business and it’s even worse for the environment, sending the fast fashion cycle into overdrive. But when customers expect convenience and cheapness as standard, can brands afford to make the process complicated and expensive?

Let’s take a look at three brands reducing returns (both intentionally and inadvertently) in three alternative ways.

Spoke London: The Bespoke Disrupter

Spoke London has taken the ‘prevention, not cure’ approach, by building a disruptive business model that creates customised menswear.

Customers answer a series of questions, from ‘What’s the most common waist size in your wardrobe?’ to ‘How do you fasten your watch?’, which reveals their perfect fit. Alternatively, customers can put in their own measurements, choosing from 11 waist sizes, nine leg sizes and three ‘builds’.

Although Spoke offer free, ‘no questions asked’ returns, customers are much more likely to keep an item that’s been personalised to fit them perfectly.

While not all retailers can offer such in-depth tailoring options, they could start thinking about fit rather than just size. Is it such a stretch to imagine a future where high street stores offer different ‘builds’ or ‘fits’ in each size, just like Spoke? Or dresses that are a different size in the top than they are in the skirt? It’s more of a stretch to imagine that two size 10 women will have the exact same height, weight and proportions.


M&S: The Digital Investor

When sizes vary so wildly between (and even within) brands, it’s impossible to know what’s going to fit by looking at a photo.

That’s why M&S has invested in Texel, a company specialising in clothes-fitting tech. Together they want to combine Texel’s 3D-scanning tech with M&S’s tool for creating 3D clothing patterns. The plan is for customers to build a unique avatar of themselves, which they can use to digitally try on clothes.

It’s an exciting concept, but one that few brands can afford to replicate. A more low-tech version would be to shoot products on three different size 10 models, three different size 12 models etc. so that customers can select the model they feel best represents their body shape.

ASOS: The Serial Blacklister

In an effort to tackle serial returners, ASOS has made the bold move of banning them completely. The new ‘blacklisting’ policy caused a stir on Twitter; at around the same time, an image of an ASOS dress with bulldog clips left in went viral, and customers were quick to make the link between returns and misleading images.

While ASOS says its new policy only applies when there’s ‘an unusual pattern’, our own Design Director here at Whippet has been banned and we promise he’s not a reckless fashion addict – he’s just short on time, and finds it difficult to know what will fit.

ASOS has already introduced measures to help customers find their perfect fit, but they’re not well publicised around the site. The new returns policy garnered a lot of media attention; maybe it’s time to push its more positive features, like Fit Assistant, and see if this reduces the number of serial numbers.
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The last resort for returns

ASOS has clearly chosen to ban the worst offenders in order to preserve free returns for the majority of its customers, but it has risked alienating those who struggle to find clothes for their shape.

Perhaps the best solution, for any brand, is to first eliminate all the factors that make people want to return clothes: by helping them to find the right size, taking close-ups of the fabric, making videos to show movement, and avoiding tricks to distort the fit, like bulldog clips.

After all that, if they’re still struggling with high return rates then, and only then, charging for returns might be their only option. (Unless they can use existing logistics to adopt a more creative approach, like John Lewis.) So, enjoy free returns while you can – but try not to overdo it.

This article first appeared on The Drum Network



Sean Dwyer

Refreshing: the new in-store café concepts


With the retail industry in flux, we’re seeing brands innovating every element of their customer experience, so it’s no surprise that in-store cafés are getting a shake up. In-store cafés are a vital part of the shopping experience, from friends stopping for coffee mid-shopping spree, to parents treating the kids to meatballs at Ikea.

The most exciting shake ups all have one thing in common: they’re great examples of brands using their in-store café to capture the zeitgeist, in a way that they wouldn’t be able to otherwise. From Instagram-led aesthetics to locally sourced produce, these three new cafés tap into the biggest retail trends of 2019.

Community hub at Co-op

So new, it hasn’t even launched yet… Co-op is opening its first & Coffee concession next month, and will open nine more before the end of October. The new & Coffee shops will sell local produce, serve breakfast and lunch and, according to Co-op, become ‘community hubs’.

This is more than a pop-up or a PR stunt; Co-op will be transforming existing cafés all over the UK, from Cornwall to Inverness. While the community concept feels particularly authentic for a member-owned business like Co-op, other brands would do well to follow suit.

Supporting and connecting with their community is a compelling reason for shoppers to shop on their local high street, rather than online or at a retail park, and in-store cafés are the perfect way for big brands to offer this without seeming disingenuous, or like they’re jumping on the bandwagon.

