It may be surprising to learn that 67% of customers check the returns policy before making a purchase online. And 92% will buy again if the return process is uncomplicated. So, not only is a written return policy necessary for handling instances where customers have issues with your products, but it also serves to build trust with your customers. In this guide, we break down the steps you should take to write your policy correctly with the right information and make the process as easy as possible for customers.
Step 1 – Determine the Details
The first step for writing your ecommerce returns policy is to get clear on what your refund and/or exchange process will entail. You need to decide on your time frame for returns, which items you’ll accept, how you’ll process refunds, and what steps customers should follow to return defective items to you.
The two most common time frames for ecommerce returns are 14 days or 30 days. However, there is no set number, and you’ll see a variety of time frames from different stores. For example, IKEA gives customers a full year to return items.
Figure out what an appropriate span of time allows customers to determine whether the product they bought from you works as intended but doesn’t leave you open to people using your products for a short period of time and then simply returning them for a full refund when they don’t have use for it anymore.
That leads directly to the next consideration, which is what circumstances you’ll accept returns. Many stores require items to be unused in order to process a refund or still in the original packaging.
This may not work for your type of product, but you might want to use this to avoid having to deal with items that can’t be reused or repurposed after they’ve been returned.
You could even decide that only defective items can be returned, and you won’t accept any based on simple customer dissatisfaction. That might be better on your budget; just be careful about how that can chill a shopper’s buying intent.
In this same step, you should also consider what proof of purchase needs to be provided by the customer to initiate a refund. It could be as simple as their emailed receipt or as specific as the item’s SKU number. Fortunately, an ecommerce store makes it easier to keep track of orders and returns than it would be if you were using paper receipts. However, it’s still important to ask for proof of purchase in your return policy to avoid fake returns or items.
Next, consider your policy on refunds and exchanges. It’s easier for a lot of businesses to only offer exchanges for the same product or another similarly priced one. But, again, the lack of a full refund option could scare away other customers who don’t want to expose themselves to risk.
Consider whether you will offer refunds at all and, if you do, what amount of time for a return qualifies for a refund. You can get granular here. For example, you may decide to allow refunds within 14 days of purchase and only exchanges after 14 days but before 30 days.
Payment methods are important to pay attention to here. Will you credit refunds to the same payment method a customer used? Or will you only give store credit for returns? Store credit is a good option if you are a small store and you’re afraid of losing profit through sales, but it can alienate customers, so be careful.
The last key consideration is how your return policy may need to accommodate or adapt to international shoppers. If you ship internationally, you might want to offer those customers a longer window for returns. International shipping is more expensive, so there’s a part of this we’ll revisit a few steps later in this guide. For now, simply determine whether or not you’ll limit your returns to your own country or region or open it up to shoppers worldwide.
Step 2 – Find a Template
Once you’ve planned out the details of what you want to include in your ecommerce return policy, a smart technique is to download a template to help you write yours.
Using a template will help you structure your return policy in a way that is easy for customers to understand while also adhering to legal writing best practices. If you’re using an ecommerce platform to host your store, like Shopify, they’ll usually offer you a template directly in your account. Shopify even provides a full policy generator that you don’t even need a Shopify account to use.
You don’t have to follow the template format to the letter. It’s just to give you some structure for writing your own. Stick to well-known sources for finding these templates; don’t go to an online store and just copy and paste their return policy. You should only use a free template that specifically says you have permission to use it. Anything on someone else’s site is intellectual property, and you could get in a lot of trouble for copying it without permission.
Once you choose one and download it, you can start by adding your store and contact information, then go through the various sections and populate them with the details you determined in the previous step.
Step 3 – Detail the Return Shipping Process
Some ecommerce stores, like Amazon, offer customers free return shipping. Not every ecommerce business can afford that, though. It’s up to you to determine who is responsible for the cost of returning a product back to you, then include that in your policy.
