Office supply chain Staples is following the lead of retailers like Kohl’s KSS -1.6% and is planning to use its stores as drop-off locations for returns of goods sold by other online brands.
Staples is partnering with returns and reverse logistics tech firm Optoro to allow consumers to bring returns to the more than 1,000 Staples stores in this country, and get credit for returned items through a QR code on their phones.
Optoro and Staples plan to have the program, called Express Returns, in place in January, in time for the peak holiday returns period. Optoro also hopes to expand Express Returns to additional retail chains in the future.
The Staples partnership reflects the growing realization by retailers that while Americans love buying online, they greatly prefer making returns in stores, especially if they don’t have to box up, and label the return themselves.
A key strength of Walmart.com and Target com is that customers can easily return online purchases to the physical stores of those retailers.
Other retailers have decided that it is a smart move to take returns even if they didn’t make the sale.
Kohl’s in July, 2019 began accepting Amazon returns as a way to bring more customers into its stores, particularly younger customers. Walgreen’s and Nordstrom have also launched returns programs.
For Staples, the returns program fits into its strategy of being a solutions provider, with its in-store printing, copying and shipping centers. In February, a month before pandemic-related retail shutdowns began, Staples showed its commitment to expand that strategy when it unveiled Staples Connect, a new store model with co-working and community event spaces and a podcast studio.
“We’re already recognized as a convenient shipping destination. A lot of our customers use us to drop off their packages. In this remote working environment we’ve got that convenient opportunity. So because we already play in that space within the local communities our stores operate in, this program is really just a natural extension of that,” said Craig Grayson, vice president/GMM, Print & Marketing Services, Staples U.S. Retail.
Washington-D.C.-based Optoro manages returns for leading retailers and brands including Best Buy BBY +1.5%, Target, Bed Bath & Beyond BBBY -1.4%, Under Armour UAA -0.4%, and Staples, as well as hundreds of smaller online brands. It supplies consumers with a portal for making returns and collecting refunds, and helps brands maximize the resale or reuse value of returns.
When the Express Returns program launches at Staples stores in January, consumers who purchase items from brands that use the Optoro platform will be able to indicate online that they want to make a return, and get information about how they can return the item at the nearest Staples store, as well as a QR code sent to their mobile phone that will be scanned when they return the item. Items can be returned loose, without packaging, and will be placed in a shipping pouch at Staples.
“We’re basically making it super simple for customers to get a QR code and digitize their return and then take that QR code with their item to any store and make that return,” said Adam Vitarello, president and cofounder of Optoro.
The Express Returns program, Vitarello said, can be used by retailers to create, fast contactless returns of for their own e-commerce customers, in addition to enabling retailers like Staples to act as drop-off locations for multiple online retailers.
The program benefits consumers by making returns easier, “and it leverages the brick-and-mortar locations that Staples and other retailers have to take those returns,” Vitarello said.
“Buy online, return in store is actually a key driver to profitability in e-commerce,” he said. “If you can encourage more buy online, return in store – if you can go from 10% to 50% to 80% – it can literally change your economics of e-commerce.”
The pandemic-driven surge in online shopping has been accompanied by a spike in online returns. “Some of our clients are seeing 2x to 3x increase in returns,” Vitarello said.
“Now that everyone’s going online, it’s highlighting the differences between brick and mortar and online and maybe the biggest difference between brick and mortar and online is returns. It’s way more complicated. You have to figure out how to package it up, how to get the label, when’s my refund going to come, do I want to do an exchange,” he said.
“What we’re trying to do in a nutshell is make an online return act more like a store return,” he said.
And with offices closed down due to Covid-19, shoppers no longer can bring their returns to the office to print the free shipping label, and drop the package off at the mailroom, or the FedEx FDX +0.2% or UPS drop box.
“What was previously pretty painful is now even more painful, so the need to be able to do this package-less, express return at stores is greater now than ever,” Vitarello said.