Returns are a common problem in the e-commerce world. But they’re more common in the fashion industry than any other. As many as 30% to 40% of shoes and clothing items bought online result in returns, with merchants often on the hook for return shipping and restocking fees. 

But the problems with returns don’t end with those fees. 

It’s important to also consider the high costs of acquiring a new customer to replace the one you just lost. If a customer returns an item they didn’t like and never buys from you again, that’s the end of the whole customer relationship. That’s far more expensive to your brand than the return itself.

It’s essential for your fashion brand to not just cut the rate of returns, but also come up with ways to continue the customer relationship for those customers who do wish to return an item. Let’s talk about some strategies for accomplishing both of those goals.

Why do clothing and shoe returns happen?

First, in order to cut down the return rate, we need to think about why it’s happening in the first place. Here are some of the likely culprits:

Poor fit

McKinsey found that 70% of returns in the fashion industry occur due to a poor fit or style. Sizing inconsistencies between brands frequently contribute to poor fit. Often, customers are unsure of what size to purchase, as a dress that might be billed as a size 8 in one brand might equate to a 10 in another. In fact, TrueFit found that a women’s size 6 pair of jeans could have a waistline variance of as much as five inches, depending on the brand. 

Wrong style

When a customer complains about a clothing item’s “style,” it may also relate to the fit, or how it looks on their body as compared to the model’s, even if it’s the right size. But in some cases, the item looks different from how it appeared online: the material may be thinner than the customer realized, leading to too much transparency. Or the customer might realize that the color looks different to the photos. Or a pair of shoes may fit but simply not meet the customer’s comfort level. Whatever the case, a clothing item may be the right size, but just not be right for the customer.

Customer bracketing

Many customers take part in a practice known as “bracketing,” which is the online equivalent of taking a number of items into a dressing room and trying them out to see what they like—but in this case, they simply purchase a number of items, try them on, and send back any that aren’t an ideal fit. There may be nothing wrong with them; there are just others they like better, which may or may not even be from your brand. In fact, the practice has been growing rapidly, with 58% of respondents to a survey saying they’ve done it before. 


A more nefarious form of bracketing, “wardrobing” refers to the practice of purchasing an item for the purpose of wearing it once and then sending it back after it’s fulfilled its intended use. In the age of Instagram, 9% of shoppers confess to buying an item just to wear it once and then return it. 

Wrong item sent

In some cases, a return occurs due to merchant error. Forty-one percent of shoppers said that they’d returned an item that had been sent to them erroneously, which may have been the wrong size, wrong color, or wrong product altogether. Even more frustrating, 51% of those customers said they’d returned the wrong item only to have another wrong item delivered the second time around. 

Defective product

An actual defect in the product is one of the most common reasons for returning an item of any type, with 65% of PowerReviews survey respondents saying that they’d returned an item for that reason. With clothing items, this may include stains, discoloration, tears, missing buttons or zippers, or other types of defects that may have been missed in the production line or in a previous return examination.

Shipped too late

Sometimes the product may be fine, but it misses a customer’s deadline. If a customer wanted a pair of dress shoes to wear to her sister’s wedding but they didn’t arrive on time, she’s likely going to send them back as soon as they arrive, even if they fit perfectly. 

So now that we know the most common reasons for customer returns in the fashion industry, what can we do to lower the frequency?

Strategies for lowering return rates due to missed expectations

As there are many reasons that a customer might return an item, there are just as many ways to address the root problems.

First, let’s consider what to do about returns that are due to a poor fit or style, which is the most common reason that returns occur in this category.

In this case, it’s important to provide the customer with clear expectations about the product and how it’s likely to fit them, so that they have an accurate idea of what they’re getting when they commit to making a purchase.

Find a “true fit”

While it’s customary to include a sizing chart with measurements for each size, many customers won’t take the time to actually measure themselves or their family members. And if they do, the measurements may not be accurate. Include a “true fit” recommendation for each clothing item’s fit by asking customers what size they typically wear in other popular brands. Then you’ll be able to tell them, “this item runs small. Purchase 1 size up.” By offering advice on customizing the fit to the individual, customers will be more likely to get it right the first time around.

Use diverse representation in your models

Even if an item is the right size, a customer may not be happy with how it looks on their body unless they have accurate representation. Use size-inclusive models to show how a clothing item might look on models of different sizes, and listing their weight and measurements.

Encourage user-submitted reviews and photos

Detailed photos and customer reviews can also have a significant impact in helping customers find products that they’ll be happy with in the first place. Encourage customers to review products they’ve purchased, including their own measurements and body type alongside other details. That way, customers can get an accurate sense of how the item would fit them and if they’d have the same reaction to it. By getting customers to post photos of themselves wearing the item, others can visualize the fit and ensure that they’re getting a type of product that will look good on them.

Use live chat

To provide a great customer experience, use live chat tools for customers who have questions about specific products. You can use a combination of chatbots and live associates to answer customer questions and guide them towards the right products for their specific needs, providing them with an elevated customer experience that matches the experience they’d have in-store. Live chat can help you achieve higher conversion rates alongside lower returns: Untuckit found that their conversion rate for customers who used their live chat service exceeded 20%.

Anticipate returns

Finally, you may even want to factor some amount of “bracketing” into your business, knowing that it’s not going away. For example, Amazon offers Prime Try Before You Buy, where customers can order a number of items and return them during a “try on” period without being charged for them. By anticipating a number of returns, you can help encourage more customers to try out your products in the first place, which may lead to more sales even if more returns happen in the process. 

Lowering return rates due to manufacturer or shipping error

But what about the percentage of returns that happen due to flaws in the product manufacturing or shipping process? 

In those cases, you should carefully track your returns data to understand what reasons a customer is returning a product, and pay attention to trends. 

If products are often returned due to arriving after their expected ship date, that might be a problem with your distribution center or 3PL. Or if a certain product line often has material defects, it could be an issue with your manufacturer, so you may need to consider a new source. 

Also make sure that your ordering process is optimized so that common customer errors are pointed out: for instance, if a customer adds a second of the same item to their cart, you may want to ask if they intended to purchase multiple items. 

Converting returns into exchanges

Keep in mind that no matter how well you optimize your processes, returns will still happen.

When they do, focus on looking for opportunities to turn a return into an exchange. By asking your customers why they’re making a return, you can offer solutions, such as exchanging a too-small shirt for the next size up, or changing a dress that arrived in the wrong color for the one that the customer had ordered.

While it may not be any cheaper in dollar-to-dollar costs to process an exchange instead of a return, prioritizing exchanges is a valuable investment in the future of your relationship with each customer. By optimizing the returns process to recommend and even incentivize exchanges (offering bonus credit, for example), you can ensure the customer will continue their relationship with your brand, retaining revenue over the long term. 

Learn more about how to turn returns into exchanges by contacting our team.