Consumer demand for free and easy returns is driving up the cost of internet shopping as retailers struggle to manage the volume of items coming back, according to new research.

The study by Barclaycard found that a third (33%) of online retailers offer free returns, but offset the balance by charging for delivery, while one in five (20%) increase the price of items to cover the cost of returns.

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The increasing rate of returns seen over the last 12 months is hurting business, with 31% of retailers claiming that managing the returns process has an impact on their profit margin.

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The speed and convenience with which purchases can be made and returned has led to the emergence of the ‘serial returner’ in recent years.

Three in ten shoppers (30%) deliberately over-purchase and subsequently return unwanted items, the study found, with a fifth admitting to ordering multiple versions of the same item to make up their mind at home.

Serial returners said they would send back fewer purchases if businesses were to standardise clothing and shoe sizes, which can vary between and even within retailers.

One in five said a better in-store experience, such as shortened queues for clothing store fitting rooms so they can try on sizes without the wait, would also reduce the number of returns they make.

The same proportion would like retailers to introduce technology to help them better visualise an item when shopping online, such as the ability to ‘try on’ clothing after uploading an image of themselves.

Sharon Manikon, director of Customer Solutions at Barclaycard Global Payment Acceptance, said: “Today’s time-pressed shopper expects the process to be fast, easy and free – and that applies to both buying goods as well as returning them. Faced with more choice than ever before, alongside a range of different clothing and shoe sizes, it’s hardly surprising that this new breed of online shopper – the serial returner – is starting to emerge.

“Online spending will continue to rise and the need to keep pace with customer demands presents a dilemma for businesses needing to protect their bottom line. Fortunately there is light at the end of the tunnel with many ways retailers can streamline the returns process. From developing universal sizing to offering virtual dressing rooms, the key for today’s businesses is to determine which innovations work best for them – while ensuring they don’t lose out to their more savvy competition.”