Insta-bait at H&M

H&M has brought Swedish café chain it’s: PLEAT to two of its UK stores, and it’s the kind of place you can’t help but Instagram. It ticks all the boxes: velvet art deco sofas; lush greenery hanging from the ceiling; and colourful, healthy food served on rustic earthenware.

As well as being irresistibly Instagrammable, it’s: PLEATS has got the sustainable creds you’d expect from a new, on-trend café: organic food, decomposable packaging, and on-site composting to reuse waste.

Even though the café itself looks like it was made for glossy, aspirational social posts, the brand’s Instagram account is refreshingly down to earth; there are no cheesy puns or inspirational quotes, for example. Online and in store, the tone of voice is laid-back and straightforward. it’s: PLEAT has an offbeat, Scandi-cool vibe that sits well with H&M’s Swedish origins, even if today the fashion giant is too established and too international to channel this with its own branding.


Experiential at Primark

Even though they’re run by a third-party company, Primark’s established in-store coffee shops are very on brand for them: cheap, cheerful and cheekily called Insomnia. However, this year the brand has branched out into more experiential concepts, first with a Disney café in its Birmingham store, and now with a Friends-themed café in Manchester.

Friends is a smart theme: it will appeal to older customers who remember the show from the beginning; millennials who remember the later series; and Gen Zers, who love the retro appeal of all things 90s (and who will remember the years of daily Channel 4 reruns).

Increasingly, customers are looking for unmissable, shareable experiences, and it’s much easier for Primark to deliver this with a new café, rather than rethink their entire portfolio. Similarly, the Friends-themed café uses compostable cups and ethically sourced coffee beans; as a fast fashion brand, it’s important for Primark to show that it’s making an effort to be more sustainable.


So, what’s the takeaway from these cafés?

A new in-store café is a great way to give customers what they want, quickly. From Instagram-inspired aesthetics to a sense of community, big brands can tap into trends they’re not currently able to with their main brand.

As customers continue to demand quality experiences they can’t get elsewhere, we think more retail brands will transform their in-store dining concepts.



Sean Dwyer

Fresh, sustainable branding is on the menu for Fishworks


We’re super-excited to see our branding come to life in Fishworks’ new Covent Garden restaurant.

Taking them from traditional to contemporary – from the ocean-inspired colour palette to the premium-feel menu – the new identity blends three things Fishworks is known for: freshness, enthusiasm and authority. And it’s all brought together with our line, ‘From sea to plate with passion.’

We designed the artisan-style logo to reflect their expertise, incorporating subtle curves to mimic the sea. In addition, we created flexible sub-brands for the various areas of their business, from the front-of-store fishmonger to the wine merchant inside, so each could continue to thrive and evolve as they move forward.

Customers will order from beautifully tactile foil-blocked menus, containing evocative stories about freshness and provenance. They’ll see patterns based on abstract ocean topographies. And they’ll buy fish from the fish counter wrapped in beautiful branded bags. All the while enjoying everything one of London’s best seafood restaurants has to offer.

We look forward to seeing it roll out across their other venues and channels too. As clients go, they’re quite a catch.





Sean Dwyer

Sainsbury’s introduces a smarter way to shop


When we visited the Amazon Go store back in January, we were excited for the possibilities of till-free retail, and it hasn’t taken long for the idea to spread across the pond. Four weeks ago, Sainsbury’s opened the UK’s first till-free store, right in the heart of London.

As you can already use the SmartShop app in 100 branches of Sainsbury’s, we wondered if this is a novelty store, existing purely to promote the app; it’s certainly received a lot of media coverage. (Even the Queen has voiced an opinion, commenting on a recent visit to the Sainsbury’s 150th Anniversary store, ‘That’s an interesting tool.’)

But the fact that Sainsbury’s chose a busy, existing store made us think that perhaps this is something more than a PR exercise, signalling the beginning of our new retail reality.

There was only one way to find out!

Stopping traffic

The store does a great job of advertising to passers-by, with a wall vinyl in the trademark orange branding stretched across the store front, delivering snappy, impactful copy. You can’t walk past without getting the message.

On the day we visited, the store was heaving with shoppers, even though it’s a small store with only two aisles, and many of them were taking photos just like us. This suggests people were mainly visiting for the novelty factor, rather than doing an everyday shop.

