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Should You Offer Free Return Shipping (Data Driven Calculator)

Peter Sobotta
Updated 07/07/20 7:59 PM

Should You Implement a Free Return Shipping Policy?

Thanks to benefits like reduced cart abandonment, increased conversions, and happier customers, many retailers use their free shipping policy as a conversion tactic to drive revenue.

Free product shipping is so popular and effective that many savvy Shopify retailers are also considering offering free product return shipping as a way to boost customer lifetime value and increase purchase rates.

But are free Shopify returns and exchanges viable for your business?

Here's what we'll cover in this post:

  1. The Pros and Cons of Free Returns & Exchanges
  2. The Financial Side of Things (+ Free Downloadable Calculator)
  3. Key Things To Consider When Offer Free Product Return

In a hurry, no time to read this blog? No problem, try this free calculator to see if free return shipping works for your company:

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What are the Pros and Cons of Free Return Shipping?

Free return shipping can give your business a boost when it comes to customer satisfaction, but do the potential benefits outweigh the costs? Let's take a look:

Infographic: Pros of Free Return Shipping, Pro #1PRO #1: Your Customers Will Love Your Free Return Policy

Ecommerce returns are already a major roadblock on the way to a smooth and satisfying customer experience, so by asking your customers to pay for return postage, you're introducing more friction and hassle into the process.

In fact, according to this study— 62% of consumers are frustrated when asked to pay for return postage and packaging.

You can offset customer frustration by offering free returns and exchanges, which will provide a smoother shopping experience.

Remember, it's all about customer retention. By minimizing friction during the returns process you're far more likely to be able to re-engage with customers, and convert them into repeat purchasers.

Infographic: Pros of Free Return Shipping, Pro #2Data Source: Washington and Lee University Study

PRO #2: Free Product Returns Encourage Conversions & Boost Sales

Ecommerce is a numbers game and if you're like most retailers, your conversion rate floats around an average of 1% to 3%. 

All those dollars spent on paid ads, influencer marketing, and SEO have a very low yield in regards to the number of purchases made by visitors.

To combat low conversion rates many retailers try to A/B test various elements of their stores, but often overlook trying to experiment with their return policy.

E-Commerce Conversion Rates This graph shows a distribution of conversions rates across multiple industries, but E-Commerce conversion rates are generally on the lower end of the spectrum (Source: Larry Kim, The WordStream Blog) 

Free products returns can actually be used as conversion optimization strategy and the reason behind why is purely psychological:

As humans we're always looking for reassurance in the decisions we make, especially when it comes to parting ways with our hard earned cash.

Online shopping is no different, customers want peace of mind when purchasing a product they seek validation and financial security in their purchasing decisions.

By offering free return shipping to your customers you're sending a reassuring signal— letting them know that even if they make the wrong decision about a product, they have the ability to quickly correct it.

So, will this increase in purchase rate because of a free returns policy cause more returns? 

The answer will be different for each retailer. Depending on your vertical, target market, and products, your return rate as it relates to your purchase rate may differ from other retailers.

According to trends we've discovered, increases in revenue may generate more returns, but at a diluted rate.

This means the rate of returns over a period of high sales is lower compared to periods with lower or average sales.

Graph: Percent Change in Sales and Difference in Return Rate

By comparing the graphs of percent change in sales, and the difference in returns we can see that an increase in purchases has an inverse effect on returns.

So according to this data, large percent increases in purchases and revenue are met with lower rates of return—  which doesn't mean that there are fewer returns coming back, but simply the return rate is lower in comparison.

This trend indicates that high purchase rates can quickly offset any negative impact product returns have on your bottom line.

Remember, free returns and exchanges are a retention marketing strategy, so advertise your return policy just like you would for free product shipping.

READ MORE: How to Write an Ecommerce Returns Policy That'll Skyrocket Sales

Infographic: Pros of Free Return Shipping, Pro #3

PRO #3: Everybody's Doing it! Customers Expect Free Returns

Thanks to services like Amazon Prime consumers not only expect speedy shipping, they expect it for free and the same applies for return shipping.

Free returns and exchanges are becoming a standard throughout ecommerce, in fact a National Retail Federation Study found that about 59% of retailers currently offer free return shipping.

To remain competitive in today's customer centric retail space your business must proactively employ policies like free returns shipping.

Infographic: Pros of Free Return Shipping, Pro #4

PRO #4: Offering Return Shipping Doesn't Have to Be an Exclusive Policy

When it comes to online returns and exchanges, you don't need a one size fits all policy.  In fact, you'll likely be better off with a fluid return policy tailored to your products, customers, and goals.

Free return shipping doesn't have to apply to your entire product catalog. By segmenting your return policy to apply to various clusters, you're protecting yourself against financial loss and return fraud, while reaping the benefits of free return shipping.

Here are some ideas of how you can segment your return policy to offer free returns for select products and situations:

  • Offer free return shipping for only full price items 
  • Free return shipping during the holiday season 
  • List items as Final Sale 
  • Return shipping depending on item category 
While a free returns policy has numerous benefits, it's also important to consider the some of the disadvantages of free returns before implementing changes.

Infographic: Cons of Free Return Shipping, Con #1

CON #1: Free Return Shipping Costs Can Cause a Hit to Your Bottom Line

By offering free return shipping, your business is taking on the cost of shipping the product to the customer and paying for return shipping. It's because of this hit to the overall bottom line that many retailers are wary of free returns.

