Practical Ecommerce

The Perfect Return Merchandise Authorization System

Sometimes the shoe just doesn’t fit. Or maybe it was the wrong color. Most every ecommerce business deals with product returns and exchanges, and the ecommerce platform processing those returns often dictates how smoothly the exchange or return goes.

A return merchandise authorization describes the normal exchange-and-return process. In brick-and-mortar stores, a typical RMA starts when a customer brings an item back into the store, a clerk or store manager learns why the items are coming back (authorizing the return, if you will), and then either gives the customer her money back or exchanges the item. The store will have a way of accounting for the returned item and inventory levels are updated accordingly.

Old Navy recognizes how important returns are.

Old Navy recognizes how important returns are.

The RMA is similar for online retailers except the entire process takes place electronically or at least over some distance. Ecommerce platforms and shopping carts are the software suites that should manage every aspect of an ecommerce transaction, including the RMA. But these platforms don’t always manage RMAs in the same way, and some of them don’t manage RMAs well at all.

If I could build the perfect RMA system, it would have the features and behaviors described below. When you’re considering ecommerce platforms and trying to decide which is best for your business, consider how well that software suite deals with RMAs and whether or not it has the features described here.

Customers Can Initiate an RMA Online

If your customers can place an order on your website, without necessarily having to call your store or chat with a store representative, why should those customers have to take an extra step when it comes to returning a product?

A good ecommerce platform should allow any customer — registered user or not — to initiate an RMA from a simple web interface, making the return process self-service. This sounds obvious, but several of the leading ecommerce platforms don’t have any way for shoppers to start an RMA process without emailing or otherwise contacting the store.

Zappos offers self-service returns and exchanges.

Zappos offers self-service returns and exchanges.

The customer should also be able to specify the reason for the return — wrong size, wrong color, not as described, or similar — and a desired resolution, such as a refund or an exchange.

Customers Can Pick Exchange Items

If a customer chooses to exchange an item, the ecommerce platform should offer size, color, or similar options, allowing the shoppers to say explicitly which new item they would like. An ecommerce site is built to show customers products, let them choose options, and create a transaction. Why shouldn’t this be the case for exchanges too?

Without this feature, a merchant will have to contact the customer either via email or, perhaps, on the telephone and ask questions about the return. While there may be something to be said for a dialog with customers, it might not be the most efficient way to get the exchange going. If you really want to talk to the customer, consider calling when the exchange has been processed and the order is on the way.

Customers Should be Able to Print a Return Label

Some online retailers will include a return label in with every order. But what happens if the shopper misplaces the label or never finds it in the mist of the packing peanuts? A good ecommerce platform should allow shoppers — registered or otherwise — to print a return shipping label directly from a web form.

This feature can be tricky. It will require tight integration with carriers like FedEx, UPS, or the United States Postal Service, and it may require merchants to take additional certification steps — FedEx, for example, will require a certification before its application programming interface will allow label printing.

Customers Should be Able to Settle Price Differences Online

Sometimes an exchange may result in a price difference. For example, if a shopper orders a medium-sized dog collar for his Saint Bernard, he might owe a few dollars when he exchanges it for a large or extra-large collar. Your ecommerce platform should give the customer the opportunity to pay the difference when he is creating the RMA.

Similarly, if an item has gone on sale since a customer make a purchase or if it is being exchange for a smaller, less expensive, size, give the customer an opportunity to choose a partial refund or store credit that could be redeemed right away on additional products.

If an ecommerce platform does not have this feature, the seller will need to contact the customer and possibly take a payment card number over the phone.

Returns Should Be an Extension of the Original Transaction

It is common for retail accounting software in brick-and-mortar stores to associate returns and exchanges with the original transaction. In some cases, the entire customer engagement including the purchase and exchange will use a single transaction number.

Your ecommerce platform should mirror this sort of behavior, treating exchanges, returns, and refunds as an extension of the original sale. Unfortunately, some ecommerce platforms require merchants to create additional transactions or credit memos that are only loosely associated with the sale and may be difficult to track later.

Returns, Refunds, and Exchanges Should be Easy to Monitor

It is also important for your ecommerce platform to track and report about returns, refunds, and exchanges. You’ll want to be notified at each step of the process — when the shopper initiates the RMA, prints a label, or similar. And you will want to be able to look at trends.

For example, if a particular product or style is frequently returned or exchanged for a different size, you’ll want to know.


Armando Roggio
Armando Roggio
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