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Shoppers ‘Bracketing’ Online Purchases Creates Problems for Retailers

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  • “Bracketing” is the practice of buying the same item online in multiple sizes or colors.
  • It’s increased along with the rise of e-commerce: 58% of shoppers now report bracketing.
  • It creates logistical and financial headaches for retailers, along with environmental side effects.

Imagine for a second that you’re shopping online for a new pair of boots. 

You’re pretty sure you know what size you need, but you may need a half size bigger. You’re also pretty set on one color, but you’re mulling another shade, too. You decide to buy four pairs of boots in two colors and two sizes with the expectation that you’ll be returning at least two pairs. 

Lots of consumers shop online this way. And while it sounds harmless, it creates massive headaches for retailers, not to mention financial losses. With the holiday shopping season now in full swing, retailers are bracing for what at this point is practically an e-commerce tradition: bracketing. 

What is bracketing? 

As Insider’s Áine Cain reported, “bracketing” is when a customer buys multiple size or colors of a single item, chooses the version they like best, and sends the rest back to the retailer. It’s the close cousin of another shopping habit, “wardrobing,” which is when a customer buys a product — perhaps for a special occasion or holiday — and returns it after it’s been used. 

Bracketing is especially prevalent when retailers offer free shipping and free returns, because customers deem the practice a low-risk endeavor. 

How long has this been going on? 

Bracketing is nothing new. In 2017, research from customer experience platform Narvar found that 40% of shoppers bracketed their purchases at least occasionally. Apparel was more likely to be bought and returned than any other category, Retail Dive reported

But that portion has only grown in the years since, especially after the pandemic-induced ecommerce boom. Narvar data from November 2021 showed that 58% of shoppers are now bracketing their online purchases. 

What does it mean for retailers?

A higher rate of bracketing means a higher rate of returns. In 2020 alone, shoppers sent back about $100 billion in merchandise they bought online, according to data from the National Retail Federation

And while shipping and returning may be free for consumers, it’s not free for the retailers. The process goes something like this: Companies have to get the items back from customers via carriers like UPS or the United States Postal Service, sort through the items to determine if they’re the correct product and if they’ve been used, and then decide whether the product can be resold. The company loses money along the way, including on packaging, the labor it took to fulfill the order in the first place, and the freight costs of transporting that product to and from your door.

That process can cost $10 to $20 per return, not including shipping, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Not every retailer views returns as a negative, however. Mark Mathews, NRF’s vice president of research development and industry analysis, wrote that some companies view the return process as “an opportunity to further engage with customers.” 

“It provides additional points of contact for retailers to enhance the overall consumer experience,” he wrote.

How does it impact the environment? 

There’s an obvious environmental cost to all this in terms of shipping. In fact, the carbon dioxide produced from e-commerce returns in 2019 alone was equivalent to 3 million cars driving in a single year, CBS reported, citing data from reverse logistics technology company Optoro.

But the products themselves are part of the problem, BBC’s Eleanor Lawrie reported. When customers wait to return the items they don’t need, the resale value begins to diminish, which means retailers may just end up throwing those items away, even if you do send them back.

Plus, items like underwear and cosmetics are almost guaranteed to be thrown away for hygienic reasons, The Atlantic reported

“Many retailers end up throwing away over 25% of their returns,” Tobin Moore, CEO of Optoro, told CNBC in 2019. “Holistically, that ends up being over 5 billion pounds of goods that end up in landfills a year from returns.”

How can bracketing be prevented? 

Bracketing probably isn’t a totally fixable problem, but there are some ways retailers can prevent customers from making so many returns.

Narvar’s November survey found that offering online shoppers features like sizing charts or specific measurements, helpful product photos and descriptions, and reviews from other customers helped prevent returns, as did showing the items on models with different body types.

And some companies are coming up with their own solutions to slow the influx of returns. Giant retailers like Amazon and Walmart are now telling shoppers just to keep their unwanted item and get refunded anyway; others work with third-party companies like Roadie, owned by UPS, or Happy Returns, which partners with FedEx, to help ferry returns to the correct place.



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