An increasing percentage of products in multichannel retail are being returned, yet many retailers and manufacturers are not aware of the importance and scale of this issue. Similarly, the literature on online returns is limited. Returns processes can be very complicated, contain many manual steps that have several variations, unclear decision-making rules and, at the handling stage, often involve low-wage third-party employees guided by patchy IT systems. This article maps the complexity of product returns processes, highlights challenges and identifies opportunities for improvement, thereby contributing to a deeper understanding of the emerging field of product returns research. It also concludes that it is essential for returns to be made a strategic priority at the senior management level, implementing a Lean approach to returns systems. The research was based on 4 case studies, 17 structured interviews and 3 retail community workshops, all with British and other Western European retailers. Through triangulation of individual data, a generic process map for retail returns was created and implications for sustainability, loss prevention and profit optimisation are examined.
- product returns
- reverse supply chains