COLOGNE (dpa-AFX) - Order four pairs of pants, send three back - this is common practice when buying clothes online. Unlike in a store, customers cannot try on the goods. Many therefore order several sizes at once and only keep the one that fits. As a rule, they don't have to pay for the return. They can also return other products. However, according to a recent study by the retail research institute EHI, the return rate is highest for fashion items, averaging 26 to 50 percent.

The institute surveyed online retailers from Germany, Austria and Switzerland. According to the study, returns primarily mean costs for them. On average, retailers have to spend between five and ten euros for each returned item. Returns in the home and furnishings sector are more expensive at between 10 and 20 euros due to their size and higher value. According to the respondents, the biggest cost driver is checking the returned items and checking their quality.

"Returns are a huge burden on online retail," says Stefan Genth, Managing Director of the German Retail Association (HDE). "Handling returned goods costs money and human resources." Companies are doing a lot to reduce returns. "For this reason, retailers are constantly perfecting their product descriptions and size specifications," says the HDE. "Artificial intelligence is often used in the process."

This has achieved little so far. Return rates are stagnating. According to the EHI study, the average returns rate for all product groups is between six and ten percent and therefore at a similar level to previous years. 58% of retailers state that the rate is constant, 21% say it has increased and 15% say it has decreased. According to the study, the pandemic has not had a significant impact on the trend.

This may also be due to the fact that retailers have so far been reluctant to pass on the costs to customers. Few sellers pass on the shipping costs for returns, for example. According to EHI, only 14% of online retailers make use of this option to reduce the number of returns. Almost two thirds cover the shipping costs. "It seems essential for them to offer this service due to the high level of competition and because they assume that customers expect such a service," the authors write.

Shipping volumes will increase significantly again, especially in the upcoming Christmas season. The delivery staff are working to the limit. However, the many returns are not making their business more difficult, the transport industry emphasizes. "The returns are being handled by the parcel service providers with the existing delivery capacities without any problems," says the German Parcel and Express Logistics Association. "Returns are also unproblematic for parcel service providers insofar as there is a consolidation of returns on the last mile and the recipient (i.e. the retailer) is always present."

The market leader DHL expressed a similar view. "The capacities for returns are taken into account at an early stage in the transport planning or planning of the Christmas business," the company said on request.

Not all returns are resold. In the case of clothing in particular, some items that cannot be reprocessed are destroyed. In a 2019 study, the Returns Management Research Group at the University of Bamberg came to the conclusion that just under four percent of returned goods are disposed of. However, the EU Commission has now put a stop to this practice.

Large retailers will no longer be allowed to destroy unsold clothing in the EU in future. Negotiators from the European Parliament and the EU member states also agreed on Tuesday night that the EU Commission can extend the ban to other products in future, as the two negotiating parties announced. According to the information provided, there are exceptions for small companies and a transitional period of six years for medium-sized companies. In principle, the ban is to be applied two years after the regulation comes into force./maa/cr/DP/ngu