Statistics showing that retailers’ profits are being hit by women practising multi-size shopping hide a much more complex returns picture.

The female of the species were done a disservice this week when Barclaycard released statistics apparently showing that women buying products online in two sizes, before returning the size that doesn’t fit, are a drain on retailers’ profits.

This claim, in fact, is only partly true. The idea of ‘multi-size’ shopping being a negative behaviour is a myth; it’s actually more indicative of shoppers discovering a new brand, getting to grips with the style and fit, and then settling down over time. Women are, however, the worst offenders when it comes to returning goods.

“This pattern of behaviour affects both men and women, but the crucial difference is that the woman tends to be the main buyer for the household”

But before we get into the specifics, it’s worth looking at the bigger picture. Returns are a significant problem for UK retailers. They cost the industry around £60bn a year, a third of which is generated by ecommerce returns.

Women’s multichannel fashion purchases are one of the most returned categories, but that’s intrinsically linked to the way they shop.

In an environment where most retailers compete on value, offering free shipping and free returns, consumers are being actively encouraged to overbuy. The point of decision has moved from the checkout to the home, and this results in more being sent back; a sale is not a sale until the customer decides to keep it, and there is no financial penalty for returning an item.

Returning trends

This pattern of behaviour affects both men and women, but the crucial difference is that the woman tends to be the main buyer for the household. Therefore, an ambivalent attitude towards returning will affect not just womenswear but menswear too, and homeware. They are just as likely to return a pillow or a shirt for their husband as they are a dress – and it’s worth noting that our data shows men are less likely to return if they make the purchase for themselves.

This is why Clear Returns works with retailers to help them really understand these patterns of behaviour, to see which returning trends are more detrimental to their business than others. A woman buying the same dress in two sizes and returning one is far less of a profit drain than someone buying five different dresses in the same size and then returning four. And with less than 10% of returns being generated by shoppers purchasing adjacent sizes, the shopper who knows her size exactly is a much bigger threat to the bottom line.

Typically, only a small proportion of a retailer’s customer base will generate 40% of their returns. The challenge is to get under the skin of what causes those returns – be it product, service, marketing or customer behaviour – in order to take avoiding action. And multi-size buys are only a very small part of a big returns problem.

  • Vicky Brock is CEO of returns intelligence specialist Clear Returns