Depending on your product niche, free return shipping policies can become cost centers very quickly. The cost of shipping a comforter is much higher than that of dress, so you'll have to carefully consider which products get the nod for free returns.

Infographic: Pros of Free Return Shipping, Pro #1

CON #2: Your Customers May Take Advantage

A free returns policy can encourage unwanted consumer behavior such as wardrobing or ordering an item without serious intent to keep it.

If the cost of these behaviors are not offset by an increased sales, free product returns could get very costly.

With a smart returns management software, you can monitor for suspicious behavior, like shoppers returning in the last 3 days of the their return window, and take steps to minimize the loss.

Are Free Returns Profitable for Your Business (Calculator)

By now you've probably figured out that if implemented correctly, the benefits of a free returns policy generally displace the negative side effects it may cause.

Now let's figure out the finances behind this strategy. There's some some math involved here, but if you're not in the mood for number crunching— don't worry!

We made this quick and easy excel spreadsheet to estimate the impact of introducing free returns and exchanges will have on your revenue and growth.

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Important things you'll need to know:

To begin to understand how changing your return policy may affect your revenue you need to know a few things:

  1. Your average monthly revenue (Current Revenue)
  2. How much you expect sales to increase as a result of free returns (Increased Sales)
  3. How much you will be paying (on average) for a returned item (Shipping Costs)
  4. Estimated labor costs to process one return (Labor Costs)
  5. Average product value 
  6. Your current number of monthly returns
  7. How much you expect returns to increase by as a result of free returns 

Now, for the fun part:

The estimation formula for calculating the revenue generated (lift) by implementing free returns is pretty simple:

Math Formula for Calculating If Free Returns Shipping is Effective

The tricky part is figuring out all the numbers that make this quick calculation work, so let's break it down.

NOTE: While you can use this estimation method using annual figures, we recommend using monthly data.

Step #1: Find the revenue growth with free returns implemented 

Math Formula for Increased Sales (Predicted)

NOTE: Expected Revenue Increase is the percent by which you think revenue will increase by and must be represented by a decimal. 

The number you get after performing this calculation will give you the value for your value for potential increased sales.

Step #2: Find the total cost of products returns for your business

Math Formula for Cost of Product Returns 

By dividing your increased sales revenue by your average product value you can roughly find the number of products that are expected to be sold.


Step #3: Calculate the New Return Rate

Now we have the number of products that might be sold, we need to figure out our new return rate with free returns implemented:

Math Formula for calculating return rate

So, how do you predict the percent increase in returns? 

Well, the answer isn't concrete and will depend on the retailer and their product return activity.

To help explain this variance we put together this graph of Increased Sales vs Returns:

Graph Showing Linear Correlation Between Increased Sales and Product Returns

As you can see the number of returns scales linearly as the number of orders increases (which in turn, increases the revenue).

This trend line isn't definitive for every ecommerce store. Your mileage may vary depending on several variables, but generally if you can understand  what your specific trend line might look like, you can make an educated guess on how returns will increase as your sales increase.

After you figure out the percent by which you think your returns will increase, plug that number into the formula and find your new return rate.

Next, we simply multiply the number from our previous calculation by our labor costs and shipping costs to arrive at the total physical cost of returns for our next month.

TIP: You can calculate labor cost by breaking down the time it takes an employee to process a return and multiplying it by the hourly rate that employee is being paid.

For example, if it takes 20 minutes to fully process a return by an employee making to $15/hr, you're losing $5 for every return to labor costs.

Putting it all together:

Now that we have the numbers, we can simply subtract  the cost of returns from our increased sales figures to obtain our final revenue, which gives us an estimate on how much money we can expect to make by offering free returns and exchanges.

Here's what the numbers look like with our Excel-based calculator:

Should You Offer Free Product Return Shipping? Downloadable Calculator CTA


3 Key Considerations When Offering Free Returns and Exchanges:

Free returns and exchanges can serve as an amazing marketing tool for your business, but in order to be effective a free returns policy must be implemented with these key considerations in mind:

1. Split Your Exchanges and Return Policy

If you're still opposed to the idea of free ecommerce return shipping, keep in mind that one size doesn't have to fit all.

Instead of offering free returns, you can split your return policy into product returns and product exchanges.

By offering free exchanges and paid returns you can minimize the risk to your bottom line, while still offering customers peace of mind.

2. Special Events and Seasons

Remember to consider peak purchasing times like Black Friday and the holiday season, as these events can cause large spikes of traffic and purchases on your website.

It's important to find the correct balance between customer centric and financially conscious, so take a look at your order history and revenue for popular events in the past and decide if free return shipping is needed.

3. Sales and Discounts

To prevent your bottomline from taking a substantial hit because of returns, avoid offering free return shipping on items that have been marked down.

You may still be able to offer returns on discounted items, instead of marking them to final sale, doing so will deter customers from returning discounted products, while still maintaining a level of customer satisfaction.

Putting the Strategy into Action:

Returns are an opportunity to engage frustrated buyers. It's a chance to not just the current sale, but make an investment in the lifetime value of the customer.

Investing in free return shipping is only helpful if you have the right system in place to measure the impact. That is where returns management software comes in.

10 Questions to Ask When Evaluating Returns Management Software

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