How Email Can Fix a Broken Return Process

Andrew Kordek

4 minute read

In today’s multiple-channel retail environment, returning an online purchase to a store can add an extra layer of frustration for customers and retailers alike. But, it doesn’t have to be that way.

My recent experience with a national brand retailer showed me how a creative use of email could make the return process less onerous, increase customer satisfaction, and drive increased revenue.


My wife and I received a wonderful holiday gift from a colleague, who had bought it online from an upscale home furnishings retailer. We loved it, but we already owned one. So, we decided to exchange it.

This retailer had a store near us, so we took the gift to the store, found something we liked and took both items to the checkout counter to make the exchange. Easy enough, right? Not quite.

The clerk handling our transaction told us we could not exchange the gift for store credit because it had been purchased online. The returned merchandise would “go against the store,” meaning the store would be charged for the return without getting credit for the original sale or the exchange item.

To exchange the item at the store, she told us, we would have to fill out a return form, which the store manager would send to the company’s home office for processing. In return, the company would send us a gift card we could use online or in the store.

So, we filled out the form and put the return process in the store manager’s hands. As promised, we received our gift card in the mail and bought the merchandise we wanted, several weeks and two store trips later.

Two challenges to address

If you buy from retailers that sell both online and in stores, you might be surprised that this retailer would not exchange the merchandise then and there. But, that is only part of the problem.

A bigger problem is that this retailer views its online and in-store units as separate businesses. Even the magic of email isn’t enough to move mountains on the executive side to make these two business units play nicely together.

This brand needs not only to save money but also to help each side of the business work together and create a sustainable attribution model that makes offline and online work together.

Even so, email can work to reduce the friction between online and in-store operations. Retail today is all about margin and overhead. In my situation, email could have solved the challenge several ways.

Let’s break down these challenges:

  1. How can email, coupled with cross-channel integration, reduce the customer’s wait time for the gift card?
  2. How can email save this retailer the overall expense involved in returning the merchandise to the home office and issuing credit? (Expenses include shipping costs, personnel, and the costs to buy, process, issue, and mail gift cards.)

Using email with mobile and social to improve the returns process

As a part of its acquisition strategy, this retailer collects email addresses to sell items and drive traffic to its stores. It also uses its email addresses as a catalyst to promote its sister businesses by auto-opting the address owners into the programs. So, my proposed fixes are tied to the system that collects the email address.  

Idea 1: Leverage the email acquisition system for processing returns and exchanges

The retailer could use these email addresses for processing returns and sending out emails to confirm the returned purchase arrived at the home office. They could also notify customers via email to deliver an e-gift card, instead of mailing a physical card, once it processes the return.

The retailer also could use the email address to cross-promote or test promotions within the triggered/transactional email that would be a part of the return process. Simply put, this transactional-like stream could both save money and increase basket size in the next transaction when the e-gift card is redeemed.

This process could take a few days because some organizations have problems with data transfers in near real-time.

Idea 2:  Link email to a mobile app for the transaction

The retailer could collect the email address during the exchange process and use it to trigger a message inviting the customer to download the retailer’s mobile app. Then, it could push the e-gift card to the app in near real-time.

Meanwhile, the same transactional stream from Idea 1 could cross-promote or upsell new merchandise to customers while they wait for the app’s push notification.

Idea 3: Add social media to the process

This builds on the previous suggestions to use email and/or mobile to process returns and deliver e-gift cards. Customers who are awaiting their gift cards could be invited to follow or engage with the retailer in its social channels. Those who do connect with the brand could qualify for a greater discount on their purchases with their e-gift cards.

Involving multiple channels in the return process and replacing physical gift cards with e-gift cards could lead the retailer to bigger customer satisfaction wins.

An internet purchase coupled with an exchange or return in a brick-and-mortar store should not make customers feel as if they are dealing with separate companies.

Brands have to realize that customers don’t really care about who gets credit where and when because they view your retail operation as a single unit. Having a digital transaction end up with a plastic card in a direct mail piece creates an even bigger customer satisfaction problem because they have to wait longer to conclude their transactions.


Email can solve many things in the retail world, both online and in store. Brands need to consider the customer experience problems that a complex return process creates and work to simplify it.

This retailer already has a point-of-sale system to collect email addresses for both purchases and returns or exchanges. So, it can use these email addresses to reduce friction in the return process and create a cohesive customer experience in all of its business units. It’s a win-win for everybody.  


Need assistance taking your email program to the next level? Reach out to the email experts at Trendline today.



Trendline Interactive

Ready to send better messages?

About the Author(s)

Andrew Kordek

Andrew Kordek is a Co-Founder of Trendline Interactive.

Let's Take This to the Inbox

Sign up for our news, resources and updates. The inbox is our favorite place after all. We’ll make sure it’s worth it. (You can unsubscribe at any time, but you probably already knew that.)