Whether you own an e-commerce website, a brick-and-mortar retail store or both, you’re undoubtedly dealing with more returns than usual this time of year. In fact, UPS dubbed January 5th “National Returns Day,” and estimated in the first full week of January, more than 5.8 million packages were returned using UPS alone. How can you make the return process easier for both your customers and your business? Here are my top tips:

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If you sell online:

Offer free returns. Let’s face it: You're competing with Amazon, Nordstrom, Zappos and other big companies that offer free returns. In today’s world, many online shoppers won’t even consider buying from you if they have to pay for returns. Build the cost of free returns into your product prices, even if that means charging a little more; you’ll make up for it in customer satisfaction, loyalty and future orders.

Provide return shipping labels. “Easy-to-print return labels” and “Return label in the box” are key factors for a seamless ecommerce return experience for your customers, according to the 2016 UPS Pulse of the Online Shopper study. Labels should include clear directions on how to return the product, such as what paperwork needs to be included in the box, whether it needs to be shipped by a specific carrier and where to drop it off.

Set customer expectations. Make sure return and exchange information is easy to find via a link at the top of your website. You can also include this information (or links to it) on individual product pages, as well as in follow-up emails sent after a product has been delivered.

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Allow in-store returns. If you have a physical store in addition to your e-commerce site, give customers the option to return online purchases in-store. Sixty percent of those in the UPS study prefer making in-store returns than returning by mail (plus, each visit to your store is an opportunity to make a new sale). Just be sure all store employees are well trained in handling online returns.

If you own a brick-and-mortar store:

Make it fast. Consumers in the UPS study say speed is a top factor in making in-store returns a positive experience. Consider setting up a special area for returns during high-volume times; this will shorten wait times and keep customers happy. Be sure signage clearly indicates which line is for returns. There’s nothing worse than waiting in a long line at checkout to return something, only to be told you have to start over again in the special return line.

Train all salespeople to handle returns. If salespeople always have to call a higher-ranking employee or manager over to finish a return, you’re slowing down the process unnecessarily. Post step-by-step directions for returns at the checkout so your salespeople can refer to them easily.

Related article: The Value of Customer Loyalty

Make returns a positive experience. Lots of us enjoy shopping, but no one likes returning things. It’s a hassle, and customers who are disappointed in a product are in a negative frame of mind to begin with. If your sales clerks sigh loudly, look irritated or roll their eyes, they make the problem worse. Train your employees to treat customers with returns cheerfully and professionally—it’s key to retaining their business.

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Communicate your return policy early and often. Have salespeople briefly explain the return policy during the transaction (“We accept returns any time within 90 days as long as you have your receipt.”). Print key return information, such as time limits, on receipts. Have your return policy clearly posted at checkout.

No matter what type of retailer you are:

Be willing to make exceptions. The way you handle a complicated return situation can make or break your relationship with the customer. Empower your salespeople to use their discretion and make exceptions when warranted.

Use returns as a learning tool. Both online and brick-and-mortar retailers should always ask the reason for return, either in person or on the return form. By tracking information about specific products and reasons, you’ll spot trends and problems. For instance, you might find that one supplier has started providing poor-quality merchandise, or that clothing is more likely to be returned if the description doesn't include fabric content.

Prevent future returns. E-commerce retailers will find that providing as much product information as possible—including multiple photos, videos, detailed size information, dimensions and materials—reduces returns because there are fewer surprises when the product is received. Letting customers write product reviews helps eliminate returns by alerting shoppers to issues, such as clothing that runs small.

Handle returns right, and they can actually increase customer satisfaction, build customer loyalty and give you insights into your product assortment.

About Rieva Lesonsky

Rieva Lesonsky is CEO and Co-founder of GrowBiz Media, a custom content and media company focusing on small business and entrepreneurship, and the blog SmallBizDaily.com.  A nationally known speaker and authority on entrepreneurship, Rieva has been covering America’s entrepreneurs for more than 30 years. Before co-founding GrowBiz Media, Lesonsky was the long-time Editorial Director of Entrepreneur Magazine. Lesonsky has appeared on hundreds of radio shows and numerous local and national television programs, including the Today Show, Good Morning America, CNN, The Martha Stewart Show and Oprah.Lesonsky regularly writes about small business for numerous websites and for corporations targeting entrepreneurs. Many organizations have recognized Lesonsky for her tireless devotion to helping entrepreneurs. She served on the Small Business Administration’s National Advisory Council for six years, was honored by the SBA as a Small Business Media Advocate and a Woman in Business Advocate, and received the prestigious Lou Campanelli award from SCORE. She is a long-time member of the Business Journalists Hall of Fame.

Web: www.growbizmedia.com or Twitter: @Rieva

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