Why returns are key for sportswear brands

By Laura Gee

In the ever-expanding marketplace of online apparel stores, it is becoming more and more difficult for retailers to solely rely on their product range to secure a sale. Shoppers are wising up the range of choice out there and are coming to expect more from retailers. eCommerce retailers need to make sure that their customer service experience offering is as up to scratch as their product range.

With many leading retailers investing more resources into clothing fit analytics, interactive chat bots, and personalisation, we’re seeing the industry place a focus on offering a great customer experience up to the point the shopper presses ‘Buy’. But for retailers, this is often the end of their improvements to the buyer’s journey, with many of them turning a blind eye to the issue of returns management. Returns are a notoriously underinvested element in retail, so optimising your returns proposition is a great way to get ahead of the ever-growing competition.

International returns management solution, ReBOUND, have conducted a large amount of research into the returns space over the last 5 years to outline key shopper behaviour trends. Read on to discover the findings of their investigation.

Mystery Shopping Results

Using the results from over 200 mystery shopping surveys, ReBOUND uncovered that 51% of shoppers say they always check a returns policy, with 48% saying they sometimes check.

Graph about returns

Returns policies are not just seen by returners. Up to 99% of buyers will see the returns offering regardless of whether they intend to return, which has the potential to affect a purchase. This means that it’s paramount for retailers to offer a returns promise which dazzles, as security in a purchase has the capability to increase conversions and reduce basket abandonment.

However, simply knowing how many people are looking at your returns policy is not enough: retailers need to understand what shoppers are hoping to see when they get there.

Chart about importance of returns

Looking at ReBOUND’s mystery shopping results tells us that 45% of shoppers rank tracking and communication as the most important factor in a returns experience, with 28% placing the importance on speed of refund, 18% on the length of the returns window and 9% on the choice of returns method.

Despite this, 60% of shoppers receive either no communication, or only 1 email once the refund has been processed.

It’s clear that simply offering free returns is not enough anymore: shoppers are starting to expect more from retailers’ returns policies. With the likes of ASOS now offering a stellar returns policy with a range of returns options, as well as a longer returns window and consistent communication, shoppers are becoming aware that they no longer have to accept single return options or 14-day return windows. Convenience is king, and when a retailer refuses to offer a returns experience that is convenient for the shopper, they won’t hesitate to go elsewhere.

However, the sorry state of returns is not necessarily the same across all sectors. In the first of their new series of eBooks, ReBOUND dive into the expanding sportswear sector to understand exactly what is going on with the state of returns and how a great proposition could help a few brands rise to the top of this exciting market.


Athleisure is Soaring

Where sportswear used to mean an Adidas tracksuit and a pair of Nike trainers, the sportswear sector has come on leaps and bounds in recent years. Thanks to the ‘gym generation’, who have spearheaded the new athleisure trend, the sportwear market is booming, amounting to £2.5 billion in 2017 according to GlobalData. Many sportswear start-ups such as Lulu Lemon, Gymshark, and Sweaty Betty rose to prominence when fashion retailers refused to acknowledge that shoppers were crying out for fashionable activewear that suited more than one occasion.

But with the trend taking off, specialist sportswear stores are now seeing their sales hard-hit by the fashion retailers who failed to pick up on the trend the first time around. While avid gym-goers will likely still turn to specialist sportswear brands, the rise in high street stores offering their own gymwear now means that anyone can get fit on a budget while still looking great. With stores like New Look, H&M, and Next now all having their own line of activewear, the competition is certainly heating up.

Women doing exercise class

When selling online, it can be even harder for retailers to compete in a crowded marketplace. How can retailers justify a higher price point than their competitors when they can’t accurately depict the quality of the product? On top of this, as GlobalData Retail Analyst Fiona Paton points out, non-sports specialists are well versed in adapting to the ever shifting seasonal trends, making it even harder for the sporting guys to compete.

With returns being the latest battleground in the fight for market share, ReBOUND took a deep-dive into the state of sportswear returns in the UK. Using a select sample of shoppers to investigate the likes of Sweaty Betty, JD sports, Lulu Lemon and more, ReBOUND were able to get a snapshot of the state of returns in the sportswear sector and see how it compares to its fashion, footwear, and beauty counterparts.

Investigating the Leading Brands

Sportswear scores by section

As can be seen in the chart, when it comes to online sales in the sportswear industry, shoppers love the order process, but the returns offering is lagging behind. This shows that while the state of returns varies from sector to sector, when it comes to sportwear sales, returns are still the way to differentiate and get ahead.

We know the importance that shoppers place on the length of a retailer’s returns window, so how does the sportswear sector shape up?

Across the 60 mystery purchases conducted across the 10 sportswear retailers, 17% of the reports came back saying that the shopper found the returns window ‘not lenient’. These days shoppers can expect to see anything from the legal 14 days to a 30-day, 365-day or even lifetime returns policy.

So, retailers at the shorter end of this spectrum should expect to be seen as ‘non-lenient’ in the eyes of the shopper. The leniency of the returns policy was found to have the biggest impact on the sector’s ‘Returns Process Score’, which was one of the sportswear sector’s worst performing areas, scoring just 67.28 compared to 77.28 in the fashion sector and 79.70 in the footwear sector.

Trainers in Autumn

When it comes to competing with fashion retailers (rather than other specialist sportswear brands), there’s certainly some legwork still to be done. 68.34% of the sportswear mystery shops came back saying that the retailer offered less than 3 returns choices, compared to just 18.67% in the fashion sector. In analysing the mystery shopping results, the amount of returns options offered by sportswear retailers was found to have a strong correlation with how convenient the shopper found the whole returns process, and ultimately impacted the sector’s ‘Overall Impression’ score. 

Here’s what some shoppers had to say about their returns experience with some of the poorer performing retailers in the study:

     - “Overall I felt it was a messy process. I dislike having the only option to return being via Royal Mail at a post office. This lacked convenience and felt that I was being made to go out of my way to return the item.”

- “The retailer does not offer a clear free returns policy. I paid £4.45 to return my parcel, only to find out I could have returned it at an ASDA store for free. Better communication is needed.”

- “Overall, I felt they were making it as difficult as possible to make a return”

The Verdict

The shoppers have spoken: sportswear retailers seriously need to up their returns game. By enhancing their returns offering, they can not only better compete with each other, but also start to get ahead of fashion retailers which are jumping on the ‘athleisure’ trend. With the sportswear industry seeing 8% growth, compared to just 2.1% for the total UK clothing market (GlobalData), the sportswear trend shows no sign of slowing down.

However, with the fashion sector currently coming in at 6 points higher than the sportswear sector in ReBOUND’s mystery shopping analysis, and returns being the biggest opportunity across every sector, returns should be somewhere near the top of every retailer’s agenda.

To dive further into the state of returns in the sportswear sector, download the eBook: ‘ReBOUND Investigates: The State of Returns in the Sportswear Sector’

Laura Gee, Content Marketing Executive, ReBOUND

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