This is heavily affected by the scope of your customer base. If you’re shipping internationally, this is another portion of the policy where you’ll need to factor that in. You may decide you can offer free returns to domestic customers, but international shoppers will be responsible for return shipping costs.
If you are offering free returns, you’ll need to give customers easy access to return shipping labels as part of the process. For generating return labels, you’ll need to make sure your fulfillment provider or preferred shipping company can quickly create these as you field return requests. Don’t forget that these need to be emailed to customers once they’re generated.
You’ll also need to define another aspect of this process, which is how you want customers to package their returns. Are your products durable enough that someone can just plop them into a mailbox or do they require padding, insulation, or other protections to ensure no further damage on their return journey? These details will also affect whether or not it’s fiscally possible to offer free returns.
Step 4 – Outline Clear Return Instructions
If we use a Shopify template as an example, you’ll see that they’ve included the time frame and item condition instructions that we talked about in the first step right at the top. You can also see in the box that the steps a customer needs to take when returning an item are clearly outlined.
You want to make these steps as clear and detailed as possible. You don’t want to leave loopholes or gaps open in your policy. For example, it can leave your ecommerce business vulnerable to footing the bill if you don’t properly cover all the facets of the process.
Take care to include all of the details you’ve determined thus far and cover every step of what an ideal return would entail. For example, think about how a customer should initiate a return. Do they need to send a message to a specific email address? Or is there an online form for them to fill out?
At this point, you’ll have a pretty solid base of information to include. So, make sure at this point you’ve outlined:
- What timeframe a return request must happen within
- Whether you allow for refunds or just exchanges
- What circumstances allow for a customer to return a product
- How to initiate or request a return
- What proof of purchase is required for returns
- Who is responsible for paying the return shipping costs
- How to ship a product for return
- Any differences that apply to international shoppers but not domestic ones
- Timeframes for receiving the refund or exchange
Now it’s time to cover all your bases and double-check (and triple-check) everything once you’ve written your policy up.
Step 5 – Cover All Your Bases
Most return policies are pretty basic, but you might want to add some extra sections that cover information specific to your store.
For example, if you have a peak season around the end of the year, you could add an extra clause covering returns for purchases made over the holiday period. Lots of stores give customers extra time to make returns during the holidays to boost sales and customer satisfaction.
You can also look at the return policies of both your competitors and the stores you admire. What else do they include in their return policy beyond the basics? Do they touch on incentives or restrictions that would be relevant to your customers or product lines?
Obviously never just copy and paste anything, but you can take inspiration from particularly good return policies about topics or scenarios that you should include in your own.
Step 6 – Add an FAQ Section
Even with a simple, straightforward return policy, the legalese nature of the document can make it hard for customers to want to read. A great way to help customers understand your policy is to include a page that breaks down portions of your return policy into a more appealing web page of frequently asked questions.
By adding an FAQ to your returns page that covers the most common customer questions, you can avoid a lot of unnecessary and repetitive support requests.
Break it down into the key components that shoppers tend to want to know upfront (namely, return window, refund and exchange requirements, and international considerations). You don’t have to include everything in your written policy here. In fact, it’s smart to keep the FAQ page to the essentials but include a link to your full policy.
The other great thing about having an FAQ page for returns is that you can add to it when you find a certain aspect of your policy that is confusing customers or causing them to submit support requests. Just add the recurring issue as a new FAQ section and avoid answering the same complaint via support channels again in the future.
Step 7 – Review With Your Lawyer
As a quick disclaimer, no policy is ever an official legal document unless you’ve sought out counsel. You’ll probably see that same disclaimer on every template you download, like the Shopify one you see below.
Our guide will help you put the right content in your ecommerce return policy, but it doesn’t constitute legal advice. Therefore, follow our steps above to assemble all the necessary pieces for a thorough return policy, but then take what you’ve created to a lawyer before adding it to your ecommerce site or putting the policy into practice.
Not only will this ensure you actually have a legally binding return policy, but this set of eyes can also spot more technical elements you may have missed or point out aspects that could create problems down the road.