Shipping & Fulfillment

How to (Clearly) Explain Shipping and Return Policies

Ideally, a shopper comes to your site, finds a product she wants to buy, puts it in her cart, and then completes the purchase. Near the end of that process, an often-overlooked set of explanations can sabotage the transaction: the policies on shipping, refunds, and returns.

Let’s examine these elements to make sure your shoppers reach the finish line.


Shoppers who read your shipping information want to know where you ship to, how long it takes to ship, and when the packages will arrive — in addition to the shipping cost. Some customers may need to know the carrier or carriers because they have one address for the postal service and a different one for UPS, FedEx, and DHL.

In addition to presenting your shipping options and the cost of each, use the following questions to make sure you’ve covered the less obvious yet essential points.

  • If you’re U.S.-based, do you ship only to the continental 48 states or also to Alaska and Hawaii and territories such as Guam and Puerto Rico? What about military and diplomatic addresses?
  • Which countries do you ship to and which do you not ship to? Are there items that cannot be shipped internationally?
  • Do you ship packages the day of the order? If so, what is the cutoff? If not, when will a package get shipped?
  • What is your standard shipping method? Do you offer faster options?
  • If you offer free shipping, are there exclusions and conditions?
  • Can shoppers know for sure before they finalize their order that their items are in stock?
  • Do you provide tracking information for all shipments?
  • Do you offer in-store pickup? If so, what’s the time frame?

Returns and Refunds

Many consumers want to know a merchant’s returns policy before they complete a purchase. If an item doesn’t fit or is different from the photos, they want to know their options.

Use this checklist to address all the points your returns and refunds policy could include:

  • Do you offer an unconditional return on all purchases, along with a 100 percent refund, if a buyer isn’t satisfied? If so, do you also refund the shipping cost?
  • What is your deadline for returns? Are there different deadlines depending on the item?
  • What is the procedure for returns?
  • What is the address for returns?
  • Can gifts be returned or exchanged without a receipt or packing slip?
  • Are there policies to return or refund “on-sale” items?
  • For a valid return, do items need to be in their original condition, in the original packaging, or with tags attached?

When I was new to online shopping, I would always check where a company was based in case I didn’t receive the goods or they were misrepresented. If no company address was provided, or no telephone number, I backed out of the site. Cover this base as well.

Check for Clarity

Make sure policies for shipping, returns, and refunds are prominent on your site. Don’t hide them under a link called “Terms and Conditions,” “Legal,” or similar. Ask a couple of consumers who have never seen your site to find your shipping options and refund policies. If it takes them longer than 30 seconds or more than two clicks, that’s too long.

Bonobos, for example, links at the bottom of every page to its shipping and refund policies, which also include helpful videos.


Ask your testers a few questions that other shoppers might have, such as, “Do we ship to Greece?” “Do we offer overnight delivery?” or “Is there a restocking fee?”

And don’t forget to include your return policies on receipts and packing slips.

I looked at the return and refund policies for about a dozen online stores. The explanations were sometimes very confusing.

For example, one site said, “The customer is responsible for ensuring that the Post Office will deliver to the respective shipping location.” What does that mean? Are customers responsible for actions of the postal service?

Another site said, “The return shipping fee may be deducted from your refund.” Well, will it or won’t it? Does the merchant flip a coin to decide?

In another instance, the site wrote “Return for refund or store exchange within 30 days.” Is that 30 days from the purchase date or 30 days from the date received?

Some policies appear simple, but they lack critical details. Lululemon, the apparel retailer, states a seemingly easy return policy: “Breathe easy. Returns are free and can be done in person or by mail.” But it should have disclosed right there that there are further conditions and restrictions. These include “Items must be unwashed and unworn with the hangtag attached and accompanied by proof of payment.”

Adjust the Tone

Write your shipping, return, and refund policies with conversational words, as if you were talking to the reader. Be nice yet firm. Avoid legalistic or harsh language such as “you must,” “it is not our responsibility,” “in our sole discretion,” or “the customer is required to…” Also, avoid jargon such as “RMA” or “SKU.” Someone with a limited education needs to understand how it all works.

Emphasize the positive. One ecommerce site listed 17 bullet points on its refunds page. Fourteen of them began with the word “No.” It’s a bombardment of negativity! Consider the difference between these two versions of the same policy:

Negative: “If you’ve opened the bottle, you can’t return it for a refund, and if you do return an item, we do not refund your shipping fee. After 60 days you are no longer entitled to a return or refund.”

Positive: “We accept returns of all unopened items within 60 days of receipt for a full refund minus any shipping fees.”

Sweet Stamp Shop uses a mostly positive tone — "We happily take back unopened product ... ." — to say that it doesn’t accept opened products, requires the original order details, and provides refunds as store credits rather than money back.

Sweet Stamp Shop uses a mostly positive tone — “We happily take back unopened product … .” — to say that it doesn’t accept opened products, requires the original order details, and provides refunds as store credits rather than money back.

Marcia Yudkin
Marcia Yudkin
Bio   •   RSS Feed