However, Sainsbury’s were well prepared for any shoppers who were unaware of the SmartShop concept. As soon as we walked through the doors, we were approached by staff who were happy to explain the concept and ask if we needed help.


Making it look easy
Inside, the messaging was just as visible as outside. We loved the simplicity and directness of the line ‘Scan and bag as you go’. This was the most prominent message, visible everywhere from fins and woofers to wall vinyls and bunting.

There was even a table by the entrance, piled with leaflets instructing shoppers how to use the SmartShop tech. The phone-shaped flyers were particularly effective, with simple, reassuring copy: ‘It’s easy’ ‘It’s speedy’ ‘& you’re in control’.

The tech itself is easy to use, as promised. You download the app, shop and then scan a QR code (so Sainsbury’s knows you’ve finished) to pay on your phone.


Sign of the times
With only two aisles, the UK”s first till-free concept feels like a test store rather than a format Sainsbury’s are going roll out across the country – and we think that’s smart.

While it’s tempting to think of the self-service till as the mini disc to SmartShop’s iPod (a stepping stone to the next, more enduring innovation), there will always be shoppers who resist it, or who are unable to use it.

It’s telling that, despite being heralded as the UK’s first ever till-free convenience store, there was one till (called a help desk by Sainsbury’s) after all, just in case anyone had trouble using SmartShop. Even more telling? The new Amazon Go store in New York has announced that it will accept cash too.



Sean Dwyer

WHS Carpet: 5 lessons brands can learn from the Twitter parody account


If you’re not familiar with the WHS Carpet Twitter account, think of disgruntled/highly amused Brits sharing photos of their shopping experiences.

Named after the blue carpets of a certain retail brand, the account was created by an anonymous Twitter user, who thinks that said brand is letting standards slip, and it’s since grown to include other retailers too.

The same grievances crop up again and again – most of them easy fixes, causing unnecessary hassle for the shopper and bad feeling towards the brand.

With the so-called ‘retail apocalypse’ looming ever nearer (or already happening, depending on who you talk to), brands can learn a few important lessons from WHS Carpet.

1. Always look presentable
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Gaffer-taped flooring; shelves propped up like cars with stolen wheels; and hand-written signage on lined paper: a scroll through WHS Carpet proves that customers do care about superficial details and they will share them on Twitter – so it’s false economy to ignore them.

People want to root for the brands they’ve grown up with (remember all the nostalgic lamenting on Twitter when Toys R Us folded?) – that’s why they’re so critical when their expectations are not met in store.

2. Be clear with pricing
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Would you rather have two bags of chocolate buttons for £2, two for £3 or one for £1.29? If you’re in a rush, the answer is probably none at all. Busy shoppers don’t have time to work out complicated pricing; it’s better to have no offer than a confusing one.

This could be remedied by implementing a clear pricing strategy and empowering staff to to stick to it e.g. No discounts less than x% and Only one ‘x for £x’ offer per product.

3. Strive for synergy

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A common feature of the WHS Carpet account: products supported by a completely unrelated campaign, like the Easter campaign above, being used to promote a mishmash of household products.

Other examples: a book store’s ‘Everyone’s talking about’ message, probably designed to promote a singular, popular title, being used to highlight various baby board books; and bottles of spirits in a supermarket, accompanied by a ‘Dry January’ campaign.

If staff are continuously having to push products unrelated to the campaign created by an agency or Head Office, then perhaps it’s time to introduce a few generic themes to use in emergencies.

4. Stay up to date

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Christmas promos in March, annuals for years gone by, merchandise for now-defunct boy bands… there’s something so unsettling and uninspiring about seeing out-of-date stock and comms.

Retail is all about meeting customer needs; if the time for needing it has long since past, it shouldn’t really be on sale.

5. Don’t make them laugh

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One sarky Twitter post from a disgruntled customer might not make much noise, but a post from a highly amused customer who has spotted a clanger? That’ll spread like wildfire.

When it comes to comms that could be misconstrued, brands could give stores a list of all the products it must not be used with.

The heat is on for the high street

When there’s a new story every week about retail businesses going into administration, brands are under immense pressure to justify their presence on the UK high street, and to prove that they’re doing enough to avoid closures and job losses.

From holes in the floor to incorrect pricing, you can bet that after taking snaps of these gaffes, shoppers don’t stick around to buy the thing they came in for.

WHS Carpet shows that the minutiae of the retail environment has a huge effect on shopper experience – and brands can’t afford to ignore it.

This article first appeared on The Drum website.



Sean Dwyer

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